Excerpt from Fast and Able: Life Stories of Great Gloucester Fishing Vessels Written by Gordon Thomas
Grace L. Fears
Howard Blackburn Rowed to Shore and Fame / 18741897
Searching through my records, I decided to use the history of one of the older vessels of the era prior to our famous flying fishermen. The schooner Grace L. Fears was typical of the period, was always worked hard, fished under many great skippers, and was part of a legend, that of Howard Blackburn, Gloucesters greatest hero.
The Grace L. Fears was built by David Alfred Story at Pearce Street, Gloucester, and launched July 2, 1874. The firm of Dennis and Ayer were her owners and Capt. Randall McDonald her skipper.
She was a fair-sized vessel, typical of vessels of that time, with a heavy clipper bow, with trailboards and flying jib boom. She carried a large rig.
The Fears and schooner Bunker Hill were off the same mold. She was named after the sister of Albert Fears of Gloucester, a dealer in pig-iron ballast.
The Grace L. Fears during her career was used in most all branches of the fishery, including halibuting, haddocking, Georges handlining, mackerel seining, and Newfoundland herring voyages.
Capt. Nat Greenleaf was probably the most successful of the Fearss skippers. In March 1882 he landed 92,000 pounds halibut and 3,000 cod at Gloucester, stocking $6,016, with a share of $206. The vessel was gone five weeks.
Many folks today have the impression that the fishermen of the past made very little money and their vessels were slave ships. This was not so. There were many successful skippers and vessels and many fishermen shared well. Of course there were lean years and good years and money was made the hard way at great risk of life. This was the way Gloucester was built.
The Grace Fears had several owners. The Atlantic Halibut Co. was listed as owner in 1882. In 1888, Pool, Gardner Co. were the owners. David I. Robinson was the owner in 189394. In December 1894, she was sold to Stockbridge and Co. for $2,700. The estate of Seth Stockbridge sold the Fears to Capt. Sol Rowe in March 1897 for $1,075.
The Grace L. Fears had her share of hard luck. While under command of Capt. Greenleaf, Charles Nelson and Lafayette Greenleaf (brother of the skipper), two of her crew, went astray in the fog on Grand Bank, August 10, 1881. They were picked up five days later by a French bark and landed at Savannah, Georgia. When they were rescued they had only one quart of water left.
Thomas Walsh, one of the crew, was lost off Burgeo, Newfoundland, on January 25, 1883.
On February 24, 1885, the Fears arrived at Gloucester from a Bank halibut trip. She reported very severe weather. Her cable was parted twice, losing two anchors and 140 fathoms of cable. She was obliged to lay to for nearly a week.
In August 1893 the Fears was struck by a gale on Browns Bank. She ran for Liverpool, Nova Scotia, after springing a leak, with 2 feet of water over cabin and forecastle floor. On entering the harbor she ran ashore and filled with water. She was floated later and repaired.
Howard Blackburn Astray
On January 25, 1883, the Grace L. Fears, Capt. Alex Griffin, was fishing on Burgeo Bank off the south coast of Newfoundland when dorymates Howard Blackburn and Thomas Welch went astray in a blizzard. Welch froze to death while Blackburn, with fingers frozen around the handles of his oars, rowed his dory 65 miles to shore and help in five days without food or water, as related in Gloucester author Joseph E. Garlands biography, Lone Voyager. Howard lost all his fingers but went on in middle age to sail alone across the Atlantic twice in small boats. Never in the annals of the sea has a man shown the courage, endurance, and strength of this Gloucester fisherman.
The Grace L. Fears sailed on her last voyage on December 9, 1897. She was bound to Newfoundland for a herring cargo in command of Capt. John Aiken. She was sighted on the morning of December 17 by schooner Columbia, Capt. John Campbell, about 30 miles from St. Pierre, Miquelon. She was never seen again. She was supposed to have gone down in the gale that arose the following day. She carried a crew of seven. Capt. John Aiken, 56 years old, was a native of Barrington, Nova Scotia. He left a widow and five children.
Message in a Bottle
While glancing through the files of the Gloucester Daily Times of August 20, 1901, I found a very interesting article. It states that William DeWinter, 19 years old, picked up a bottle on the beach to the westward of the Cut Bridge. It contained a message reading: "We are sinking in the Grace L. Fears. Whoever finds this, hand it to my wife. John Aiken, captain."
The article stated that the message was given to the captains widow. I do not know if this story was true or not, but if so, the bottle had been afloat for four years.