Mosquito fleet 1

These boats don't go out to sea anymore.

Neither do the fishermen.

Known as the Mosquito Fleet, these Charleston sea men could once be seen sailing out from Market Street every morning, if the wind was in their favor. By the afternoon, they would return with their catch.

It was a pattern as certain as the tide.

"I thought about doing other things," said Ben Gethers, a fisherman in the Mosquito Fleet who spoke to The News and Courier in 1964. At the time, he had been sailing out to sea with the fleet for 36 years.

"This type of life is part of me," Gethers said.

From the 1860s until the 1950s, African-American men in the Mosquito Fleet provided Charleston with the bulk of its seafood. 

The lives and stories of these fishermen, however, are a nearly forgotten chapter of Charleston's history.

"Most came from the islands. In the memories of most who recall the fleet, they were a highly reputable group. Sturdy fishermen who loved their families, many educated their children for a life they thought would be better than their own," a News and Courier article from 1973 states. "In small, open boats, with sails many times patched, the men of the Mosquito Fleet were wide open to the elements."

And in the early days of the Mosquito Fleet, boats were made from cyprus logs. Measuring between 18 and 30 feet in length, the boats carried a mainsail and a foresail on removable  masts.

Capt. Glover Hayes, who sailed with the famous fleet for more than 50 years, started his fishing career when he was just 13.

"My first trip with the fleet was in 1912, and I recall Mama telling me I must be crazy to go on the ocean riding a tick of wood, with a piece of rag for a sail," Hayes told The Evening Post in 1970.

These men were, after all, at the mercy of the elements. In a given day, the men would sail as far as 40 miles out to sea. The colder the weather, though, the deeper the fish and the farther out the men would have to go.

In the fleet's history, more than 50 boats were lost to sudden storms and treacherous seas.

By 1964, the fate of the historic fleet was facing its own extinction. The number of boats had dwindled from upwards of 100 to less than 20.

In 1962, the fishermen had to abandon their Market Street dock.

"The dock and its surroundings fell into a state of despair. It became a hangout for loafers and a potential health hazzard," according to a News and Courier article.

Instead, the fishermen would move to a pier at the east end of Laurens Street.

Nature would also pose a threat to the group.

"The approach used by its members to reach the Cooper River became filled with silt. Unable to pay for dredging operations the fishermen found themselves at the mercy of the tides. Low tides kept them in port or forced them to stay out on the river rather than running the risk of bogging in mudflats," according to the 1973 newspaper article.

It was a tough life to be a fisherman in the Mosquito Fleet.

"I been fightin’ this water practically all my life. Sometimes there were good days; sometimes bad," Gethers recalled.

For some, it was all they knew. For Arthur Wright, the unofficial "commodore" of Charleston's Mosquito Fleet, he would die doing this work in 1973. A shrimper would find his boat capsized in the Stono River.

One tugboat veteran told the newspaper of the fishermen, "They were brave men and wonderful sailors."

And the names of their boats? It would seem that those names hinted at the lives led  by these men: Fear Not, Jacob; Swing Low Sweet Chariot; Too Sweet My Love.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.