It was the middle of another freezing night, with icicles hanging from the pilothouse roof, when Captain Bill Sherman found what he'd been looking for: an enormous school of fish gliding along the ocean floor.
Within an hour, Sherman and his four-member crew had hauled up a giant net overflowing with silver-gray haddock and dumped a whopping $20,000 catch onto the frigid, pitching deck.
It was the kind of thrilling, and lucrative, moment that fishermen live for.
But it followed several tedious days of the comparatively fruitless fish-hunting that fishermen also know well. Sherman's Curlew II didn't score another monster haul during a six-day trip that traversed 500 miles of sea last winter.
That blend of bonanza and boredom is the life the 50-year-old Fairhaven man has chosen, the only job he's ever had.
"It's what I know," says Sherman, a brawny man who admits he does, at times, get sick of the vagaries of the fishing life. But, he quickly adds, "I'm not going to do anything else."
Sherman and the crew of his 80-foot deep-water dragger are typical of the hundreds of fishermen who stick by New England's original trade despite the hardships and obvious hazards of a job that has claimed 112 lives in the Northeast in the last 10 years.
Like generations of fishermen dating back to the first European seafarers, the crew of the Curlew II endure the risks, and the loneliness of long absences from home and family, sustained by the dream of next big catch.
This is not a line of work for those with tender stomaches, or thin skin. Foul weather is almost the rule as far from shore as Sherman likes to fish. Icy waves regularly crash over the deck -- and sometimes over the pilothouse -- as the five men cycle through shift after shift.
"When we go on the boat, we have to have faith in the boat, in the skipper, and faith in the crew," says Ernest Hamblin, 62, whose father and grandfather also fished. "It's a bond."
It's hard work, but there are small comforts. Crewman Lester Benner, the designated cook, prepares two solid meals a day -- meat, rarely fish -- in the ship's galley. The crew can sometimes take a break for a couple of hours after the net is lowered to drag along. At such times there is often a cluster around the VCR in the wood-paneled stateroom. Sherman is particularly fond of the Joe Pesci comedy "Gone Fishing."
When the net comes up, writhing with hundreds of fish of several different species, the real work begins. After gutting the fish on deck, the crew places flounder and other flat fish in baskets to be stored while more precious cod and haddock are washed, and slid down a chute into the ice-filled fish hold. The fish slosh at their feet, and blood stains the men's boots and clothes. Gulls hover nearby, awaiting their share.
It can be an isolated and frightening world -- one where the crew is almost entirely on its own if something goes wrong. If anything breaks down -- and it often does -- it is Sherman or one of the crew members who must needle-mend the fishing net or repair the winch. Last year, Sherman had to snuff out a minor fire in the engine room.
By the time the ship reaches port, groaning with 35,000 pounds of fish, the men are drained. They hire others to unload the catch onto a waiting truck, then go home to sleep for up to 15 hours as their fish is sold at the Boston Fish Pier auction to buyers from New York.
The trip can often yield $30,000 worth of fish -- more if it's winter and the prices are high. After expenses, which can run as much as $7,000 per trip, the boat owner gets half of the profit, while Sherman and his crew split the rest.
"It's always a gamble," says Benner, who lost an index finger when he was struck by a 300-pound piece of fishing gear. "You might not catch fish. And you have to put up with the weather. But I get away from the rat race, and it's quiet and beautiful out there."
"My wife," he also jokes, "says the only reason we've been married 20 years is because I'm never home."