Two Friends: A Tragedy In Gloucester

Demise of the Fishing Fleet

By: - Aug 31, 2023

In the summer of 2001, my wife Jan and I lived in a house on the highest point of East Gloucester, known as Beacon Hill. It had once been a visual landmark for ships navigating the approach into Gloucester harbor. We had a panoramic ocean view, even able to catch a distant glimpse of the fireworks after the annual July 4th Pops concert in Boston.

We also saw giant foreign-flagged fishing factory ships anchored offshore, netting vast amounts of fish, then cooking and canning them on the spot. The traditional fishing fleet out of Gloucester, much smaller trawlers, could not compete with these automated sea monsters. Fish stocks were being depleted, and government regulations to protect what remained made the never-easy life of a Gloucesterman even harder.

On workday mornings I drove downhill through winding narrow streets to East Main Street, then followed it along the harbor to the wellspring of Route 128, which flowed on to the world beyond Cape Ann. One July day as I turned onto East Main I noticed something that had not been there before, a tall crane behind some buildings. Out of curiosity I pulled into a narrow passageway between two buildings into the vacant lot behind them, at water’s edge.

There was the crane and the reason for its presence: a burned-out and rusted fishing trawler pulled up to the shore, its name “Two Friends” still visible on the bow. The boat was being stripped for salvage, and as pieces were severed from above its hull, the crane deposited them in the lot to be hauled away.

At the time I was engaged in an ongoing project I called “Gloucester to the Max,” photographing the city, and especially its working harbor, with Kodak Max disposable cameras. I always kept one in the glove compartment of my car, so I got it out and took a few shots of the boat and its detritus. Over the next several weeks I continued to stop by and shoot the ship, fascinated by the rusty relic and its amputated appendages.

I found the history of the vessel online, because it had been in the local news and in the courts. In 1987, the year Jan and I moved to Gloucester, two local fishermen friends went into business together. They bought a trawler which they christened “Two Friends.” The partners needed a loan to finance their purchase, and to qualify they put up their houses as collateral.

But from the start of their venture, they were unable to catch enough fish to cover their costs, much less turn a profit. They quickly fell behind on their loan payments, facing foreclosure. Then in 1993, on the day before the fireworks on the Fourth, there was a different kind of incendiary event in Gloucester. “Two Friends” caught fire while tied up at the dock, and was ruined.

The boat was insured, so the partners applied to their insurance company to pay for its loss. But the company refused, citing a provision in the policy that freed it of any obligation to make payment in the event that the vessel was deliberately destroyed. The case bounced around in the courts for years, but on Valentine’s Day 2001 the final ruling showed the pair no love: it held that “Two Friends” had been torched on purpose. In its judgment relieving the insurer of liability, the court did not have to decide if in fact it was the two owners who had done it, only that it was indeed arson. Without the insurance payment, they lost not only a boat but their homes as well.

By late August the disposal of the wreck was completed. The hull had been stripped bare, with all reusable and hazardous materials removed. I arrived at the lot one morning to see it being towed off to sea, to be sunk in its final resting place among the fishes. They would make good use of this new reef.

I was haunted that summer by the burnt-out remains of “Two Friends” in Gloucester. Soon we would all be haunted by the burnt-out remains of the two companion towers which rose above Lower Manhattan until 9/11.

 Link to Fishery Nation coverage.