Jimmy Morgan

The retired Menemsha fisherman is an Island icon with something to say about everything from swordfishing to hurricanes, World War II to the Cape Wind project.

When Jimmy Morgan was a little boy growing up in Menemsha, he would climb aboard an old Noman’s Land boat left on a salt marsh and imagine he was a grown-up fisherman hauling in fish. And he carved a fishing boat from a two-by-four and would take it down to the harbor and proudly set it out on the water so it could go on fishing expeditions.

When he was only twelve, he went on his first real fishing trip. That was with Captain Donald L. Poole. They went out after swordfish on the Dorothy C.

And he was so smitten with fishing after that, there were times when he was in Tisbury High School that he’d skip school after lunch to go fishing. Daydreaming, he’d look out the window to see if the trees were blowing in the wind. If it looked as if the wind had abated enough so the boats might be going out of Menemsha, he’d slip away and head up-Island to see if he couldn’t wheedle his way onto a fishing boat.

From then until two years ago when, at eighty-two, he sold his forty-six-foot wooden dragger, the Mary and Verna, Jimmy Morgan spent virtually all his time hunting fish. He was either swordfishing off Noman’s Land or on Georges Bank, dragging for smaller fish in Vineyard Sound waters, or shellfishing in Island ponds.

Although he has only once been to Noman’s Land himself, since it was a bombing range from World War II until 1998, he is full of stories about it in earlier days. He recalls being told by fellow fisherman Tom Tilton of a woman living on Noman’s year-round who fell seriously ill.

“She was sick enough so two in her family rowed the mile over to Squibnocket to try to get a doctor. They found one, but it was a stormy day and when they got the doctor down to the water, he said he felt it was too rough to make a crossing. It took them a while, but they finally talked him into it and they would merrily point out afterward, ‘That’s what you used to call making a house call.’”

Jimmy came by his love of fish and the sea quite naturally. Not only did he grow up in Menemsha, where he still lives, but his father, Clarence, was a Menemsha lobsterman who set and hauled pots with Rasmus Klimm, a Hyannis man who set lobster traps in Menemsha every summer and was renowned as “a lobster killer of the old school.” Jimmy – much as he has always loved his trade – admits that he only managed to go lobstering a few times.

“Once they’d open the bait barrel full of old fish heads and backbones and skates – even though it was salted to preserve it – it would smell so that it could be flat calm and I’d be sick. The smell of old lobster bait will shorten anyone’s life. When my father would come in from lobstering, he’d always wash his hands with brown soap to get that smell off.”

In his father’s time, Jimmy says one found one’s way to fishing grounds on clear days by using landmarks like church steeples. On foggy days, fishermen found out where they were by navigating with a compass and by dropping overboard sounding leads with butter or lard on them. If the butter came up with sand on it, the fishermen would of course know that they were in a sandy location. If the lead bounced back, they were in a rocky spot. Since the men already knew in what areas the fish were likely to be, they would drop their nets over when they had found the right spot.

Happily, by the time Jimmy was a full-time fisherman with his own boat, radar had been invented and was being used for fish-finding. But some days, in the old-fashioned way, just for the fun of it, Jimmy would turn off the radar and seek out his fishing grounds by using landmarks.

Summers, he usually went out in the Sound after fluke (summer flounder) and scup. Winters, in a skiff, he would scallop in Quitsa or Menemsha ponds, or oyster in Tisbury Great Pond. In the spring, he would fish for squid off Falmouth.

But his real love always was swordfishing. “You don’t get swordfishing out of your blood,” he says. There was always the excitement of the sighting and then going off in a dory to bring in the fish on the 100-fathom line that was attached to the harpoon.

He recalls a little nostalgically – even though there was some danger to it – the time he was standing on the gunwale of the dory trying to haul in a more than three-hundred-pound fish “and the sword came through the boat. That’s called being ‘punched’ or ‘plugged.’ When you’re swordfishing, the big boat is always off cruising around looking for more fish. If you’re in trouble, you put up an oar to let them know so they’ll come for you. I did just that, even though the fish was as docile as could be once the sword came through the boat, but it took a while for anyone to come for me. On the big boat – it was Herb Slater’s Margie O. that time – Eric Cottle was getting another fish so they were busy.

