Good tools

Although broadbill swordfish are no longer landed at Menemsha, Martha’s Vineyard, this eponymous cap — the “hat designed by a fishery” — can still be seen on “Squid Row,” a six-foot bench above the harbor, this one worn by author Russell Cleary. Photo courtesy Russell Cleary

June 2022

By Nim Marsh

Down through the millennia, most good tools have evolved, quietly and incrementally, through necessity. Take sunglasses, for instance. Some 2,000 years ago, an Old Bering Sea-culture Inuit, tired of chronic snow blindness, fashioned walrus-ivory goggles with slits in the lenses to protect her eyes from the sun: civilization’s first shades.

Then there’s the long-billed swordfishing, or swordbill, hat, the origins of which piqued the curiosities of kindred spirit Russell Cleary and me recently while discussing the North Atlantic harpoon broadbill swordfishery of the mid-20th century. The cap’s design reduced the glare of the sun when scanning greasy offshore swells for fins and tails.

When did the first such headgear appear on commercial fish boats, we pondered?

Early web searches netted images of Ernest Hemingway and Jackie Kennedy wearing the distinctive caps – in the 1930s and 1960s, respectively – but I craved more ancient, earthy and colorful pedigrees for these specialized shelters from the sun. I sought evidence of some 14th-century Mediterranean swordfisherman in the Strait of Messina, seeking more sun protection and crafting a cap from sailcloth with a bill cut from fish cartilage. Such an Inuit-type fantasy, however, as fun as it would have been, was not in the cards.

Russ Cleary pored over his father’s records, searching for that missing link between billfish harvesters of old and Papa Hemingway, finding a 1934 photo of his dad, D. Edward “Ed” Cleary, Jr., at age 17, sporting a swordbill cap. He’d just harpooned a 700-plus-pound tuna. Another photo, taken circa 1930, showed the long-billed caps worn by crew aboard the swordfishing sloop Catherine. These are the earliest images of the specialized headgear he could find.

Where were they bought? “In the old days, swordbill caps were purchased at the local hardware store or the chandlery, with the creaky floors and musty odors,” Russ says, “the place where you bought your gaffs, seaboots and slime knives.”

“Of course, we always associated wearing these caps with being ‘in the know,’ ” Russ continued. “An adept in marine matters in New England. Heck, you sort of had to qualify [to wear one].

I was chagrined when, in Florida in 1981, between careers prepping boats, a friendly young lady commented on my wearing a ‘nerd hat.’ At that point . . . one doesn’t stand a chance explaining, ‘On the contrary, these are only worn by . . .’ ”

Around that time, sword-bill hats became rarer than hens’ teeth. “In the 1980s, I went up to Nova Scotia to hunt and research the local swordfishing,” Russ writes. “I was told that they could no longer get the long-billed swordfishing caps, so when I got home, I mailed a couple of them up there, as we could still obtain them.”

But a long-billed cap shortage had already been developing in New England. Back in 2012, I wrote: “My father, were he alive today, would still be toppling grocery-store orange pyramids with the tip of his long-billed cap because he wore his everywhere, including on a swordfishing ‘stick boat’ and at more than one dinner party.”

In the fall of 1972, a shopper asked my father where he’d bought his swordfisherman’s hat; she wanted to give one to her father, but found them unavailable in dry-goods stores. Dad secured two of them and mailed them to her with a letter to her father. A few weeks later, a package arrived containing a signed 50th-anniversary edition of “Piloting, Seamanship and Small Boat Handling” by seamanship authority Charles F. Chapman and a warm letter from the hallowed recipient of the longbills.

Today, these caps can be found online, in various iterations and color schemes, by searching for “long-billed swordfishing hats,” but check out Quaker Marine Supply (established in 1949), in Brooklyn, N.Y., for classic, swordfishery-worthy interpretations – and provocative history of the design, including a hot clue as to its origin. “During World War II, canvas longbills were issued to sun-scorched U.S. troops in the South Pacific,” Quaker Marine writes. “As those veterans and others came of age, QMS helped the leisure crowd rediscover the style.”

So what’s the hook here? Two-thousand-year-old sunglasses? Ninety-year-old, long-billed caps? It all boils down to the beauty, simplicity and positivity of the word “tool,” Webster’s Definition No. 5, which reads: “anything used as a means of accomplishing a task or purpose.”

Points East is 25 years old this year. This salty periodical was conceived by founding Editor Sandy Marsters, founding Marketing Director Bernie Wideman, and founding (and still) Art Director John Gold to be a helpful and pleasant tool – Swiss Army-like in its variety of functions – for New England’s recreational mariners.

Like the prototype sunglasses and swordfishing caps, the little magazine, under the aegis of Publisher Joe Burke and his wife Joanne, also has evolved, quietly and incrementally – through a need, a purpose, and a thoughtful premise – to this silver-anniversary milestone.

Whatever the future holds, what is perceived as nerdy today, in all likelihood will again be seen as a cool and purposeful contrivance. “Sometimes, when you have the courage to choose functionality over fashion, you wind up back at fashion’s doorstep,” proclaims Quaker Marine. As my father can attest, the swordbill hat can, at the very least, win friends and signed copies of the iconic seamanship guide. Russ Cleary and I may find even earlier images of long-billed caps in offshore-fishery use. And the basic values of the Points East tool will endure.

Nim Marsh is a former editor of Points East.