In the opening pages of Moby Dick, Herman Melville called New Bedford, Massachusetts, “the dearest place to live in, in all of New England.” But the old fishing port and manufacturing center—once one of the richest cities in New England—has withered in the modern economy. Its once-prosperous fishermen now struggle with government regulations and fished-out seas, while its empty factories now offer more work to the Fire Department than anyone else.
In Down at the Docks, Rory Nugent tells the “riches to rags” story of this iconic American town through beautifully told and unsentimental portraits of its residents. Their lives inform a eulogy to the distinctive ideas, traditions, and culture that is about to disappear from the waterfront.
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“No writer I can think of, unless it is Sebastian Junger, might have written this obsessed, intrepid, and intelligent book.”--Alec Wilkinson
“‘Nowhere in all America,’ wrote Herman Melville in Moby Dick, ‘will you find more patrician-like houses, parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford.’ Not anymore. Down at the Docks is about the lives of New Bedford fishermen--man against the sea, and all that--but it is much more; it is a hard, unvarnished look at New Bedford today, where the relic commercial fishing industry is only one of the components, and where the old ways run smack into modern problems like drug-smuggling, illegal immigration, organized crime, disorganized crime, and suffocating government regulations. Melville would have been shocked to see what has become of what he called ‘the dearest place to live in, in all of New England.’ Rory Nugent tells the fascinating story of New Bedford the way it really is, not the way wistful romantics would like to remember it.” —Richard Ellis, author of Men and WhalesAmazon Exclusive: A Q&A with Rory Nugent
Question: Down at the Docks is set in your old hometown, New Bedford, MA. What lured you there?
Rory Nugent: Boats. I've been hooked on them since childhood. I'm told I went for my first voyage at age three months, stowed inside a picnic basket, my dad at the helm. It was an itch to be near the sea which directed me to New Bedford. It's America's largest fishing port, home to nearly 300 boats, and its history and tradition are inextricably linked to maritime life. For any sailor, the place offers safe anchorage. Plus, it's one of the few remaining working waterfronts on the East Coast. No fancy condo developments. No barbed wire fencing off the area. No entry for gentry or cops or people carrying clipboards. Just boats. And boatyards. Fish. Fishermen. And fish houses. Cat houses. Powder bazaars. Plus old factory buildings, as well as deteriorating remnants from the engine which powered the nation from two-bit status to the world dollar standard.
Q: You lived in one of those old factory buildings, right?
RN: The top floor of one mill was home for much of my 17 years in the city. It was a 60,000 square foot loft, hard by the docks. It featured 137 windows, each the size of a garage door. But, boy-oh-boy, it was cold in the winter, with just enough heat to keep the sprinkler system from popping. In that sort of igloo, with hands refrigerator cold, sex was more a winter dream than a reality.
The city was the world center for the whaling trade and when that industry went kaput in the 1880s, the future belonging to the black stuff in the ground, the next new thing was textile manufacturing. Scores of giant mill buildings were erected and the city literally hummed from the sound of 50,000 looms in motion. Come my arrival in 1986, no looms were in gear, all of them having been shipped south or to the Far East, and the mills sat empty, providing more work for the fire department than anyone else. The rent was dirt cheap. The view was fantastic. And I would have stayed if I hadn't been kicked out in 2004, when the mill was sold to developers.
Q: In your bio, you say you have made 4 1/2 solo trans-Atlantic passages. Where does the fraction come from?
RN: After graduating from college, I went to sea aboard freighters. But I found more reward aboard sailboats, never happier than beyond sight of land. In 1976, at age 24, a group of friends and I built a trimaran, which I sailed in the Observer Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race (OSTAR). I finished well out of the money, but I kept at it—sailing the Atlantic solo, that is. While traveling to the start of the 1980 OSTAR aboard a racing proa called Godiva Chocolatier, I was done in by a rogue wave, which capsized the boat smack dab in the middle of the drink. I was rescued five days later and 28 pounds lighter. But I did make it halfway across the Pond.
Q: Many writers can pinpoint the moment when they decided to write a particular book. Did the idea for Down at the Docks evolve over time or was there an instant when you knew what you wanted to write about?