“Of course, once you got a damaged dory aboard the big boat, and had sawed or chopped off the sword, you always had something for patching the hole – lead or cork, or you’d stuff up a hole with a sheet – but you didn’t have that when the dory was out in the water, and it could be dicey that way. I remember once Donny Mitchell of Vineyard Haven had a four-hundred-pound fish whose sword went through the dory and hurled him right out into the water. In the old days when I was young, if you were the one who saw the fish and then the boat got the fish, you got $10. That was pretty exciting.”

For ten of his seventeen swordfishing years, Jimmy Morgan went out with his childhood friend Louis Larsen and Louis’s brothers, Bjarne and Dagbard (a.k.a. Deba), aboard their Christine and Dan. Bjarne was the skipper, Deba the striker, and Louis the engineer. Even today, when Jimmy Morgan wakes up mornings and looks out and sees the sun shining brightly and there’s no sign of a strong breeze, he’ll remark happily, “It’s a swordfishing day.”

He likes reminiscing about the time when swordfish were plentiful. Once, between July 1 and September 1, he and fellow Chilmark fisherman Eric Cottle and Danny Gaines of Edgartown, aboard the Margie O., harpooned more than 100 swordfish off Noman’s Land. And then there was the season with the Christine and Dan when 128 fish were caught in four days.

“There were so many we couldn’t get them all in the hold, and we’d have to leave some on deck. Ice came in 300-pound cakes, and after you’d taken out the fish’s guts, you’d chisel out an ice plug and get it into the fish. We’d go out with twenty tons of ice for the fish in the hold and ten ice cakes besides those. Those were the trips to Georges Bank that lies off Cape Cod and Maritime Canada, and they might be as much as two weeks long.”

Nowadays, of course, swordfish are no longer sighted by men at the top of the mast. “That was sort of like deer hunting,” Jimmy Morgan recalls. “You often had to stay up on the mast a long time, patiently being the lookout.” But then radar began being used for fishing after World War II. He proudly remembers that the Christine and Dan was the first boat to have radar in the swordfishing fleet that went to Georges Bank.

“And one time when there were twenty or thirty boats – some Canadian, some American – on the northern edge of the Bank, one dory got lost in the fog. Of course, everyone was looking for it, but it was getting on toward dark. Then we spotted a dot on our radar and it was the missing dory, so of course we were able to get to it.”

Not only did radar change all fishing practices, but in the 1960s swordfishing changed radically when long-line fishing developed. Then came fish spotting by plane. Today, it is mainly Nova Scotia boats that do any harpooning of swordfish, though Greg Mayhew’s Unicorn and Jonathan Mayhew’s Quitsa Strider II have gone after them in the last two years. Neither boat, however, has had much luck.

As many as thirty miles of line with hooks is thrown overboard these days for catching swordfish. The line is likely to be put out at dusk and hauled in the next morning. Though many insist that long-lined fish tastes waterlogged and harpooned fish doesn’t, Jimmy Morgan defies gourmet fish-eaters to be able to tell the difference between the two. What matters, he says, is that the long-lined fish was not drowned and has been properly bled.

In his swordfishing days off Georges Bank, there were also encounters with hurricanes. And when he was fourteen, the great hurricane of 1938 devastated Menemsha. “We lived at the bottom of Creek Hill, [on the right] just before the bridge on the road that today leads to the bathing beach,” Jimmy remembers.

“That day, I was just coming home from school on the bus, and the rain was coming down and the wind was increasing and the tide was increasing and my father looked out and he said, ‘Everything I have is going to be carried away.’ The sea was way up to the grass where we were and boats had washed up where the restroom is now. I remember how my father picked up my grandmother and put her on his back and took her across the road up to Everett Poole’s grandmother’s. She was Emily Poole and she lived on higher ground at the top of Crick Hill. Today I guess you’d say that Crick Hill overlooks Menemsha Basin.”

In the 1954 hurricane, he was unloading swordfish from the Christine and Dan in Point Judith, Rhode Island. “Part of a roof had blown off and hit the dock, and we had to get away. We anchored out in the channel, and when the tide began to go out, houses and trees were floating right by us.”

