Article courtesy of Kevin Tarpey
My favourite lesson at school was geography. I loved hearing about different countries and people. I remember one day when I was about 14 the lesson was about the fishing industry and deep sea trawling, complete with pictures of arctic fishing grounds and ships. I wasn’t interested particularly in fish, I knew that they came from the chippy anyway. What captured my imagination were the ships and the men who worked in them. Also the conditions they endured, heavy seas and black ice were normal working conditions especially in the winter. This was clearly a dangerous job, these were real men!
I got my encyclopaedia out and looked up everything I could about ships. As well as trawlers there was the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy. I think by now I had already decided this was for me. Soon after, there was a school trip to Ireland. I didn’t particularly want to go ’till I realised that to get to Ireland you had to cross the Irish Sea. That meant going on a ship. That meant going to sea! This was my opportunity!
I was going! I saved my money from my paper round for spending money and soon we were on our way. I can remember the coach trip down the East Lancs. road to Liverpool, and the excitement when we arrived at the docks. This was the early ’60 s and Liverpool was still a busy port. We passed through customs and were on the docks. There were ships everywhere, as far as the eye could see there were docks with ships in. Real Ocean going ships! This was the place to be!
Our ship was the Munster, an Irish cattle boat that also took passengers. I suppose it was the cheapest way to cross. It mattered not about the cattle; this was my first trip to sea. We made our way up the gangway and were soon on board. I set about exploring and finding my way around. After surveying the main deck I made my way below. There were rows of seats that were starting to fill up but I wasn’t interested in sitting down, there was too much to see, too much going on. I went back on deck.
It was starting to go dark and sailing time was approaching and for me at least excitement was mounting. There were men working on deck, preparing to sail, I knew from my encyclopaedia that the man giving the orders was the Bosun. I watched in awe. “Let go for’d”,” Let go aft” a frenzy of activity, men running and carrying ropes, the Bosun shouting orders, I could hear the engines rumbling below the deck. We were moving! I stood on the poop deck looking astern, we had left the quay and were in the Mersey heading out to sea. My very first leaving of Liverpool! I could see the Liver building and the pier head and the Liverpool shoreline receding. As we made our way down river we passed all kinds of ships coming and going. Soon all there was to see was the lights of Liverpool in the distance, then just darkness.
The weather was starting to get rough and the ship started to pitch and roll. It was raining now and very windy and the sea was rough and spray was soaking the deck (and me). Most of the other passengers had gone below to sit down where it was dry and warm. I made my way below. The cabin was full of people including my schoolmates, and most of them were being sick. Everywhere there was a smell of vomit and diesel oil. I went back on deck. It was cold and wet and the cattle were making a lot of noise, and there were people being sick over the side. As I was walking round a door opened. There was a noise like thunder and a man dressed in overalls came out, I caught a glimpse of machinery and I could feel the heat and smell diesel. The engine room!
It seemed like I was the only one who hadn’t been sick, and the only one who was actually enjoying the trip. The night passed and it started to get light. Soon I could see land, Ireland, a foreign country! It got closer and soon we were entering Dublin docks. I watched closely again as the Bosun and his crew expertly brought the ship into the dock and tied up to the quay. I walked down the gangway and set foot on foreign soil for the first time. We went through customs and out of the docks. I can remember we had to cross a busy road to get to our bus. As I stepped out onto the road, I was run down by a moped . I was carrying a suitcase and the moped ran into my suitcase and knocked me over. It was the suitcase that saved me from injury. I don’t remember much else about the trip except that we came back on the Leinster, sister ship to the Munster.
The journey home wasn’t as rough as the one going. I can remember returning to Liverpool and the excitement as we docked. My first trip to sea was over. I was sure it wouldn’t be my last.
During the school holidays we used to go for long bike rides. A favourite of mine was Salford docks. At the dock entrance on Trafford road, there was a blackboard with the names of all the ships that were arriving and departing. It also gave their destinations. A typical entry would be “Manchester Miller, No. 9 dock departing 1400 Montreal”. Unfortunately, we were not allowed on the docks but there were places where we could see the ships. There were places along Trafford road where you could see funnels and masts above the dock buildings. Also from Trafford road swing-bridge, you could see the ship canal and the turning basin. If your luck was in, you could see a 10 thousand tonner being turned round with the help of tugs.
We spent many a summer’s day at Mode Wheel lock. This is the first (or last) lock on the Manchester ship canal, just outside the docks. The canal was very busy in those days. If you were there at the right time, (depending on the tide at Liverpool) there would be a procession of ships heading down the canal, or heading the other way towards Manchester. Either way you could get close to the ships while they were in the lock. There would often be men working on deck and we would ask, “Where have you been mister?” Mostly we would be told to piss off but occasionally some kind seaman would answer “New York laddie”. I couldn’t wait to start work on one of these ships and sail off for New York.
When the time came to leave school, I told my dad that I wanted to join the Navy. He had been in the Royal Marines during the war, and he didn’t like the idea of me joining the Royal Navy. He told me the minimum term was 9 years and this put me off a bit. In the Merchant Navy, you only signed on for the duration of the trip, this seemed a better proposition. He said the best way to get into the Merchant Navy was to learn a trade and sign on as a tradesman. I took his advice. Apprenticeships were plentiful in those days and I started an engineering apprenticeship at local firm Mather & Platt.
