A floating piece of history

Two dory rowers share their love and passion for old-fashioned fishing boats

By Rachel Arroyo Photography By Betty Wiley 

When Capt. Mike Orbe climbs into his boat, the Squid II, it’s not uncommon for onlookers along the shoreline to stop to admire his mode of transport. It’s not a flashy sports boat or glamorous yacht, but rather a small, fire-engine red dory—a buoyant reminder of the Cape’s rich fishing history and days long past. “Everywhere you go, people want to take a picture of it,” says Orbe. “They know they’ve seen it before, most likely in a Winslow Homer painting. They just get a big smile out of it.”

For more than four decades, Orbe and his good friend and fellow dory-rowing enthusiast, John “JJ” Flanagan, have been traversing the Cape’s sometimes-dicey waters, testing their endurance and reveling in a shared love for these old-fashioned dory boats and the sea.

Both attended Massachusetts Maritime Academy separately in the 1970s, but met on Nantucket Sound as teenagers. Flanagan remembers: “I spotted him offshore and I will never forget it as long as I live. I looked at the dory and thought that [it] was pretty unusual.” Flanagan, at the time, had his own dory—white with a tan interior and red bottom—that he and his father had worked hard to make seaworthy again. By the time he met Orbe in 1971 at the age of 19, he was already known for his dory-rowing feats: first a three-day, 73-mile trip from Hyannis to Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket and back, and then a 300-mile, 12-day trip from Hyannis to Chatham to Martha’s Vineyard to Buzzards Bay through the Cape Cod Canal to Barnstable Harbor and up to Provincetown and back.

“Back then, we were fanatical rowers,” says Orbe about his and Flanagan’s aquatic adventures in the 1970s. He remembers one year, “I wanted to see how fast I could go from Brant Point to my parents’ home on the outer harbor [in Hyannis].” His record time: eight hours and 20 minutes. The following day, however, when he left Nantucket for the trek home, it happened to be one of the hottest days of the summer, at almost 100 degrees.  From the hot sun and strenuous rowing, he lost 20 pounds in water weight and was sun-scorched roughly the same shade as his boat.

Originally a New England phenomenon, dories were built as early as the first half of the 18th century as a simple, yet hardworking fishing vessel. Simeon Lowell, founder of the famed Lowell’s Boat Shop in Amesbury, Mass., is credited with building the first dories—in their most recognizable form—around 1793. But, in the 1830s, it was Hiram Lowell, his grandson, who revolutionized the fishing industry by tweaking his grandfather’s original design to create the Grand Banks dory, built specifically for fishing cod from the Grand Banks. “If you see a photograph taken of a [New England] harbor a hundred years ago,” marvels Orbe, “it was filled with dories—the standard work boat.”

With the new design, fishing schooners could compactly stack and store a fleet of dories, which they would divest into the water—two men and gear in each boat. The fishermen aboard their dories would then row out a couple of miles and hand-line cod, haddock or halibut or set tub trawls—a long piece of line with hooks every six or so feet that rests on the ocean floor, waiting for its catch. At the end of the day, the fishermen, after hauling their catch inside the boat, would then row back to the mother ship.

“One of the secrets to a dory’s seaworthiness is that its stability increases with dead weight,” says Orbe. “So as you load more cargo into it, it submerges deeper into the water and becomes more stable.” A standard Grand Banks dory, which is 15 feet in length, can carry more than a ton of fish. Other hallmarks of a Grand Banks dory are its flared sides, extreme sheer and rocker (the curve at the bottom) and its symmetry, with the bow and stern equal in height. “Once you learn how to handle them (they can be tippy when empty), they are extremely seaworthy,” says Orbe. However, with the advancement of technology, diesel-powered draggers in particular, the Golden Age of dories came to a close around the first half of the 20th-century.

Today Orbe and Flanagan, both in their sixties, don’t row as much as they used to. But they still get out on the water in their dories as much as they can. Orbe loves rowing Pamet Harbor and Pleasant Bay, he says, and Hyannis Outer Harbor is great for fishing. “You are alone with your thoughts and it kind of clears the cobwebs from your mind,” he explains about the lure of rowing.

“It’s just you, a pile of lumber and nails and the ocean, the wind and the marine life. It’s a good way to get away from the stresses of everyday madness,” says Orbe, “and a dory is the way to go. “[It] is more than a boat. It is a floating bit of history.”

Flanagan agrees. “There is a freedom that cannot be put into words,” when you are rowing, he says, which he will keep doing for as long as he is able. “It gets into your blood,” he says. “At 63 years old…it is really reassuring to be able to get out there and pursue this. As long as I am able to row, I will be rowing.”


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