Carleton “Cukie” Macomber, a 90-plus year old amateur historian and well-known raconteur from Westport, shared an interesting chapter of his personal experiences along the local coastline with members and guests of the Dartmouth Historical and Arts Society at a Feb. 9 talk on “The Rematch of David and Goliath on the South Coast” at the Russells Mills Schoolhouse in Dartmouth.
Macomber took the audience back to the 1971 confrontation between the Westport-based Prelude Corporation, an offshore lobstering company playing the role of David… and the giant Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a Goliath of a nation forced to back down from the courtroom challenge of a little local company which felt it had been wronged by the Russian state’s fishing fleet off the American coastline.
His tale was based on personal experience, as Macomber was working as an engineer and mechanic for Prelude Corp. when what the media of the time described as “an international incident” which threatened to heat up the United States’ Cold War with the Russians took place, partly in a Massachusetts courtroom, and partly at Westport Point.
The story began a few years before the 1971 incident, Macomber said, when the Rev. William Whipple turned his part-time summer lobstering job during divinity school into a full-time vocation, and started his own lobster-selling business. “He bought a boat and came to Westport with a pile of big wooden traps” and set up shop at Westport Harbor around 1966, Macomber recalled.
Whipple needed an experienced welder and nautical mechanic for his new company, and hired him to join the staff. Whipple’s plan was to “go fishing on the Continental Slope, which was full of lobster… it was not being done at the time,” he explained. “I went to work for him as a maintenance man,” to both outfit the new lobster boat, the Prelude I, and to take care of the lobster-holding facility off Cherry & Webb Lane in Westport, Macomber said.
Much of his job entailed helping Whipple and his crew set up the automated pot-hauling equipment needed to service the traps set in deeper waters than usually fished by lobstermen. Whipple was a brilliant engineer, and designed hydraulic winches and an onboard processing line “which pulled the traps aboard, set them on a table to be serviced (lobsters pulled out and the trap re-baited) and then returned to the water,” according to Macomber. “It worked very well.”
The patented automated equipment worked so well that the company kept buying more boats to expand its fleet. First came a 101-foot steel hulled fishing boat converted to a lobster boat, then the 98-foot Crystal S and the 101-foot Wily Fox, a former research vessel also transformed into a ship suitable for deep-sea lobstering. The final acquisition for the rapidly-expanding business was the 125-foot fishing boat, the Mars.
Looking to dominate the lobster business on the Atlantic coast, Whipple hired former Raytheon executive Joseph Gaziano to serve as president of the company. The growing corporation expanded its land-basing holdings, too, buying shellfish wholesalers in Bucks Harbor, Maine, at the Boston Fish Pier, and the Wickford Shellfish Company in North Kingston, Rhode Island. “We were getting 50,000 to 75,000 pounds of lobster per week” from the four boats, Macomber noted.
A 1971 newspaper report on the company indicated that Prelude brought in 16 percent of the total American lobster catch that year, making the Westport-based company the largest single lobster producer in the country. Everything was going well until a Russian and Polish fishing fleet appeared off the New England coast and started working the same Georges Bank fishing ground as the Prelude Corp. boats, Macomber recalled.
“The Russians sent a whole fleet of draggers to New England to catch fish,” which were sent aboard an accompanying mother ship for processing and freezing, Macomber said. “They were hauling their dredges right through our lobster gear.” Period accounts indicated the loss of a single mile-long line of traps could cost the owner about $20,000; appeals for help fending off the Soviet bloc ships went out to the Coast Guard, with little result, he added.
“The Coast Guard said because they were beyond the three-mile (territorial) limit, they couldn’t do anything about it,” Macomber recalled. “So Joe (Gaziano) decided he was going to try to stop it. He got a good lawyer, and sued the Russian government; it made newspapers all over the world.”
It also brought a visit from U.S. State Department officials, who suggested that the lawsuit against the Russian agency controlling the country’s fishing operations threatened to disrupt the delicate balance of Cold War relations between the superpowers, and urged the lawsuit be withdrawn. The response from the Russian government was simply that the offending trawlers “were private ships, not controlled by the government,” Macomber said.
The lawsuit sought $177,055 in damages to gear, and $200,000 in punitive damages from the Soviets. The skill of the Westport company’s lawyer was proven when he succeeded in convincing the court to seize a Russian freighter, the Suleyman Stalsky, docked in San Francisco as surety for the damages claim. That got the attention of the Soviets, Macomber remembered. Soon after, “The Russians sent a message that they would be in Westport on a certain day to try to resolve the matter,” he said.
“A Russian delegation arrived at our offices in big black limousines, accompanied by State Police, TV trucks, and reporters. As a result, we were quite famous,” Macomber said. “The Russians stayed for two days and came to a settlement – they paid us $80,000 for the lost gear,” the lawsuit was dropped, and the Russian freighter being held by the U.S. Marshals for six days was released from custody. Newspaper accounts from the time said the settlement was for $89,000, but we can forgive the 90-something Macomber for a few thousand dollars recalled incorrectly some 44 years later.
The settlement meant that Cold War détente was temporarily restored, but the landmark case had further-reaching ramifications. A Spanish-based fishing company also paid some restitution for lost gear, and both Massachusetts and Maine soon extended their territorial waters from three to 12 miles. “After the settlement, Joe Gaziano wrote to President Nixon (about the problem) and that letter started the machinery to develop the 200-mile zone (territorial jurisdiction) around our shores,” Macomber said.
The company kept fishing in the deeper waters of the Grand Banks for another few years, but declining catches and falling profits – probably due to a shift in the Gulf Stream, other environmental factors, and increasing competition – made Prelude Corp. abandon deep sea lobstering and switch to red crab fishing before shutting down.
Macomber moved on to the company’s Wickford Shellfish plant, retained when Prelude was dissolved, and stayed there another seven years before quitting. He soon ended up working for Whipple’s new company, High Seas Corp., setting up a Fall River crab processing plant; meanwhile, his son Paul was working as a lobster boat captain for another company.
Macomber said his wife convinced him it was time for the family to reap some of the big profits that could be earned from the hard profession of fishing. The family bought The Glad One, a 55-foot steel hulled fishing boat, and he helped convert it into a deep sea lobster-catching vessel, he noted.
His son skippered the family lobster for 18 years before retiring from the sea to become a contractor. Macomber sold the boat to the first mate, and as far as he knows, The Glad One is still out there somewhere, he suggested, fishing for some salty bounty still to be gained from the sea by men brave enough to sail out there and catch them.