From the mid-16th century, cod fishing grew to a peak in the 19th century. For nearly five centuries, French fishermen left each year for the Grand Banks off the island of Newfoundland, today in Canada. Saint-Malo was an important port for Newfoundland fisheries. The last expeditions were in 1951.
The cod fishery was once an important part of the local economy. There were two types of cod fishing - what was known as 'green' fishing, following the shoals on the high seas, and 'dry' fishing which was more an inshore activity, better sheltered from winds and tidal currents. The working conditions were horrendously cold and wet in both types, obviously for the very brave only.
"Green" cod fishing
The ships would leave for a season of 6 to 7 months with crews of about 30 men. The ships were loaded with dories, manoeuvrable flat-bottomed boats that could easily be stacked on the decks.
Once the ship arrived on the Grand Banks, each dory was put to sea with two crewmen. They would fish all day using drift lines. Once brought back to the mother ship, the cod was gutted, washed, salted and stacked. The fish was then called morue verte or "green" cod.
"Dried" cod fishing
This fishing technique required a hundred men on each ship. Once arrived, they would anchored in a harbour in Newfoundland and build barracks on land to store and prepare the fish. They lived in these basic facilities.
Every night, the fish was brought to shore and dried on the beach. Conservation was better using this technique and export back to France and the Mediterranean was facilitated.
The môle des Noires
You'll have noticed the long sea wall at the entrance to the port of Saint-Malo. This is the Môle des Noires. A môle in French is another word for a sea wall. Legend has it that the wives of missing sailors, dressed in black, came in search of their husband's return, so often in vain.
If a man died aboard the ship, his body was thrown into the sea. According to the law, the body was not allowed to stay more than 24 hours on board after death. The dead sailor was stitched into his hammock, and weighed down with stones.
A ceremony recited by the captain took place on the deck before ordering two men to tilt the body overboard. The women of dead sailors never saw the bodies of their lost husbands.
Today, dory races can be watched at the festivals and summer events in Saint-Suliac on the banks of the river Rance. The dory is a flat-bottomed boat, with a length of 5 to 6 meters. American in design, it was originally used to make departure from beach moorings easier.
Later used for cod fishing, it was crewed by two sailors who would lay the lines. After the disappearance of the Newfoundland fishing expeditions, the boat type remained popular in the region of Saint-Malo. Some dories are equipped with a sail and a jib.
Meet a Newfoundland fisherman
Don't miss a visit to the museum of the Terre-Neuvas in Saint-Malo. You'll find reconstructions of life scenes aboard the Newfoundlander fishing expedition boats - the wheelhouse, the radio cabin, the crew station and the sailors hammocks...
You'll be welcomed by old sailors who actually participated in the last expeditions in the 1950s - always happy to share their memories and experiences of cod fishing.