Tuesday, March 22, 2016

John Symonds - F/V Lucky by Mark S. Williams, Gloucester Lobsterman

Today I received an email from a young man who said he was the youngest son of fisherman John Symonds. Many Gloucester people will remember John working aboard his boat, Cros, in the harbor at Pirates Cove. His son, Justin, was looking for an article I published on my web site about his father who died March 22, 2007. The article was written by my dear and long-time friend, lobsterman Mark Williams, who died the following year. Justin said every year on the anniversary of his father's death he reads the article but this year could not find it to read. I located it in my archives and I'm reprinting it here in honor of John, a true Gloucester icon, and of Mark.

John Symonds working aboard Cros
On March 22, 2007 Gloucester lobsterman John Symond's body was found floating in Smith's Cove near his boat Cros. He worked on that boat moored off of Pirates Lane nearly every day. John was a good friend of Mark's and Mark wrote this tribute and gave it to me. He never published it but, because it was his tribute to a fellow fisherman who died, I thought it might find readers here.

John Symonds - F/V Lucky 

by Mark S. Williams, Gloucester Lobsterman

It was a beautiful, sunny March afternoon. The hard southwest was churning the ocean white even in Smith Cove as I pulled into Pirates Lane. Two detectives stood in back of John’s truck, notebooks in hand. I approached looking around. John’s boat was tied up at the dock, in backwards. It wasn’t tied by him.

“Do you know the owner of this truck?” one asked.

Across the way some Coasties were pulling a stretcher through the mud flat. The ambulance was waiting, lights on. The many girls from Americold, who for years watched the man work on his gear year round, lined the fence sobbing. He was a fixture at Pirates Lane. With a sickening thud it hit me — John is gone. It was horrible.

It’s called fishing in the damp spots, fishing in the bushes, high and tight. For years John owned the bushes from Stage Fort Park to Coolidge Point. He was the Lord and Master.

Cros moored at the end of Pirate's Lane in Gloucester. John was working on 
this boat when he went into the water and died. 

In my lobstering infancy the Lucky pulled alongside and a taciturn, salty, man with a baseball cap smushed down on his head snarled at me and tossed two of my buoys onto my deck, each with an overhand knot tied at the end of the short buoy line on it.

“Back off, you #@$%$*&@,” he barked.

In one of my smarter moments I proceeded to move all my gear off the rocks and away from Mr. Smiley to a mile or two outside in about twenty fathoms. I stayed there for almost twenty years and caught less lobsters for less aggravation. Thanks Johnny.

Twenty years later a rookie FNG — there’s one every year, and usually one less at the end of the year — approached me onshore. He was in a state.

“That &%$&*# in the Lucky keeps cutting my buoys off every time I set near him.”

“Do you talk to him, presently?” I asked.

“What do I do?”

I looked him up and down thoughtfully. “Here’s what you do. Listen close, it’s very complicated. Don’t set near him.”

“He doesn’t own the ocean!”

“No, he doesn’t,” I said, “he just owns the western shore.”

Six months later FNG walked up smiling. “Thanks,” he said.

I nodded.

Mark S. Williams
In one of my dumber moments, talking to another lobster man and with lobsters scarce, I mentioned that John left every day at daybreak and returned every day in the early afternoon with two totes of lobsters. That’s 150 pounds. That’s a lot. The next day John walked up to me and suggested in rather harsh language that I had a large mouth and suggested I go and perform an impossible act on myself.

He didn’t talk to me or acknowledge my presence for three years.

I stepped out of the car still dripping wet at Pirates Lane. From a beat up old truck, its bed full of trash that Donny Kangas calls John’s Dumpster, he yelled to me, "Where’s your boat?”

“On the bottom two or three miles southeast of the groaner.”

He nodded. “Well, you had enough of this racket yet?”

“Not likely,” I replied.

He nodded again and drove off waving. I don’t know what shook me up more, being in the North Atlantic in winter or John speaking to me again. Somewhere in here he became Johnny Boy to me.

