Excerpt: Capt. Sol Jacobs and the Ethel B.

Home / Excerpt: Capt. Sol Jacobs and the Ethel B.

Once back in Gloucester after the failure of his fishing and sealing ventures in the Northwest, Jacobs had quietly gone about picking himself up. With his reputation as one of the foremost fishermen in the port, he would have had no difficulty using his word as his bond to contract for a new vessel. The Ethel B. Jacobs, named for his and Sarah’s first child, she who was now twelve years old, was built in Essex in 1891 by Moses Adams. Adams had been in partnership with Arthur B. Story from 1872 to 1880, at which point these two premier Essex shipbuilders went their separate ways. Adams built another eighty-five vessels on his own, and when it came the turn of the Ethel B. there is little doubt that Capt. Jacobs had much to say in drawing up the specifications. After all those years as the most successful mackerel captain in the fleet he would have firm opinions as to the ideal hull configuration and sail plan, fish hold layout and workmanship. Fast, sleek, her form satisfying to the eye, the 108-foot-long, 125-ton Ethel B. was a work of art, Capt. Jacobs’s masterpiece because, although he was not the designer, he specified from his long experience just how the vessel should be shaped and fitted out. The Ethel B. must be built to stand up to the severe strains of purse seining and rough weather. To that end Capt. Sol would demand the best in sails, cordage and seines, and scrutinize the delivered materials personally to detect any flaws.

In fit and finish, the Ethel B. was one of the most elegant mackerel schooners of the ‘90s, because the captain intended to carry guests and cruising passengers aboard when he was not chasing the fish. His captain’s quarters were finished in oak and fitted out with a leather-covered couch, closet, chest and locker.

An undated newspaper clipping relates that Capt. Jacobs had stopped in Gloucester before sailing to the south on a mackerel trip. On board were a Col. Russell of Minneapolis and his wife and son. The three had sailed with the captain the year before and were “eager to repeat” that experience. Also aboard for the trip was Capt. Jacobs’s wife Sarah and their son Arthur. Sarah Jacobs was obviously no stay-at-home captain’s wife. She thought nothing of trading the comforts of their Prospect Street home to join Sol at sea, and to bring one of their sons along as well. It says much for the comforts designed into the Ethel B. that five passengers, including two young boys, could be accommodated comfortably along with the congenial master of the vessel. The vessel was almost certainly the Ethel B., and if this was the mid ‘90s Arthur would have been about ten. So when, years later, he showed interest in the photo of the Ethel B. in the Master Mariners’ Hall, he might well have been recalling the trip of his life aboard his father’s vessel. Capt. Jacobs’s plan for the cruise was to land at Norfolk Virginia, conditions permitting, drop off his guests, and continue on to catch mackerel. The passengers would proceed to Washington to visit the sights.

The crew facilities of the Ethel B. also offered sybaritic comforts unfamiliar to schoonermen. Each man had an enclosed berth described as “attractive, roomy and well-ventilated.” And there were closets for drying wet oil clothes. The cook, the top man in the crew after the captain, had a well-stocked larder and top quality shipboard culinary facilities for filling the stomachs of hungry crewmen coming off watch.

It was one of the responsibilities of a schooner captain to take on the role of ship’s doctor when a member of the crew, or anyone else on board, was injured or took sick far off shore. Capt. Jacobs would see to it that the medicine case in his cabin was replenished before every voyage. A good pharmacy in Gloucester would stock the case with a useful assortment of remedies, but it was up to the captain to use judgment in dispensing the cathartics, purgatives, salves, expectorants and liniments prescribed by a book of instructions that reflected the best practices of the era. The only surgical instrument usually carried was a lancet; skippers did not relish having to set broken bones or act as surgeons to repair deep wounds. If one of his men was in a bad way, Capt. Jacobs might try to run him in to the hospital at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where seamen could expect medical compassion not necessarily forthcoming in their own ports. If a crewman sailing for one of the big Gloucester fishing companies was landed on an American shore in need of professional medical attention, he might have difficulty being admitted into a hospital. The fishing company owners were not required to pay hospital dues, the equivalent of modern medical insurance.

The fishermen were convinced that, working hard on deck and breathing pure ocean air, they were less susceptible to the diseases that afflicted landsmen. Anecdotal evidence seemed to bear them out, but nevertheless tuberculosis, the dreaded “consumption” that was the curse of the age, was the most prevalent disease among crewmen, followed by rheumatism, typhoid fever and “dyspepsia,” an umbrella term for digestive disorders of one kind or another.

