The Dorcas: Skipper Swept To Death In Gale

by M.J. Snow

I've spent all the years of my life staring at two beautiful paintings of two masted topsail schooners, the fishing boats belonging to my great-grandfather, Joesph Silveira. In my own home hangs the painting of the Mary E. Silveira, named for my great-grandmother, my mother's-mother's-mother, to be precise. Sometime, when there's good light, I'll have to try to photograph my painting. This photo is similar to our schooners. 

There is no painting of the Dorcas, and yet she is the schooner who's memory remains strongest in our hearts and our minds. She is the one who carried my great-grandfather out to sea, but did not bring him home again. I was cleaning the painting of the Mary E. today and for some reason she made me feel the urge to write about my great-grandfather and share the story of his last voyage. 

My great-grandparents were very much in love, my great-grandmother never quite recovered from her loss. Reading the line from the newspaper article where my great-grandfather's brother says "The worst of it is, " ... "is that I’ve got to break the news to my brother’s wife and children.",  I remember my grandmother telling how her uncle Sebastian came to their house and he was holding his hat in his hands & twisting it. My great-grandmother looked at him and screamed and fainted. She just knew. I can imagine her heart being ripped from her chest, the pain must have been unbearable. My grandmother slept in the room with her mother after her father's death. She said for years and years, every night, her mother would cry herself to sleep.

My great-grandfather was said to be a sweet, kind man. He wrote poetry in his native Portuguese, which I someday hope to have translated into English. When it was time to cook dinner and his wife sent him to the yard to kill a chicken, she'd go out an find him sitting on the back steps, stroking the chicken's feathers, unable to bring himself to kill the birds. I've always felt he was a lot like me, writer, a lover of animals, and a bit of a romantic. He loved the sea and he loved his ships. I think if he'd been able to choose, he'd have gone just as he did, however it was too soon for his wife Mary, six year old Winifred, my grandmother, and her two older sisters, Birdie (Maria) and Genevieve.

 "How or when he went, no one knew. He was last seen by his men as he sat on the wheel box, the spokes of the wheel grimly between hands that were used to navigation..."

After his death, his brother Sebastian, and other relatives made sure that Mary and her daughters never wanted for anything. Joseph F. Silveira's memory will live on through his ancestors. Especially those who are a little bit like him. 

Here are the newspaper articles that told the story of Joseph Silveira's last voyage and the moving tribute made in his honour.

Friday, August 29, 1924 
Skipper Swept To Death In Tuesday’s Big Gale

Capt. Joseph F. Silveira of Sch. Dorcas Perished When Storm Hit Craft on Georges Bank
Three of Crew Washed Overboard But Wave Hurled Them Back Again— Craft Cleaned from Stem To Stern—Towed In Here by the Funchal

The swordfishing sch. Dorcas, torn by the fury of seas and gale of Tuesday’s storm, her captain lost, and a helpless hulk with masts, dories, rails and all loose gear swept into the sea, arrived here shortly after 3 o’clock yesterday afternoon in tow of the Provincetown sch. Funchal, Capt. Louis Sears. She was a picture of desolation and tragedy with the stars and stripes at half mast on an improvised pole lashed to the stump of the mainmast for Captain Joseph F. Silveira who was swept overboard and drowned when the giant waves and terrible gale hit and devastated the little vessel shortly before noon on Tuesday.

The surviving members of the crew, eight in number, one of them the brother of the unfortunate skipper, brought back the story of being hove down, the fearful tale of how they had been buffeted abut by sea and wind, of the battle with the elements for their very existence from noon on Tuesday until 2 o’clock on Wednesday morning when the Funchal came upon the helpless Dorcas, passed a line and started for Gloucester, more than 150 miles away.

Not yet fully recovered from the effects of the tragedy which robbed him of his brother, Sebastian J. Silveira a member of the Dorcas crew, sitting on the cabin house surrounded by curious ones attracted to the scene of the wreck by news which quickly spread throughout the city, told of how the vessel was made a floating derelict, unmanageable because of loss of steering power and swept as clean as though a broom had been faced across her deck. "The worst of it is, " said the man, "is that I’ve got to break the news to my brother’s wife and children."

Last Tuesday morning the craft fishing on the southwest part of Georges banks, in company with the sch. Funchal, was warned of the storm by a falling glass which gave no rise to great apprehension of any extraordinary blow. Many times the crew had seen the steel hand of the barometer perform the same stunt, so they thought little of it. Determined not to take any chances, however, the skipper , after the storm had hit upon them, gently at first around 7 o’clock in the morning, ordered the craft under shortened sail. A riding sail and jumbo were hoisted but all other canvass was taken in.