RN: There was a crucial decision made at the start, though the book took years to write, going through its own rather twisted process of evolution. In the beginning, the light bulb went off while sitting at a table with my pal, George Trow. He was a longtime New Yorker writer and the spear-carrier of its establishing spirit. Put off by the ascendancy of Tina Brown and enraged by the appointment of Roseanne Barr as guest editor, he wrote his letter of resignation from the magazine. He then asked me to refill his drink. “Make it a double,” he said. He raised his glass and toasted the past. He then announced, “It's over. What was is no longer.” He wasn't sure what was in store for the culture, but he was certain of one thing: a new direction for the two us. “What we need to do,” he said, “is write dirges. The two of us must declare the old dead.” Soon afterward, I gathered up my notes and started composing the book.
Q: John Leonard once wrote about you, “America has at last produced a travel writer as crazy as the British.” Another critic called you “an unholy cross between Rudyard Kipling and Hunter Thompson.” Both were referring to your work evidenced in your first two books, Drums Along The Congo and The Search For The Pink-Headed Duck. They involved exotic locales and improbable quests: looking for a duck last seen in 1935 and a dinosaur most everyone else believed died off 60 million years ago. What prompted you to explore your own backyard?
RN: A better sense of timing certainly was at work. Instead of arriving late to the table, like I did on the trail of extinct critters in remote chunks of the world, I wanted to observe and document a piece of the cultural landscape before it disappeared and became fodder for romantics and the nostalgia racket. Working waterfronts, for instance, are endangered things, their numbers dwindling year by year. As well, the days of the independent commercial fishermen are in sunset and they now constitute a vanishing tribe. Their population is in freefall.
Q: But you said there were almost 300 boats still active in New Bedford. In your book, you write that the local population of fishermen is around 3,000. The industry produces $300 million in revenues at the dock. That doesn't carry the sound of a vanishing anything.
RN: The vast majority of the boats are parts of corporate fleets, whereas mom-and-pop-owned boats are in rapid decline. The independent fisherman is getting battered by government rules and regulations. His future is more uncertain than that of cod. Meanwhile, big business interests are ready to buy out their small time competitors. Big fish eat small fish and small fish simply can't prosper in a government controlled environment.
Q: Isn't the contraction of the fishing industry part of doing business these days? No sector of the economy is going gangbusters. Why should we worry about the fishing industry?
RN: Worry is applicable across the board, from egg houses to fish houses. What's important about the independent fisherman going extinct is its cultural significance. These fishermen just happen to be America's last frontiersmen. Up until the late 1980s, when the feds took on the fishery in the same way that they took on the forestry and mining sectors years before, fishermen worked a wide open space with no oversight. They did as they saw fit, relying on the ocean and not man to be the arbiter of success or failure. In the 1990s, however, the sheriff took control of the fishery and suddenly, the law of the land extended far out to sea. In the process, the country's last frontier was closed and anyone obliging its establishing spirit was put on notice to expect heavy fines and jail time.
Q: Meanwhile, you write, the city of New Bedford hit hard times and started sinking at its mooring.
RN: It's true that as the electronic age blossomed and out-sourcing became the new thing, New Bedford withered, along with plenty of other cities. During the 1950s through ’70s, New Bedford citizens were taught (in school and in life) how to make things. Fabric. Fish product. Tools. Heavy equipment. Things that you could see and feel and use. They were woefully unprepared for anything else. The looms stopped running in ’60s. The sewing machines which replaced the looms stopped working in the ’80s. Fishing remains the only vital industry in town.Throughout Down at the Docks, I use New Bedford as a mirror on the passage of the country during its 300 year journey. Remember, the fishery was a major component of American industry until the Machine Age ramped up after the Civil War. Indeed, whale oil alone represented more than 30% of all the nation's exports until the 1860s. Manufacturing then took center stage. And now we’re onto something else and new and unaccommodating to holdovers from the past. The age of Emersonian self-reliance is behind us. New Bedford's history and that of the fishery are, in many ways, merely entries in the log of the American journey.
(Photo © V Creeper)About the Author:
Rory Nugent is an explorer and a writer. His previous books are The Search for the Pink-Headed Duck and Drums Along the Congo. An accomplished mariner, he has sailed single-handed across the Atlantic four and a half times, his last trip ending in shipwreck.
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