Jimmy Morgan’s adventures with the sea in World War II took him into the Merchant Marine. In 1942, he had graduated from Tisbury High School and was fishing with Tom Tilton out of Chilmark. “He was the nephew of Zeb, whose schooner, the Alice S. Wentworth, carried coal and wood from the mainland to the Vineyard,” Jimmy says.

“If you were in the fishing industry, they said you were needed and you were deferred from the draft, but Louis Larsen and I went into the Merchant Marine.” Their ship, part of a convoy of thirty, was the second convoy to go into Antwerp, Belgium. Three of the ships – including an ammunition ship just ahead of them – were destroyed by German torpedoes in the mid-Atlantic.

“Because there wasn’t any radar then, the ships were in columns. Each had a number and a fancy fog buoy astern that shot water into the air to tell the other ships where it was. There’d be about five hundred feet between ships all going about ten knots. In a fog, if the guy on watch on each ship couldn’t see the ship’s fog buoy ahead of him, he’d blow the number of his ship in Morse code to let those around him know where he was.

“When we got to Antwerp,” Jimmy recalls, “they were sending in buzz bombs and you could see them passing overhead. One day, they dropped over three hundred of them. I remember Louis and I went to the PX in the morning and by nighttime the PX was gone and the street alongside it had been blown up too. It made quite a hole.

“We also went into Cherbourg, France, and when we got there, they were calling for volunteers to go to the train station to carry the stretchers with the soldiers on them who had been in the Battle of the Bulge. There in Cherbourg, I saw a familiar vessel tied up. She was the Naushon, one of our Island steamers that had been turned into a Red Cross hospital ship.”

Jimmy sorrowfully gave up fishing not so much because of his age, but because insurance costs became so high he could no longer afford them for either his boat or for anyone he took with him. His fishing companion for many years was David Merry of West Tisbury. Then he fished with relatives and finally by himself. “There wasn’t a finer man that you could fish with than Jimmy,” says Greg Mayhew, who as a teenager learned to fish with Jimmy Morgan and went on to captain his own boat.

But the halcyon days of fishing are over, Jimmy fears. “Between the high cost of fuel, all the fishing regulations, and the scarcity of fish, I don’t think the fishing industry looks very promising.” And then he talks of the Cape Wind project with 130 wind turbines planned in Nantucket Sound.

“Putting it on Horseshoe Shoals,” he says, “just isn’t a proper place. There’s conch fishing that goes on there, and the conchers are worried because of what the vibration from pounding the spiles for those wind turbines into the sand is going to do to the conchs, and if one of those blades should ever come off in a hurricane, it would hit Waquoit, off Hyannis. And that’s an area, too, where pots for scup and sea bass are set. It’s all just a deal for a few people to make money. Of course we need renewable energy, but not there. I don’t see why they don’t use the tide running through the Cape Cod Canal the way Niagara Falls is used for power. The tide goes four knots through the canal.”

Jimmy Morgan, whose deep-set eyes are the same blue as the sea he has so long regarded, is also – as a fisherman – full of the natural history and lore of fish. He can tell you that the difference between a flounder and a fluke is that “flounder don’t have any teeth and a fluke does.” He can tell you that a codfish lays a thousand eggs and that a blackback flounder weighing more than three pounds is a lemon sole. He can tell you that a halibut can grow to be four to five hundred pounds, and that flounder caught off Hyannis may have a carbolic taste from the kelp that grows there, which it eats.

Even though he is no longer going out fishing, Jimmy Morgan “keeps in touch” with the old days by carving cedar and pine weather vanes and models of vessels he has known or known about. He has carved West Tisbury–native Joshua Slocum’s Spray, the first vessel ever to be sailed single-handedly around the world. He has reproduced Donald Poole’s Dorothy and Everett, the Larsens’ Christine and Dan, Walter Manning’s Bozo – all out of Menemsha – Tom Tilton’s Three Bells, Robert Douglas’s Alabama, and the old Alice S. Wentworth from Vineyard Haven, and the Roann, Roy Campbell’s dragger from Vineyard Haven, and the Charles W. Morgan, both now at Mystic Seaport.