Around 10 o’clock the storm had become a veritable hurricane, so the only thing to do was turn to and face it. With motor going, sails bellying in the wind, the little craft held her own. Then, around 12 o’clock the unexpected occurred. Capt. Silveira was sitting on the wheel box, guiding the nose of the Dorcas into the mouth of it, keeping her on a course.

Joseph Brown of East Boston, Domingoes Nunes and Joseph Merico were standing on the cabin house, hugging the main boom for safety. Others of the crew were about the deck or below forward. Suddenly, and without warning, the Dorcas settled her stern in the trough of a heavy sea, she staggered, seemed to rise a bit and then a deluge of water breaking from a white crested wave mountain high, crashed down upon the little swordfisherman and she was hove down on her beam ends.

Brown and his three companions were hurled into the sea as the heavy wall of water ripped the mainboom and gaff from their crotch and hurled them seaward. The men went with the boom and gaff. They were swept away from the schooner, but, as has happened in similar instances of a like nature, the same wave, or rather the backwash which carried them overboard, washed them back on deck. They groped and half swam around in the water, blinded and stunned by the impact reached and clasped a rope and finally regained their feet. They climbed onto the port rail of the schooner, her starboard rail and both spars being under water.

Chopping away the rigging, and throwing over the sails, the men fought like demons to save themselves. One looked for the skipper and he could not be found. No one had time then to ask questions, for they were engaged in battling a howling hurricane to save themselves from death. How or when he went, no one knew. He was last seen by his men as he sat on the wheel box, the spokes of the wheel grimly between hands that were used to navigation, and had sailed over the spot where the accident occurred innumerable times. No one heard an outcry. Perhaps they wouldn’t anyway, for the wind howled fearfully and the rain beat down in torrents.

Hardly ever has a fishing schooner come into Gloucester in such a battered condition as has the little swordfisherman yesterday, her half-masted colors hanging limply from the pole. The Dorcas had everything stripped from her. Hew bowsprit was snapped off close to her stem, and the only rigging left on her were two foremast stays. It is said by those intimately associated with the drowned captain that he always had a feeling that sometime or other, the sea would claim him as its victim.
The surviving members of the crew are Tony J. Rose, engineer, Gloucester; Joseph Souza, cook, Gloucester; Sebastian J. Silveira, East Cambridge; Joseph Silva, Gloucester; Domingoes Nunes, Gloucester; and Joseph Brown, East Boston.

On September 9, 1924, the surviving crewmen attended a memorial mass clad in their oilskins, sou'westers and rubber boots, in compliance with a promise made while in the throes of the hurricane.

September 10, 1924

Attended Mass in Oil Skins to Keep Promise

In compliance with a promise made while in the throes of the hurricane of August 28, that if they should be spared, they would attend mass in thanksgiving, the eight members of the crew of the ill-fated swordfisherman schooner Dorcas, attended a memorial mass at the Church of Our Lady of Good Voyage, yesterday morning, clad in their oilskins, sou'westers and rubber boots as they were while at the mercy of the seas.

It was a mass also in honor of their lost captain, Joseph Silveira and was celebrated at 8.15 o'clock by Re. Francisco G. Martinz, the pastor.  Each of the eight men was crowned with the crown of the Hold Ghost as a part of the solemn promise made on the ocean, two weeks ago.  Those crowned included Sebastian J. Silveira, the brother of the deceased captain; Joseph Medico, Joseph Brown, Domingoes Nunes, Joseph Silva, a nephew of the captain; Antone Rose, Joseph Souza and John Murray.

Besides the crew, many other fishermen associates attended the mass with relatives and friends of the deceased captain and the crew.  It was a most impressive spectacle and one which is seldom held.  During the services Rev. Fr. Martinz delivered a touching address concerning the tragedy.

"The Gloucester Fisherman" sculpted by Leonard Crake

Today he is surrounded by stone memorials bearing the names of the hundreds of Gloucester fishermen lost at sea.
Perhaps sadder still, is the Gloucester Fisherman's Wives Memorial, always watching for the ships to come home.


  1. Hey, I came across your blog while I was doing research on our great grandfather. (This is your cousin Dan Fuller from Marshfield, MA, I think I know which cousin you are - I'm assuming you're the one on the west coast). I'd love to see a photo of the painting of the Mary E. and copies of the poems if you have them. I've been doing a lot of research on Joseph Silveira for a book I'm writing and hope to be visiting the Azores soon.


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