A Near Miss

Story Courtesy of Les Howard

I’m going to tell you a short story of one trip when we were on our way home from the Icelandic grounds in the SSAFA.

The fish room was more or less full and we’d been on deck well over 18 hours. The weather was getting really bad as we made our last haul. When the skipper called down “lash the gear down, we’re going home”, it was the best feeling ever. Any fishermen who reads this will know what I mean.

We got rid of the last lot of fish in smart time, battened down the fish room hatch and tightened up the doors on the warps. I had the watch and it would be just another four hours before I could grab a shower. After two weeks of living in the same gear that was all I could think about during my watch.

By the end of my four hour trick the weather was really lousy. It was running a good force 9 and breaking just over the starboard quarter and we were really banging into it. It’s funny but you don’t seem to talk much those first few hours homeward bound, you just seem to think of how much you’re going to make or about your wife or girl friend, whichever it might be.

My relief, George Bissett, turned up and I handed him the wheel, gave him the course and headed for the shower that I wanted so badly. After a good scrub down I turned in. I don’t think I had been in my bunk for more than a few minutes when we took one almighty sea that knocked us down onto our port beam. The first thought that came into my head was to head for the bridge and the RFD.

By the time that I got to the alleyway the greaser had panicked and was trying to unclip the watertight door that was dogged, shouting that she was going down. The first thing that I did was to jump on him and try to wrestle him into the messroom. If he had opened the door she would have flooded and probably gone down. One of the crew joined me and we kept him away from the door.

By this time we were well onto our port side with no lights on so I went for the bridge where I found the mate, Stan Birch, trying to get the wheel over to starboard so as to bring her head to wind. George Bissett, who had relieved me at the wheel, was out cold in the corner of the bridge after having been washed out of the wheelhouse and the mate’s face was covered in blood from flying glass. The starboard quarter of the wheelhouse had been caved in by the sea which had taken all the windows out in one explosive blast.

The skipper was shouting to get the injured man out but the force of the hit had jammed the wheelhouse door so I started to chop it open with an axe. By the time I managed to get the door open the ship had started to heave herself upright and that was a huge relief. Were it not for the mate’s prompt action with the wheel none of us would be alive today.

By the time he had steadied her up the wind was really howling through the exposed wheelhouse and it was freezing cold as more of the crew appeared on the bridge with the exception of the engineer who had never once left the controls during the crisis.

With things improving a little the skipper began sending out a radio message for help as we tried to get the bridge sheltered with a tarpaulin, making it as secure as we could to keep out the wind and the sea, working as best as we could in the total darkness. By the time we had secured the tarpaulin the skipper had contacted Armana who was a couple of miles ahead of us. She turned back and escorted us into Reykjavic.

It wasn’t until things began to calm down a little that the realisation of how close we had come really hit home and we realised just how lucky we had been. Everybody was talking at once and laughing at things that weren’t really funny as we worked the built up adrenaline out of ourselves.

We made it into Reykjavic and made our heartfelt thanks known to the Armana who had stood by us. In the daylight we could see the damage that the sea had done, even the starboard rail had been buckled inboard. There was even a film crew there to film the damage. We were patched up and on our way home within 24 hours. Luckily the weather had started to break and the journey wasn’t a bad one. It was just as well because we still had to get the fish home or there would be no pay for us that trip.