From A Lifetime Fishing
ORLEANS – In Al Youngren’s small kitchen there is a nautical chart, covering most of a wall, in perfect view of anyone seated at the kitchen table.
Youngren, barrel-chested and slim at 82, says it’s from 1985 or so. Still usable.
“It’s been up there for 30 years,” he says, in a voice that is all old Cape Cod seaman, rarely heard anymore. Youngren spent more than 50 years on the sea until he had a heart attack 20 years ago while fishing on his boat Rebecca, named after his great granddaughter.
“That was my last boat ride,” he said.
Still, his connection to the sea couldn’t be severed. In his second act, he made and fixed fishing gear. They called him the “gear master,” a major compliment which he scoffs at. He still does a little work, although retired. When fishermen come by they might mention they are working “by the 350 line,” so he checks his chart over the kitchen table, stays in touch.
“You can’t remember all them bearings!” he says. “I’ll say, ‘Hey did you ever try down here?’” pointing to another spot.
Scott Rorro, a scalloper from Provincetown who is about 25 years younger than Youngren, says the older fisherman is a good reference himself.
“Anything you want to know about the waterfront, he knows,” Rorro said.
Rorro said they became friends years ago and know many of the same old timers. “He has got so many stories.”
Take the “clams in the convertible” story. In the 1970s there was a ginormous set of bay scallops and Youngren hadn’t gotten around to buying a new truck. What he did have was a sweet Buick convertible.
“It was in wonderful shape. Great interior,” Youngren said.
So he filled that with 20 bags and took it down a long, dirt road in Wellfleet to his expert shucker—one too many times.
“The car broke in half!” Youngren said with a laugh.
Stories like that and his unrelenting positivity make Youngren a valuable friend, said Rorro.
“He is good for morale. When you are down a little bit you go see him.”
Most of Youngren’s stories are set on the sea, and he has his father Earl to thank for that.
Earl had been in the Coast Guard. When he started fishing he bounced between Orleans, Eastham, and Provincetown.
Al, born in Orleans in 1938, started fishing early. He went full time in the early 1950s when he was 13, having “completed seven years of school,” which was the requirement then.
“I was making great money for 13 years old,” he said. “Who wants to go to school?”
He started on big boats out of New Bedford too. A friend told him about the scallopers there so he went, and stayed. All told he worked on close to 25 New Bedford boats.
He was also working with his dad and had several of his own.
One boat sticks in his mind is one of his father’s firsts: the James Burke out of Provincetown. She was a schooner converted to a scalloper and traveled from Maine to New Jersey.
Their time in New Jersey changed the fisheries in Orleans.
“My dad was the first to use hydraulic dredging on the Cape,” Youngren said. He had seen it in New Jersey, where Campbell’s Soup had a factory. So his dad ended up getting a hydraulic rig which could harvest 10 times more than a conventional dredge.
Youngren was impressed enough to get one and buy a boat to put it on, the Mary Madelyn.
As the fishery changed, his dad sold the James Burke and moved to Maine. Youngren sold the Mary Madelyn and went back to scalloping in New Bedford.
In the early years, he could get $200 for a 10-day trip and that was good money. The boats were maybe 100 feet long and had 11 guys working. There was a fishermen’s union which meant six hours on and six off.
“I loved it,” he said.
But in 1961 “the price just fell right out,” he said. His share dropped to $99. “I said, ‘That’s it.’”
On the way home he stopped at Woods Hole and asked for a job on a research vessel. The next morning he was off. It was 1962.
As an ABS—able-bodied seaman—Youngren traveled to Cape Verde and other far-flung places for up to six months at a time. The scientists were doing a lot of research; considering it was the Cold War, they were doing top-secret work as well.
The crew wasn’t allowed to divulge their location, but scientists would be in contact via the Marconi wireless station in Chatham. Youngren had a relative there who let family, particularly his wife Ann, know he was well.
“She knew every day where I was,” he said with a laugh.
But a growing family drew him home. So he went back to scalloping. He also worked for Provincetown fishermen, ran boats, and fished with Babe Miller out of Chatham.
“He was one of the highliners,” Youngren said.
When he hit his 50s, Youngren turned to quahog and sea clam, but after his heart attack he carved out a new life. One day he made a quahogging blade, more as an experiment than anything, and it worked so well everyone was asking for one and then the scallopers began asking for dredges.
Just the other day he completed a bunch of “shoes” for a friend’s scallop dredge, to protect the gear as it drags the bottom.
“They are very strong steel, like a snow plow,” he said.
Or like him.
Doreen Leggett is the community journalist for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. Her work appears monthly. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.