Visitors to the Moses Adams yard that winter saw that the Ethel B. Jacobs a-building was big for a fishing schooner, 108.3 feet long, 24 feet in breadth, with an 11 foot depth and rated at 131.75 gross tons. Later, Wesley George Pierce sailed aboard the Ethel B. as cook, and he wrote later in Goin’ Fishin’: The Story of the Deep-Sea Fishermen of New England that, of all the fine vessels he had sailed in, the Ethel B. was the best of them all. With her size, she could carry 700 barrels of mackerel. And she was fast. One time when Pierce was aboard, the Ethel B. logged 15 knots an hour for six consecutive hours in a heavy sou’wester. Pierce did not know of any other fishing vessel that had matched that performance. In the middle of January in 1891 Capt. Jacobs in the Ethel B. made the run from Coombs Cove in Newfoundland to Gloucester in under two and a half days, and set a record in a sailing schooner. The Ethel B. was, as the fishermen said of fast boats, a “slippery piece of wood.”

Pierce said “Skipper Sol was a very smart, capable, energetic man, bound to be the first in all that he did. … He … made a lot of money, which enabled him to own his vessels, so that he did not have to sail a vessel from a fish firm, for he was his own master and owner [who] always had the latest and best in fishing gear … [He] very seldom stayed long in the fleet, but would go off by himself, and the next thing heard of him, would be that he was in Boston with a large trip.” The Ethel B. under Capt. Jacobs was the best producing vessel in the Gloucester mackerel fleet, in 1892, ’93, ’95, and ’96.

But if the Ethel B. was superbly fashioned and equipped, she was still an all-sail vessel that demanded all of the captain’s skills to see her through the perils of a fishing cruise. In February 1894, Capt. Jacobs was bringing the Ethel B. into Gloucester carrying frozen herring from Newfoundland. She jibed her mainsail, and some of the tackle hit Sol in the eye, knocking him down and straining his side. One of the crew, tangled in the main sheet, was nearly carried overboard but escaped with a severe shaking up. And that had not been the only mischance on the trip. During a blow up north, the vessel had her topmast carried away. Then, as she was leaving Gloucester in tow with the tug Seguin, she was bumped by the tug and had a portion of her port rail smashed. For Capt. Jacobs and his men, it was all in a day’s work.

What really made life interesting for Capt. Jacobs was when a competitive challenge presented itself. A case in point: each year, at the close of the mackerel season, he sailed to Newfoundland to load up on frozen herring that he would bring back to sell in the Boston market for bait. One winter was particularly bitter, and the Ethel B. was frozen in until March. By the time the captain reached Gloucester at the beginning of April, he learned that most of the southern mackerel fleet had sailed a week earlier. Capt. Jacobs was beside himself – he had a reputation to protect as the captain usually first to sail south. He rallied his crew and worked with them night and day offloading the frozen herring and getting the vessel fitted out for seining.

In a few days they were ready to go to sea again, a tow boat pulled the Ethel B. out past Eastern Point, and Capt. Jacobs spread every inch of canvas. He drove the vessel night and day until they reached the southern fishing grounds. Joe Cash was one of the crew, and he described to Wesley Pierce what happened: “So Sol began to yell for us to rouse the [seine-] boat overboard, at the same time, he grabbed the wheel and hove the vessel to. ‘Lively, boys! Lively, now! Hurry an’ git th’ boat-tackles hooked on,’ he said, and every man was jumping to do his bidding as we quickly hoisted our boat out and dropped her overboard on the port side. ‘Hurry, boys! Hurry an’ git th’ seine hauled onto th’ boat!’ yelled Sol as he turned the wheel over to the watch and started for the fore-masthead.”

Like a successful leader in any field, Capt. Jacobs attracted the best men available to his crew, and Wesley Pierce described a key player in the Ethel B.’s success in landing mackerel: “Jack Campbell was our seine-heaver, a big, raw-boned, Cape Breton Scotchman, weighing 250 pounds, six feet and four inches in his sock feet, with a pair of hands on him the size of two good sized hams. The way Jack hauled our seine onto the boat that day was a caution. I never saw anything like it before in my life, for he hauled the seine in hand over hand, just as you would a cod-line, the roller on the rail singing a steady song and never stopping once, until the end of our seine went onto the seine-boat, for Jack Campbell hauled that seine onto our boat in eleven minutes, a world’s record, so far as I know, for I never heard of any man doing it quicker.”

They netted 90,000 pounds of mackerel (about 300 barrels) in one haul of the seine. “When the fish had been bailed out on deck, the skipper said: ‘Let’s see how quick we can stow an’ ice these fish! Lively now, lads, lively!’ We passed them down in bushel-baskets, a steady stream going down both hatches at once, for we all worked fast, every man moving quickly and striving his best to do more work than the skipper, who was working like a beaver himself.” Under way again, the Ethel B. overtook every other boat in the fleet making for the Fulton Market. She was the first ship in, and the mackerel sold for a good price. Each man of the crew shared $182 for the trip, which gave them bragging rights when, on Fishermen’s Corner in Gloucester, they would compare notes with men from the other boats in the mackerel fleet. Small wonder a capable mackerel man would prefer to sail with Sol Jacobs, all things being equal.

