I need the sea, says Pablo Neruda, because it teaches me. And here, in the oldest fishing port in the US, the sea is everywhere: in the tiny coves that bead the coastline; out past the lighthouses and sleeping shipwrecks; down the hill from the blue-domed Portuguese church.
The sunsets are incredible. And to lie back in the sand and look up afterward is to see the stars as compass, the way they appeared to the English fishermen who arrived here four centuries ago. And when you brush the sand off your jeans and climb into your friend’s rusty convertible, when the radio’s cranked, and the night sky unfurls overhead, you’re so happy you can barely breathe.
I’m new to this town, having lived 30 miles south in Boston for most of my life. I came here because, like the poet, I need the sea—to move, as he puts it, in the university of the waves. I knew the fishing industry was in trouble, but didn’t realize how it would feel to witness the slow passing of a way of life.
When the English, then the Portuguese and the Italians after them, arrived, five-foot long fish practically leapt into their boats. Now the seafloor’s been scraped bare by trawlers, and warming waters are chasing fish north. There’s a quota on cod and lobsters are small. Fishermen are mowing lawns and working in supermarkets, and their children shoot heroin in tents down by the railroad tracks, occasionally rising to step in front of a train.
Developers are circling, but Gloucester is determined not to become just another seaside tourist destination. Fishermen are marketing a small, sustainable catch to upscale restaurants, and the city is exploring ways to revitalize the waterfront by making it a center for marine research. Gloucester’s future is uncertain, but I have faith in her people, who have braved the Atlantic for generations.
I run a writer’s group in a nursing home here. Our captains and our boats and our fishermen are out to sea, writes an 88-year-old life-long resident. God has them in his arms.