I really took to the engineering trade. I served a six year apprenticeship and enjoyed it immensely. They were good years and I learned a hell of a lot. When I finally became a tradesman at the age of 21, I still had a yearning to go to sea. I made some enquiries about joining the Merchant Navy as an engineer. I went to the British Shipping Federation on Cross Lane in Salford, they told me to write an application to the Board of Trade, which I did. They replied that I had to attend a pre-sea grading with the examiner of engineers at Liverpool, and an appointment was made.
On the day of my appointment, I took the train to Liverpool and walked from Lime Street to the Board of Trade building on Water Street. I went in with some trepidation and found the examiner of engineers office. There was a waiting room and about five other men in front of me. We chatted, most of them were first timer’s like me, but the man sat next to me said he had just passed his second engineer’s ticket. He had been at sea for six years and he said he liked it, but it didn’t suit everyone.
It came round to my examination. I went nervously in. He told me to sit down and we got down to business. I showed him my indentures and City and Guilds certificate, and told him everything I could about my apprenticeship. He said he knew about Mather and Platt, it was a good firm. I remember him saying, “should make a good man” more to himself than to me. He gave me my grading there and then. It was B2. I asked him what happened next. He said “Take it to the British Shipping Federation and tell them you want to ship out, they will accept you with a B2 grading”.
The British Shipping Federation office was at Mann Island just across the road so in I went and asked to be shipped out. The man behind the desk said there wasn’t much chance of that, there were established seamen out of work in Liverpool. He suggested I try and find a job myself, and gave me a list of British Shipping companies, (over a hundred). I walked out feeling dejected. Some of the other lads who had been in the waiting room were outside, they had been told the same. We walked down to the pier head and watched the ships on the river for a while then someone suggested “Let’s go for a pint.” Good idea!
In 1970, Ted Heath was Prime Minister, there was the miner’s strike, the power worker’s strike, and the country was on a 3 day working week to save power. The country was in recession and the Merchant Navy weren’t recruiting. I had left Mather and Platt and was working at another local engineering firm Francis Shaw. I was still interested in going to sea and a couple of the lads I was working with had been in the Merchant Navy, I found out as much as I could from them.
I started writing letters of application to shipping companies from the list I had been given. The replies I received all said more or less the same thing; “we have no vacancies at the moment but we will keep your application for future reference.” Soon I had quite a collection of these.
I can remember going into my local pub the Bird in Hand one Friday evening, I knew everybody because I went in nearly every night. This particular night there was a stranger in, and him and I played a game of crib together having both got Jacks. We won the game and he bought me a pint. We sat down and chatted. He told me he was an engineer in the Merchant Navy and he was home on leave. A twist of fate ? I told him about my (failed) attempts to ship out. He said it was possible to get into the Merchant Navy, what you need is some experience. Yes, but how you get it? He said there were two ways. You could join the international pool in Rotterdam, but you would be taking a chance on what you got. You could end up on a Greek tanker for instance and unless you could speak Greek you would be in all kinds of trouble. I didn’t like the sound of it. What’s the other way? He said “Deep sea trawlers”.
He said if you go to any of the fishing ports, you would probably get a job on a deep sea trawler. I doubted that it could be that easy, but he assured me they were always looking for men, especially with engineering experience. I had never seen this man before and I’ve never seen him since but that is exactly as I remember our meeting, call it providence !
I thought over what he’d said over the weekend and decided to go for it. On Monday I took the day off work and caught the train to Blackpool and then the tram to Fleetwood. I arrived about midday and made my way to the dock area. Fleetwood was still a busy fishing port and there was a lot of activity. I can remember walking down Dock Street and past the Fleetwood arms soon after I arrived. The pub door flew open and a man was literally dragged out and dumped in the street. I had to walk round him, his face was covered in blood and he was unconscious. There were people walking past and even stepping over him. I heard one man remark “It’s only Mattie”. This was obviously a rough town. I walked nervously on.
Dock Street was where the trawler companies had their offices. I remember the main ones were Boston Trawlers, Wyre Trawlers, Hewitt’s, and J Marr’s. I somehow found the courage to walk into the office of J Marr. I told the receptionist I was looking for a job as an engineer and she said I would have to see the engineering superintendent. He was engaged, could I come back in an hour. I spent the hour walking round the docks. There were ships and boats of all sizes and everywhere a smell of fish and diesel oil.
I made my way back to Marr’s. The receptionist showed me to the office of Mr. Finn the engineering superintendent. He welcomed me in. I told him my intentions. He said he couldn’t offer me a job as an engineer as I had no sea going experience. However, he said I could start as an engine room rating, do a couple of trips and then be considered for a job as an engineer. I accepted without hesitation. I told him I had to work a week’s notice, he understood and told me to contact him when I was ready to start.