He sells his ship models at his wife Roberta’s Harbor Craft Shop on Basin Road. There, she also sells her own handmade place mats and rag dolls and quilts and beach plum jelly stewed up from beach plums Jimmy helps her pick. And Jimmy draws catboats and bigger boats like the Shenandoah and the Alabama on the inside of sea scallop shells that she paints and sells.

He and Roberta Allen met in 1949 at Raul Maciel’s bowling alley in Vineyard Haven, the town in which she grew up. Her father, Albert Allen, worked at the Vineyard Haven boat yard. She admits that, at first, her parents questioned her desire to marry a fisherman. But once the Allens met Jimmy, they couldn’t have been more pleased, she says, and clearly the match was successful. In September, the Morgans will celebrate their fifty-eighth wedding anniversary.

Jimmy Morgan freely admits that he never wanted to leave Martha’s Vineyard – except to go fishing. He’s been a member of the Chilmark Volunteer Fire Department and on the town’s shellfish advisory committee and conservation committee. He has served as surveyor of wood, bark, and lumber for the town. “But I never did anything in that job. I think the idea was if you got a cord of wood and you were overcharged for it, you’d call the surveyor, but I never got a call.”

He looks back longingly on the days when the Vineyard had three hundred fishermen it called its own, “and the average guy could make $6,000 or $7,000 a year fishing and quahaugging and scalloping, and he could buy land and build a house. Our wives didn’t have to work in those days. And if you had trouble one month paying your boat insurance, if you went down to Island Insurance and talked to Joe Kraetzer or Dixon Renear, they’d say, ‘Don’t worry about it. When you get money, bring it in.’ A lot of people had bills for the winter and didn’t pay them till summer when they had the money for them. If you got a job ashore back in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s, you’d only make half what a fisherman did.”

Jimmy Morgan likes reminiscing about the old days – but he also looks forward enthusiastically to each new day. He had a stroke last year and isn’t so agile as he was in his swordfishing heyday. He’s quite satisfied sitting in his sunny living room on Flanders Lane and reading books like Linda Greenlaw’s The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain’s Journey, Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, and Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.

“Sometimes they seem like they got it right. Sometimes they don’t,” says fisherman-critic Jimmy Morgan. While he reads, his wife is likely to be at work sewing a dress for one of her rag dolls or stirring up a scrumptious three-layer cake with butter frosting in the kitchen.

Jimmy keeps a globe near at hand in the living room so he can track where their grandson, Patrick Rule, travels. After high school, Patrick decided to go to New Zealand where – in the family tradition – he went to sea. It was aboard a sailing yacht rather than a fishing boat, however. The itinerary took him to Fiji and Tonga. This past spring, he was in South America, where he crossed the Straits of Magellan about two hundred miles north of Cape Horn, his grandfather proudly says. The Morgans’ older grandson, Colin Rule, is a guitar player with Willie Mason of West Tisbury, with whom he goes on tour. “He was the first one to go to the South Pacific. He went to Australia.”

They are the sons of Jimmy and Roberta’s daughter, Barbara Morgan Armstrong. She still lives in the old family house on Creek Hill and is assistant to the principal of the Tisbury School. The Morgans’ son, James Allen Morgan of North Tabor Farm in Chilmark, is a landscaper and stone-wall builder. Stone-wall building, along with fishing, is something of a tradition in the Morgan family, for Jimmy’s father, besides doing his lobstering, assisted road surveyor Bill Smith Sr., building many of the stone walls that edge Chilmark hills. Young Jim Morgan and his wife Diane, from Cheshire, England, have two children: Lily, thirteen, and Alistair, eleven.

Looking back on the Island of the past, Jimmy remembers it as a great place to grow up.

“We had characters when I was a lad. Most everybody on the waterfront was a character. There was old John Bassett who was very upset because his daughter married ‘a Cricker’ from Menemsha – one of the people a step lower than people over south in Chilmark. A lot of the old Chilmarkers were really set in their ways. Then there was Horsepower Mayhew. I don’t know how he got that name.

“That was the time of the deaf-mutes too, and some of them could only sign, and because of that almost all the men around Menemsha learned how. If you were out fishing, they’d put their fingers together and wiggle their hands for a fish and then they’d point toward New Bedford if they were going there fishing. Those were surely good times. But I’m contented now too. At my age, every day is a good day,” says philosophical Jimmy Morgan.