I fouled my prop and called up John. I needed a tow. As the Lucky pulled up to me I began, “Look out, Johnny, you can’t come out this deep.”

“You want a tow or not?”

“But, John, there be dragons here. I saw one this morning. If you sink out here you won’t be able to walk to shore or jump off on a rock.”

As he began to tow me in I shouted, “Iceberg dead ahead! Look out!”

He shook his head and towed me in.

I pulled up to Johnny who was laughing uproariously. Five of his wire traps were stacked on top of one another about a foot high. Someone had spent hours jumping up and down on them, he told me who did it.

“Watch out, his daddy owns a trap company,” I yelled.

“Daddy better put on another shift,” he laughed.

Never a dull moment around John.

He fished every day that the weather allowed and some when it didn’t. What he went through in one day would make the reality TV shows look like the joke that they are. When you lobster alone you’re as close to the edge as you can get. One misstep and you’re dead. Over thirty years he survived in this environment. Day after day he was the only boat out.

I ran the Black Sheep back here from Wood’s Harbor, Nova Scotia across the Gulf of Maine. John drove into Pirates Lane as I opened the truck door.

“Where’s your crew?” he asked.

“I’m it.”

He nodded and drove off shaking his head.

From the Eastern Point Lighthouse parking lot the Environmental Police boat, Jessie, is way in on the western shore. The wind is banging. Inside of it rides the Lucky bouncing all over the place. I broke out in hysterical laughter when I put it all together. The greenies on the Jessie wanted to board John and two are waving him out away from shore and into a little deeper water. Johnny is waving them to come on in from their world and into his, the bushes. They would have wrecked a multi-million dollar boat as sure as hell. Why, hell, John would have picked them up even though he would be laughing uproariously. I could fill in the rest:

“Come on, boys, come on in. There’s plenty of water,” he was yelling.

He would stop waving them in, move to his next trawl, haul and dump it, then he’d walk on deck daring the greenies to come on into his world. This continued for an hour. The cops were waving more intensely as they paralleled him up the shore. Johnny walked back from his cabin to the deck cupping his ears and holding his hands up. They tried to contact him by radio. His was not working. He just kept waving them in. They finally steamed off at high-speed leaving John there and me a mile away in stitches.

I sat at Pirates Lane as he pulled in, got out of his truck, and walked up to my window.

“Where’s your boat?” I asked.

“Harrison is coming at 10 to give me a ride over to Huck’s where it is.”

“Well I’ll give you a ride if he doesn’t show.”

“If he said he will be here at ten, he will.” He looked at me a little weird. “You did a real good job with that book.”

I was blown away. From John that was the highest praise I was yet to receive.

“Are you really going to Hollywood to talk about it?” he asked.

“Looks like. I’ll be going into a world I know nothing of.”

He laughed. "When you came into lobstering you knew nothing. Hell, Harrison told me he had to show you how to tie the knots. You’re the only guy to come in here a green FNG and survive one year. You fished how long?”

“Seventeen,” I nodded.

“You’ll do well out there,” he said.

Harrison pulled up, it was 9:59. John nodded to him turned back to me and tapped the buoys I have mounted on the back of my truck.

“I like the buoys,” he said smiling.

“You think I might get some new ones for the new truck?”

“Naaaa,” he scowled, “You have good luck out there in Hollywood.”

“I will,” I nodded.

He drove off with Harrison. His time came two days later. I never saw him again.
I woke up last night from a dream. I’m broken down in the Black Sheep minutes from going on the rocks and John sees me and guns the Lucky right at me. He squints through his window removing his smushed down baseball cap and waves it at me. I relaxed, fired one up. I have no worries, John Symond’s boat Lucky is coming for me and nothing will stop him and I will be going home dry this day.

So long, Johnny boy.

Mark's copper truck with buoys John talked about in the back. 
You can see a manuscript Mark was working on spread open on the dashboard.

Photo by Kathleen Valentine.

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