This is it! I’ve done it, I’m shipping out! On a deep sea trawler. I made my way home feeling excited but apprehensive. That evening I went into the Bird in Hand to celebrate. I told the lads the news and three of them, Harold, Terry, and Eddie, said they were interested in doing the same. Harold said he had worked on trawlers, Terry said he would apply for a job as a cook, he had learned to cook while he was in prison. Eddie, I knew didn’t have it in him, but he would come along for the ride.
I went into work the next day and gave notice that I was finishing on Friday, and going to sea on a trawler. They thought I was crazy. (They were probably right). The weekend came and arrangements were made with the three lads to travel to Fleetwood on Monday. We had a good piss up over the weekend and on Monday morning we made our way to Fleetwood. We made our way to Marr’s office when we arrived and I asked to see Mr. Finn. He was out, could we come back later? It was too early to go for a pint so we went into a cafe opposite the docks for a cup of tea. It was very busy and we soon realised we were among trawler men. The air was blue and the talk was of ships and skippers and Iceland and black ice, but surprisingly no mention of fish.
There was still about an hour to kill so we had a walk round the docks. I remember Terry saying to one of the dock workers “Which of these ships are Marr’s” the reply was “the ones painted yellow.” He said “yes, but where are the ones that go to Iceland?” The docker replied “they are”. Terry said “they’re not getting me on one of them I’m on the next bus home”. Eddie’s sentiments were the same. We made our way back to Marr’s office. Harold and myself went in and the other two waited in the cafe. I went in to see Mr. Finn again and told him I was ready to start. He said the first thing I had to do was a fire and safety course. He said I could do it that afternoon and an appointment was made. I went over to the cafe to find the other three. By this time Harold had changed his mind also. I was on my own.
I went back to see Mr. Finn in the afternoon. He said we would do the fire course on one of the company’s ships. I followed him towards the docks. There were four or five ships painted yellow and I learned that these were indeed Marr’s . We approached the Jacinta and I followed him up the gangway. At the time, Jacinta was brand new and the pride of Fleetwood never mind Marr’s. She had all the latest technology including satellite navigation and fish finding systems. He gave me a guided tour of the ship from the accommodation to the bridge to the engine room showing me the fire hoses and extinguishers along the way. After about half an hour he said he had another appointment, he told me to go home and ‘phone him tomorrow, he told me to feel free to walk round any of the company’s ships and if anybody asks, just tell them Billy Finn said it’ O. K. Then he was gone. That was the “fire and safety course” done with, I was no wiser. I didn’t even know how to use a fire extinguisher and he never bothered to show me.
I explored Jacinta for an hour or so, there was nobody about and I can remember standing on the bridge with my imagination running riot. From the bridge, I could see the Dinas, another of Marr’s ships which had recently been in the news. From what I remember, there had been a fire on board. It had been started deliberately just after the ship had sailed in an attempt to get the ship to return to port. I don’t remember the details but the fire got out of hand and there were fatalities. I think there were two men convicted and jailed. They were not from Fleetwood but the men who died were. I can remember the talk in the cafe was that when they were released, they were dead men.
The Dinas was on the slip and had just been re-fitted after the fire. I walked across and up the gangway. It was very busy, and as I stepped onto the deck a man asked who I was. I said “Billy Finn said it’s O.K.” He replied “That bastard?” “Who are you anyway”. I told him I was shipping out as an engine room rating and he started to laugh. He said “Your best bet is to fuck off home and don’t come back”. He told me that as a “greaser” I would be the lowest rating on the ship and treated as such. Maybe I should have took his advice but I had come this far and I wasn’t going to be put off.
I went back to the cafe and met the other lads and we made our way home. Next day I ‘phoned Mr Finn. He said “I’ve got a berth for you in the Josena”. (Nobody ever sailed on a trawler you sailed in). She was sailing on Friday morning for the Icelandic fishing grounds. He said I should report to the pool office at 9 o’clock on Friday morning. I went in the Bird in Hand that evening and told the three lads that I was shipping out. They all said I was mad, they were probably right
The Josena was a side trawler or “sidewinder”, about 350 tons. She was about 25 years old, most of that time spent fishing the Icelandic grounds. It was October and the winter was about to set in. I knew the job was dangerous in the winter but at the time I didn’t realise just how dangerous. I didn’t know at the time, but the north cape of Iceland is the most dangerous fishing ground in the world. I learned years later that just three years before, there were two ships lost from Hull, one from Grimsby, and one from Fleetwood, all within one month, January 1968. This was exceptional, but it was the sort of thing that could happen and did happen. A lot of good men lost their lives. Being a deck hand on a deep sea trawler was probably the most dangerous job in the world. Statistically, it was twenty times more dangerous than the next most dangerous job, which was coal mining, and a hundred times more dangerous than working on a building site. I knew none of this at the time, but I doubt that it would have changed my mind.