There were times, though, when Capt. Jacobs allowed his zest for competition to overcome his judgment. It was August 26, 1892, and a race of the fishing schooners had been scheduled as part of Gloucester’s 250th celebration of its original establishment as a town. It blew a gale all day, but the seasoned skippers of the fleet would not let it be said that they backed down just because of a breeze of wind. Capt. Jacobs in the Ethel B. was well in the lead at the end of the first leg of the race off Nahant, but he took a risk and jibed around the mark under full sail. It would have been prudent for him to lower his mainsail, but he saw the other boats crowding in behind him and was determined to maintain his lead. Overconfidence was his downfall. The Ethel B.’s main gaff snapped and he was obliged to take in the flapping mainsail. He was out of contention. But being the proud skipper he was, Capt. Jacobs finished the race anyway, limping home under riding sail.

Fishing for mackerel and halibut, sealing, trading – Capt. Solomon Jacobs was ever open to new opportunities. He took passengers occasionally as we have seen. He even is reported to have shepherded a birding expedition to the far north. The Osprey, a short-lived “Illustrated Magazine of Popular Ornithology,” carried the following notice in 1897: “The Frank B. Webster Co. is organizing a party to sail in June for Labrador, Hudson’s Bay, and the Arctic regions, returning in about three months. The trip is to be made in the clipper schooner, Ethel B. Jacobs, of the Gloucester fishing fleet. Captain Jacobs, the commander of the expedition, is said to be well-acquainted with the coasts of the regions to be visited, and is on friendly terms with many of the Indian and Eskimo chiefs.” Capt. Jacobs was in distinguished scientific company in his association with the Webster company, which organized similar journeys the world over. In that same month the Webster company, under the patronage of the Hon. W. Rothschild of London, dispatched Mr. C. M. Harris of Augusta, Maine and three associates aboard a schooner on a scientific expedition to the South Pacific. They expected to “do much work in the fauna and flora of the South Sea Islands.”

It was fishing that Capt. Jacobs knew best, though, and in 1899, when the mackerel were again making themselves scarce off New England shores, he turned his attention to the possibility of applying his fish-gathering talents on the other side of the Atlantic. In July he left Gloucester harbor, heading east, and arrived fourteen days later in Irish waters. In no time he had filled 353 barrels with mackerel and shipped them home.

But once again he raised international hackles. The resident fishermen of the Irish coast, sailing out of the little harbors of Skibbereen and Dingale, did not like what they were seeing. Here was a Yank fishing their mackerel, and doing it with that monstrosity, the purse seine, which they were convinced was responsible for the shortage of the fish on the American side of the water. And the timing could not have been worse for an American interloper to appear on the scene. The Irish mackerel fishery was just beginning to take hold, thanks to the patronage of an English countess who was furnishing the boats.

Responding to the uproar, the English coast guard deployed cutters that kept the Ethel B. under close surveillance, daring Capt. Jacobs to intrude within the three-mile limit. An international incident was averted by the elements in what the locals may have given thanks for as divine intervention. Capt. Jacobs had been forced, due to illness in the family, to return to America. He turned over command of his prized vessel to the mate, with orders to continue fishing off the Irish coast. The Ethel B. was caught in a violent gale and driven ashore at Derrynane near Abbey Island in southwest Ireland. The crew got off safely, but the vessel was a total loss – and its bones on the beach must have been gazed upon by the local fishermen with satisfaction for years to come. The Ethel B. and all her gear were valued at $14,000. Capt. Jacobs had her insured for $10,000. Seventeen men from the wrecked vessel were given shelter by nearby residents and advanced money to enable them reach Queenstown. Appeals were still being filed with the U.S. government long afterwards demanding reimbursement. Always relishing a lawsuit for damages, Capt. Jacobs for his part filed a claim of $25,000 against the British government for interfering with the Ethel B. Jacobs on the charge that the vessel had been fishing in British territorial waters. The Admiralty subsequently ruled that the action of its navy had been unjustified, and settled for unspecified damages.

As with his North Pacific venture, Capt. Jacobs’s Irish enterprise was a disaster for him, but helped spawn an industry. Prior to his decidedly unwelcome arrival, the Irish fishermen had marketed their catch fresh in England. When they saw how the captain salted the fish and sealed them in barrels for sale to the American market, the scales fell from their eyes. They got in touch with Gloucester dealers who sent over instructors to show them how to split and salt the fish. A mutually profitable market developed. The Irish shipped mackerel suited for the American market, and the U.S. Congress obligingly exempted the Irish mackerel from import duties.

Capt. Jacobs returned to Gloucester with little to show for another ambitious venture. And the Ethel B. Jacobs, a masterpiece of maritime art that was so much of his making, was gone. Capt. Jacobs might not have realized it at the time, or even later, but the Ethel B. had been the apogee of his career in the age of fishing under sail. He would be an innovator in the years ahead, eager to prove the viability of new technologies for the Gloucester fisheries. But the classic era of fisherman and sail against wind and sea, a confrontation that had endured in its pure state in the port for centuries, would be over forever.I am text block. Click edit button to change this text. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

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