On Thursday I packed my bag and set of for Fleetwood. This was it! I was going to sea. I arrived in the afternoon and went straight to Marr’s office. I told the receptionist I was shipping in the Josena. She said I would have to find accommodation for the night. The cheapest place was the mission (the mission to deep sea fishermen) it was across the road on Dock Street. I went in and asked for a room for the night. I was shown to my room where I left my bag and made my way back to the reception area. There was a cafe and I sat down with a cup of tea. Straight away an old man sat next to me and said “get us a cup of tea lad”. I gladly bought him a cup of tea then he asked for a cigarette. It was obvious that he was a retired fisherman, he told me he was at sea for forty years. I couldn’t help but think he didn’t have much to show for it, living in the seaman’ s mission, and bumming cups of tea and smokes. I noticed that he had two fingers missing from his left hand. I told him I was sailing in the Josena next day and he replied, “Give us a fag”.
It was early evening, too early to go to bed so I went for a walk. I walked past the Fleetwood arms and remembering what I had seen the other day I was a bit nervous of going in. I found the courage and went in for a pint. It was only 7 o’clock but the place was packed. I sat down with my pint in a quiet corner. There were about six men at the next table, they were all well pissed and I couldn’t help but listen to the conversation. It went something like; “He’s a dirty no good stormy bastard. I hope all his bets go down. He only backs donkeys anyway. The bastard!” they were all in agreement with this and it was obvious they were talking about their skipper. It was also obvious that he wasn’t around to hear them.
I finished my pint and walked over to the docks. The Josena was in Wyre dock ready for sailing next day. There were two other ships tied up next to her and it was dark so I couldn’t go aboard. I made my way back to the mission. I didn’t get much sleep partly due to excitement and apprehension, and also because every hour or so somebody opened the door and shone a torch into the room presumably to make sure I was alone. I got up at about 6 o’clock, had a quick cup of tea and left. I made my way to the docks. The fish dock was very busy and Wyre dock was full of ships ready to sail. There was another small quay where the inshore boats docked. I hung around here for a while watching the small boats unloading. Soon it was daylight. I made my way to Marr’s office. The receptionist told me to report to the pool office, so off I went.
The pool office was the office of the Fleetwood Fishing Vessel Owners Association, and this was where you signed on your ship. It was just by the docks where the Europort shopping centre is now. It was very different in those days. The whole dock area was very busy, particularly the area around the pool office. It was about 9 o’ clock in the morning when I arrived. I stood outside for a while and had a smoke, building up courage to go in. Just across the road there was a gang of about ten men standing in a sort of circle. They were passing a whisky bottle around and they were all well pissed. I noticed that one of them was “Mattie” who had been unceremoniously dragged from the Fleetwood arms a few days before. His face was still bruised. They were all arguing among themselves, and trouble seemed to be brewing.
I finished my smoke, took a deep breath, and went into the pool office. I went up to the desk and said I was in the Josena. The man behind the desk looked at me suspiciously as if to say, “I don’t know you”. He asked my name and when I told him he looked at his list, laughed and said, “Sign here then”. Have you ever heard the saying “Sign your life away”? Well that’s just how it felt. I signed with a very unsteady hand.
After I’d signed he seemed to acknowledge that I was now a trawler man. He said, “You will need a bed”. Seeing that I didn’t understand, he gave me a slip of paper and said “Take this to the stores and ask for a bed”. I honestly thought he was taking the piss. This was after all, a time- honoured tradition in the engineering trade if you were a newcomer. I thought I would go along with it. I took the slip and walked round to the stores. The man behind the counter was elderly and I noticed that he had no fingers on his left hand, only stumps. He was holding a roll up between two stumps. I gave him the slip and said, “I want a bed” expecting him to laugh and say “The joke’s on you”. Instead, he walked to the back of the stores, was gone for a few minutes, then, he came back with a mattress, a blanket, and a pillow. He rolled them all up expertly and tied them up in a bundle with a piece of string.
I said that I thought the ship would provide a bed. He said, “If you don’t want to sleep on a wooden board, you will need these”. He wasn’t joking! He said, “You will need a jumper and some woollen socks” I said, “I’m working in the engine room”. He answered, insistently, “You will need a jumper and some woollen socks”. By now I believed him. He made out my bill. “1 Mattress, 1 Blanket, 1 Pillow, 1 Jumper, 2 pairs Socks, 200 Park Drive”, payment to be deducted at the end of trip. I still have it.
I made my way back to the pool office. I went in, and not knowing what to do I sat down and had a smoke. After a while the man who had signed me on said ” It’s time you were getting to your ship lad”. Seeing that I wasn’t sure what to do, he said, “Those lads outside are your shipmates they will take care of you”. He meant the crowd who were standing around getting pissed and arguing. I went outside and they were still there, and still arguing and by now well pissed. Inevitably, a fight broke out and it seemed they were all fighting each other.
So these were my shipmates, I was starting to have serious doubts. I was thinking “I’ll go back and tell them it was a mistake, I don’t really want to do this”. But I’ve already signed on! As I was thinking this a taxi pulled up and a man got out and went into the pool office. After a minute he came out. He said to me, “are you in the Josena?” ” Err! I suppose so” “Get in the car I’ll give you a lift”. He was the chief engineer and they must have told him that I was his new “greaser”. The taxi took us down to Wyre dock. There were two ships tied up abreast of Josena, and we had to scramble across the decks to reach her.
When we got aboard he said “the greaser’s cabin is port side aft”. “Eh?” “on the left at the back” I found the cabin and went in. There were two wooden bunks, two small cupboards and a wooden bench. I was unpacking my gear when a man staggered in and introduced himself as “Manxie” He was from the Isle of Man. He smelled of whisky but he was friendly enough. He was the other greaser, and he said he had been in the ship for two years. This entitled him to the bottom bunk. I made my bed up in the top bunk.
The chief came in and said we were needed for taking oil. There was a truck on the quay with drums of oil. Six of them were ours. We had to carry them across the decks of the two other ships, then down a ladder to the engine room. By now, other people were coming aboard and things were starting to get busy. Before I new it we were ready to sail. I went back to the cabin and Manxie was fast asleep in the bottom bunk, it was obvious I had the first watch! I went down to the engine room and met the second engineer for the first time. He smelled of whisky. Was I the only one sober? It was still only midday.
The engine room telegraph rang “start engines”. All I could do was watch as he started the main engine. Another bell, “Slow ahead” we were moving. After a few minutes he said to me “go and wave ’em off.” I didn’t understand but I went up on deck to find all hands at the port side. As we sailed out of the river Wyre and past the Fleetwood sea front, there was a crowd of people on the promenade, mostly women and kids, waving and shouting. I realised these were the families of the men not just of the Josena, but also the other ships that were sailing on the tide. This really moved me. It brought it home that there could be dangerous times ahead. I didn’t know anyone but I waved anyway along with every body else.
There were five ships sailing on the tide, we made our way in procession down the channel and past the “Tigers tail” sandbank and into the Irish sea. The engine room watches were six hours. Six on six off, I had the 12 to 6. This meant that I had the cabin to myself when I was off duty, as Manxie was then on watch. I had the first watch. The second engineer showed me round the engine room and told me what I would be doing, then he said “Watch the job I’m going for a piss”. He left me in the engine room on my own for about half an hour. If anything had gone wrong I wouldn’t have had a clue. He returned smelling even more strongly of whisky.
Six o’clock came and I was relieved by Manxie. I had a wash and changed. By now I was feeling hungry. I went in the mess room looking for something to eat. The table was full of food, sandwiches, pies, cakes. Some of the deckies were cooking bacon on the galley stove. I thought to myself that a ship this size would carry a cook but it looked like every man for himself. I helped myself to some sandwiches.
It was time I had a look around, I went out on deck. It was dark, but I could see lights on the coastline and the navigation lights of the other ships. I stayed on deck for a while then I went up to the bridge. There were two men on the bridge, the mate and the bosun. I asked if it was o.k. to come up. The mate said “First trip”. It wasn’t a question it was a statement. He showed me round the bridge and explained the navigation equipment. The bosun was steering. He asked if I would like to try. Not half! He showed me the compass and the rudder indicator. The heading was North, and you had to try and keep the rudder at zero degrees. He watched me struggle for about 15 minutes, then he said “Looks like you’ve got the hang of it, I’m just going for a smoke”. I looked round and I was on my own, I was literally in charge of the ship, it felt good.
After a few minutes the bosun took over again, it was time I turned in. I was back on watch at midnight. I lay on my bunk but didn’t sleep much. The excitement was too much, my first day at sea and I had been left in charge of the engine room and steered the ship northwards. Not a bad start!
On the second day out I came off watch at six in the morning, and there was a smell of bacon being cooked. I went into the mess room and everybody was having breakfast. I went up to the serving hatch and was served with a huge full breakfast by the cook. Everybody was having a go at him. They were all shouting “You drunken bastard” ” It’s about time you turned to”. Apparently, he had come aboard well pissed, and had stayed in his cabin for two days recovering. He had got away with it because everybody knew him (except me), and he was a good cook.
The most important man on a trawler is not the skipper as you may think, it is the cook. Once the fishing starts, there are very few pleasures to be had. You can enjoy a quiet smoke if you can find the time, but meal times are the highlight of the day. After working 18 hours on deck or 12 hours in the engine room, you look forward to a good meal. On a deep sea trawler, you are not disappointed. The food and the cooking were excellent in the Josena. The menus were basic but the food was plentiful and always expertly cooked. Trawler cooks are a special breed. Their workplace is a galley about half the size of a domestic kitchen. From this they magically produce three meals a day for twenty hungry and demanding men, sometimes in the worst conditions imaginable. In bad weather the ship will be thrown about but there is always a hot meal on the table.
The radio officer or “sparks” was from Manchester, and about my age (I was 21). It was his first trip in a trawler. He said he had been in the merchant navy for three years and had been doing six month trips on tankers. He had just got married and wanted to be at home more often. The average trip on a deep sea trawler was about three weeks, with three days off in between. He was here because the trips were shorter and he would at least see his wife every three weeks. The second day of the trip was a Saturday. At tea time we were in the mess room enjoying a meal, when the skipper came in and said to the sparks “What’s this about you having a bath?” He replied “I always have a bath on Saturday”. The old man was furious and went into a rage “In this ship you can have a bath on docking day, if there’s enough fresh water left, and not before” He gave him a right bollocking for using fresh water which is precious in a small ship.
After three days steaming north, we arrived at the Icelandic fishing grounds. I noticed that the days were getting shorter, and by now there was very little daylight. There was a couple of hour’s twilight around midday but the rest of the time it was dark. Now the real work starts. All the deckies turn to on deck and the gear is made ready for trawling. The trawl consists of the net including the “cod end”, steel “bobbins” to guide it over the sea bottom, and two trawl doors of wood and iron. Altogether it weighs about 2 tons.
The ship gets into a routine. The gear is “shot away”, it is down for maybe 2 or 3 hours then it is hauled in. The catch will be in the “cod end”. This is emptied into the fish pound. Then the gear is shot again. The fish then have to be sorted and gutted and stored below in the fish room. By the time this is done, it is hauling time again and the routine starts again. This goes on non- stop day and night for about 14 days, despite the worse weather conditions. Temperatures of minus 20 would be normal, and sometimes as low as minus 40. .
The deckhand’s working day now consists of 18 hours on deck. During his 6 hours off, he has to take his meals, so there isn’t much time for sleeping. An 18-hour shift on an open deck in freezing temperatures, heavy seas and sometimes gale force winds, operating heavy machinery, gutting fish with a sharp knife, and most of the time in darkness, makes this one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. I soon learned that these men deserved the greatest respect.
Unfortunately, they were never shown this respect by their employers. They were treated as casual labour, when the trip was over you were unemployed till you signed on again. If you had a trip off in the summer there was no holiday pay. There was no such thing as job security, some of them had been working for Marr’s for twenty years but they were still only “casuals”. If the skipper wasn’t happy with you, for any reason, you would be sacked at the end of the trip. If you caused any kind of trouble you could be “spragged”. (effectively, blacklisted) This meant you would not get a job anywhere in the port, not just at sea, the trawler owners ran all of the shore-side services as well. When the fishing industry finally declined in the late 70’s, there were several reasons for this but the main reason was the greed of the trawler owners. Their main concern was profit not conservation. When the fish stocks started to decline and trawlers were being laid up, and men were being laid off, the owners were paid generous decommissioning grants from the government, but there were no redundancy payments. When the trawler men asked for redundancy pay they were told they weren’t entitled. They were only “casual labour”. The way they were treated was deplorable and disgraceful.
The engine room watches also settled into the routine. At shooting time the order was “Deck lights on”, “start winch engine”. The winch engine was almost as big as the main engine, it drove the trawl winch, which shot and hauled the gear. In extremely cold temperatures the winch engine would be left running all the time the trawl was down. The winch would be kept turning to prevent it freezing up. While the trawl was down, the main engine would be at half speed. If the trawl became fast on an obstacle the order would be stop or even full astern. You had to be quick off the mark. If the trawl became fast it put a tremendous strain on the warps, (3 inch steel wires) which dragged the gear. If the warps parted, the backlash would mean serious injury to any one in the vicinity. It could even cut a man in half. If the telegraph rang “stop” during trawling, you had to be quick to stop the main engine! I watched the second engineer do this several times. Then it was a matter of whoever got to the controls first.
Most of the time the engine room watches were routine. At hauling time the second engineer would send me to see what the catch was. At first I had to ask the deckies but I soon learned how to estimate it. I would tell him “Five baskets of cod, some halibut some coaly”, he would answer “brilliant”. Another time I would give him the same estimate and he would answer, “Is that all? Lazy bastards I’d have the fuckin’ lot sacked”. It was also part of my duty to make the tea. During the night, when the cook was off duty there were always two big kettles of boiling water on the galley stove, so you could brew up at any time. I went up to the galley one time to make a brew and I can remember looking out of the port hole, it was very calm, the sea was like glass, the ship was very quiet which was most unusual. What I saw was a huge cloud in the sky, shaped like a horseshoe but it was pitch dark. This cloud though, was glowing, it was a deep red colour, then as I watched, it turned to bright yellow. It was reflecting on the sea and I just watched in amazement not knowing what it was.
By the time I went back with the tea it was cold and I got a bollocking. I said excitedly (and naively) “There’s a really strange looking cloud out there and I’ve been watching it change colour”. He burst out laughing. ” You silly bastard that’s the northern lights, you’ll get used to it up here”.
I remember another time going to make a brew during the night. This time the ship was pitching and being thrown about all over the ocean. One of the deckies told me it was blowing force 8, which is gale force, but the ship was working normally. The two kettles on the galley stove were held down with clamps but you still had to be careful. I took the clamp off one kettle, filled my teapot, re-filled the kettle and replaced the clamp. I had just stepped over the coaming and into the alleyway when the ship gave a mighty lurch, it was as though we had hit a brick wall. The two kettles were torn from their clamps and thrown across the galley into the bulkhead. A few seconds earlier and I would have been badly scalded. Or knocked out by a heavy steel kettle! Even making a brew can be dangerous in a deep- sea trawler.
After every second watch, I had to do about an hour’s work on deck. All the machinery and bollards had to be greased, and any repairs done. This had to be done every day. You had to grease the winch and bollards while the trawl was down. This meant working close to the warps. While the trawl was down the warps were as taut as steel bars. It was scary to put it mildly! The trawl was lowered and guided over the side by two “gallas” one for’d one aft. They both had bollards that had to be greased.
The after one was easy enough it could be reached just about from the deck. The for’d one was about 15 feet high so you had to climb up to grease the top bollard. It also overhung the side by about ten degrees, so when you climbed up you were about 15 feet above the deck and hanging over the side. You needed two hands to operate the grease gun, so you hung on as best you could. If it was extremely cold (which it was most of the time) you had to chip the ice off the grease nipples before you could attach the grease gun. In bad weather I would borrow an oilskin from an off duty deckie, but with the hood up you couldn’t see what you were doing so you got soaked with freezing spray. You couldn’t get away with not greasing the for’d gallas because the mate would be watching to make sure it was done properly.
I was always relieved when this was done and I could have a brew and get warm. I remembered the store-man with the stumps and thanked him many a time for my woolly jumper and socks. After being on deck for an hour or so your hands and feet were that cold that it hurt. Just imagine what it was like being out there for 18 hours a day, every day for a fortnight. That was the deck hand’s lot. They were hard men!
After we had been at sea for about a week, there was excitement in the mess room at tea-time. The next day was Sunday and they were all looking forward to having “drams”. I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but next day when I went in for Sunday dinner the mess room was empty. The cook was surprised to see me. He said, “aren’t you having your drams?” He could see I didn’t know what was going on, he said “get your arse up to the skipper’s cabin and get your drams”. I made my way down the alleyway towards the stairs that went up to the skipper’s cabin. There was a queue all the way up the stairs and down the alleyway. The atmosphere was jolly and everybody was cheerful. The queue gradually shortened and soon it was my turn even though I was last. I went into the skipper’s cabin, he was sat at his desk with a bottle of rum, a bottle of whiskey, and one glass. He looked at me as if to say “which one?” I said “whiskey”. He poured out a full glass of whiskey and handed it to me. I struggled to drink it but I finished it and he burst out laughing and said “come on, let’s get some dinner”. I couldn’t help thinking that I was the last to drink out of the glass after the rest of the crew. I also learned later that your drams were deducted from your pay.
After about a fortnight of trawling I went up on deck at hauling time to estimate the catch. After the cod end was emptied, the skipper came out onto the bridge wing and shouted “Right you shower of bastards, stow the gear we’re going home.” There were comments of “thank fuck for that”, and the ship was immediately turned south and heading home at full speed, (about 12 knots, trawlers were designed for work not for speed). Even so, there was a tangible feeling of relief throughout the ship.
The work is far from over for the deckhands, but it gets easier now and in three days we’ll be home! In the engine room, the hard work is just beginning, as I soon found out.
All the machinery in the engine room has been running non- stop for 17 days. Now the big clean up starts. There are accumulated oil leaks, fuel leaks , exhaust leaks, etc. The engine room has to be cleaned from top to bottom and we have 3 days to do it. Luckily, the weather isn’t too bad. All the deckheads and bulkheads have to be washed down with hot soapy water. Then the machinery; main engine, winch engine, generators, pumps, compressors, boiler, etc. have to be washed down while they are running. It’s hard, hot, and sweaty work. I can remember coming off watch on the way home and going out on deck to cool down. The sea was very calm and it was still very cold. The sky was crystal clear and there was a stunning display of northern lights. This time it was like very powerful silver searchlight beams just rolling lazily across the sky and eerily quiet. As we steamed south, the days were getting noticeably longer, it was nice to see daylight again even if it was still very cold. At the start of the third day, we could see land on both sides. Scotland on the port side , and Northern Ireland on the starboard. There was now an air of excitement on board. This was docking day. In a few hours, we’d be home! We arrived off Fleetwood early evening and having just missed the tide, we had to anchor. Most of the work is done now, the last job in the engine room is to polish all the copper pipes and brass fittings. This was a real pleasure, and when it was done the engine room was gleaming. Time for a bath! (the first in three weeks) There was only one bath in the Crewe’s washroom and as usual I was the last to use it. Freshly bathed and shaved I took a walk on deck feeling pleased with myself. I had done my first trip to sea and done it the hard way in a deep – sea trawler. I could see the lights of the Lancashire coastline. Blackpool illuminations were on and they looked very impressive from four miles out at sea.
I lay on my bunk for a while but couldn’t sleep. In a very short while there was activity on deck and I realised the anchor was being hauled. We were ready for docking! Manxie had the watch so I went on deck and had a smoke and watched while the ship made her way to the lock leading to Wyre dock. We came through the lock and straight through Wyre dock into the fish dock. In no time we were tied up alongside the quay
It was early morning. Most of the crew who lived locally went home. Three of us stayed on board. My-self, the sparks, and an elderly deckie named Pete who was a Geordie. We had a brew, while the “lumpers” started to unload the fish and get it ready for the market. It would be midday before we got paid off so there were a few hours to kill. As I was packing my grip, Pete came into the cabin and told me to take my bed to the mission. If I left it on the ship it would get pinched. You could store it at the mission for the time you were in port for five bob.
The three of us set off down the quay with beds rolled up over our shoulders and carrying grips. It was very busy with ships being unloaded. The quay was very slippery, it was wet and icy and it sloped down to the dock. Pete looked terrified. He held on to my arm till we were safely off the dock. This was a man who I knew had spent the last thirty years dodging on the deck in arctic gales and freezing temperatures for 18 hours a day! He just couldn’t handle being ashore!
We stowed our beds in the mission and set off for the cafe. As we walked past the pool office it was just opening. Pete told us he would see us in the cafe and went in to the pool office. Half an hour later the sparks and me were having a brew when Pete came in and told us he had signed on one of Wyre’s ships sailing on the next tide. This meant he would have about eight hours ashore then he was off to Iceland again! When we asked him why, he replied “at least I get fed at sea”. I realised it was the only life he knew and all he had. I felt desperately sorry for him.
We stayed in the cafe for a couple of hours having a brew and a “yarn”. Pete knew everyone and everyone knew him. At about 11 o clock we made our way to Marr’s office. Most of Josena’s crew were gathered outside. It was pay off time! As usual, I was last in the queue. As every man drew his wages, the next stop, without exception was the Fleetwood Arms, which was just across the road. After a couple of pints the mate came in and told us to get your “swinger”. Apparently, every crew member was entitled to a basket of fish from the catch. We walked across to the dock and collected our fish. As we walked back to the pub there was a man with a white van parked on Dock Street. Pete went over to him and handed him his basket of fish. The man gave him half a bottle of cheap whiskey. There was five prime hake in the basket worth a lot more than he had paid him. I said “the bastards ripped you off”. Pete didn’t seem bothered. The man with the van did! He could see I was annoyed to say the least! He jumped in his van and drove off just in time. With me and the sparks running after him and shouting abuse at him.
Back to the pub! The end of trip piss up! What a great afternoon and a great feeling! Having a drink with your shipmates after a dangerous trip to Iceland. After a couple of hours drinking the arguments started. Trouble was brewing and it was time to go. It seemed to be more dangerous in the Fleetwood Arms than the north cape of Iceland. The sparks and me set off. We caught the tram to Blackpool and then the train to Manchester. We were heading home on the train. The heating was on and it was lovely and warm. We had stowed our baskets of fish under the seat. As the fish thawed out it began to smell! Soon there was water all over the floor and a strong smell of fish. The carriage was crowded with commuters now and they were not impressed with two half drunk trawler men and their stinking fish. We didn’t care. We had earned our fish and we were going to get it home!
We arrived at Victoria station (it was Friday evening), and arranged to meet in the bar on Sunday evening, as we were sailing on Monday morning. I got a taxi home and later on, went into the Bird in Hand. The usual crowd were in including the three lads who had come to Fleetwood three weeks earlier (and gone straight home again!) They asked how it was. I said it was o.k. I was sailing again on Monday morning. They couldn’t believe I was going back. They all thought I would do one trip and be glad to get home and never go near a ship again. I told them I couldn’t wait to get back, they all said I was mad.
The weekend passed and on Sunday evening I went to Victoria station and met the sparks in the bar. We had a few pints while we waited for the train to Blackpool. We arrived in Blackpool in time to get the last hour in the pub, which was quiet as it was now the end of October and well out of season. We got the last tram to Fleetwood, and went to the mission and got a couple of rooms. In the morning, we had a brew, the sparks had to go to Marr’s office and I went to the pool office to sign on. As I came out after signing on, most of Josena’s crew were standing on the opposite corner passing a bottle round and arguing. One of the deckies spotted me and shouted “look who it is, we didn’t expect to see you again you Manchester bastard”. I said “I’ve signed on”, he replied “well in that case you had better come and have a drink”. I walked across and the bottle was handed to me. I was now a trawler man.
That meant I could drink whiskey at 9 o’clock in the morning and have a yarn. “What about that Billy Finn? Dirty no good bastard! I hope all his bets go down. The bastard only backs donkeys!” There was agreement all round on this and growls of approval. “What about Pete the Geordie? paid off on Friday morning and shipped out on Friday night in the Wyre Gleaner” Replies of ,”He’s fucking crazy”. We stood around for an hour or so then the skipper arrived in a taxi. He went into the pool office and when he came out he just looked in our direction and pointed to Wyre dock. That was enough. It was time to go!
We walked down to Wyre dock and went aboard. Manxie was already aboard and I gave him a hand with the oil. Six drums to take down below . As we were doing this, a taxi pulled up on the quay. The driver got out and walked round to the passenger side. He opened the passenger door and I recognised our cook in the passenger seat fast asleep. The taxi driver tried to wake him and half carried him out of the taxi. He helped him aboard and seen him to his cabin then he came back for his bag. He had obviously done this many times before. Cookie was well pissed and we wouldn’t see him for two days.
Sailing time and I had the watch. The telegraph rang “start engine” and the second engineer looked at me and gestured to the controls. I was going to take the ship out! I was a little apprehensive but I’d had a couple of whiskeys and I was keen to try. I started the main engine. No problem. Slow ahead, easy! After about 15 minutes he said “I’m going to wave ’em off” He left me alone in charge of the engine room again but now I had a good idea what to do. I soon got the order “full ahead” and then “full away” We were off to Iceland once more!