Story by Jim Porter
It’s 04:00 on a stormy summer’s morning and I’m 12 years old and clinging desperately to what vestiges of sleep remain to me.
A hand is roughly shaking my shoulder, “Get up”, I hear a distant voice say, “it’s tide time”.
Realisation penetrates my fogged brain. It’s today. The BIG ADVENTURE. At last I get to make my first trip aboard a trawler.
This is my second attempt. The first was seven years ago and I was 5. My uncle, Peter, was travelling to Hull with a crew to pick up a trawler and had been kidding me for days that I could go with him. I took his comments to heart, as you do at 5 years old. As he slipped out of the house, at six-thirty in the morning, I nipped downstairs and packed a little cardboard suitcase with a jar of jam, a few slices of bread and my pyjamas and followed him down Station Road to Wyre Dock station.
The other crew members thought it was hilarious as an embarrassed Peter tried his best to explain that he had only been kidding. Luckily for him Dad was hot on my trail and dragged me back home.
Shuffling into the kitchen I help myself to toast. Mother is in her dressing gown, sitting in the living room looking worried.
A knock comes to the door it is Mac, the taxi driver who live in the next street to us.
Picking up my bag with wellies, warm clothing, a few comics and a jar of sweets in it we head for the door. Dad ruffles my hair, “Have a good trip”, he says. Mother gives me a hug and shoots Peter a look that says, “You’d better look after him”, and we climb into the black cab that sits clattering away on the front.
The sky is low and dark with thick clouds driving across the sky, impelled by the wind that’s whistling around the chimney pots and generating little whirlpools of rubbish as it sweeps the streets and buffets the cab. At long last we move off and I feel very grown up and important to be in a taxi and going off to sea. The transport policeman at the dock gates (who has chased me down the Jubilee Quay on more than one occasion) waves a casual hand to us and we are on the dock.
Two trawlers are hauled up on the Jubilee slips waiting for maintenance, when the army of shore workers eventually drag themselves out of bed, and the armada of inshore boats are tied up alongside the wooden jetty. They won’t venture out in this weather.
We are at the swing bridge over the lockpits and I look down at the murky water sweeping underneath as the tide starts to ebb and draws the filthy water from the dock. Out on the river there is a fair sized chop building up as the wind tries to hold the flow of the water back.
Then I see our ship. Boston Canberra lies alongside in Wyre Dock, astern of two more trawlers and under the coal flyers that carry coal from the dockside dumps, over the road, and into the waiting bunkers of the coal fired trawlers. She’s dirty, streaked with rust and is the best trawler in the world as she snubs restlessly at her headline, the backwash of another trawler steaming slowly past to enter the lockpits is disturbing her.
A gaggle of taxis is discharging crewmen in various stages of inebriation, despite the early hour. All are well dressed in the trawlerman’s uniform of Burton’s suit over a white shirt and with a black, oilskin kitbag over their shoulders.
The carrying straps for the bags are made from sisal or manila twine decorated with fancy knot work. Flat and square sennets and turks heads, the trawlerman’s signature, all hand knotted by their owner.
Most are sober but some are definitely the worse for wear. They all climb aboard without mishap, hopping nimbly from dockside to fo’csle head, and vanish below to sleep off the excesses of the night.
Greetings are exchanged with shipmates that they haven’t seen since they left the last pub a few hours ago and in moments everyone had vanished below and the taxis have gone.
The skipper, Barney Rogerson, is on the bridge when we go up. He’s chatting to the ship’s runner, Rupert, rather unkindly known as Rupert The Red Nosed Runner. Peter introduces me and the skipper points to a door leading to a companionway at the rear of the bridge.
I’m bunking in the skipper’s berth because the fo’csle is full. “Stow your gear in my cabin”, he says, “You’ll be sleeping on the settee but you can use the bunk when I’m on watch”.
I struggle down the ladder with my gear into the dark, claustrophobic little box that will be my home for the next fortnight. It’s hot and stuffy and smells of a heady mixture of Old Friend, oranges, oilskins and stale fish, together with oiled wool sweaters and socks that long since would have benefited from a wash.
I’m not bothered, though, it’s a trawler, and it’s supposed to smell.
After stowing my gear I nip up to the bridge, “Get yourself down to the galley, orders Barney”, continuing his conversation with Peter, and Rupert, “and fetch us three pots of tea”. I find the galley and pour tea so strong that it is reluctant to flow from the large, iron pot on the galley range. A goodly glob of condensed milk is added to each cup and I take the opportunity to cut a doorstep off a nearby loaf and spread it with a generous coating of the thick, sweet, sticky milk. I love connie butties.
Getting out of the galley is one thing but climbing the engine room casing with 3 mugs of tea is another matter. I leave one on the deck and go back for it when the others are on top. Once safely on the bridge the skipper laces each cup with a generous tot of dark, aromatic rum and all three fall quiet as they sip the hot liquid.
It’s not the first time that I’ve been aboard a trawler but I take the opportunity to have a nose about. To starboard is the brass engine room telegraph, well polished and gleaming. Its black face wearing white legends such as ‘finished with engines’, ‘full ahead’, ‘dead slow’, and ‘stand by’.
The skipper calls over to me, “while you’re over there, he says, ring her on to standby, can you do that”? I stare blankly at him for a moment then grab the shiny lever before he can change his mind and cautiously swing it round to standby. “Not like that”, he says, “swing it back and then round again, that way the chief will have a chance to hear it”. I later find out just how noisy it is in the engine room. I do as he says and watch in fascination as the pointer in the middle of the dial mimics my actions with a jingling of bells as the chief answers the telegraph.
Rupert swigs his tea back and accepts a glass of neat rum. This follows the tea in quick succession, “Right”, he says, “I’m off, have a good trip skipper”, As he leaves the bridge the mate comes in. and reports all the crew aboard. They seem to make all trawler men from the same mould, stocky with weather-beaten faces and bowed legs. “All ok”? Says the skipper, “Right then, we’ll be away”.
The mate vanishes. “Come on”, calls Peter over his shoulder as he follows the mate out, “you stay on the casing and you can watch but keep out of the way”. The mate has gone forward and is on the forecastle with one of the deckies. He has already singled up all the moorings so that only one forward and one aft holds us back. We wait.
“Leggo forward”, comes a muffled shout from the bridge, followed by an equally muffled jangling of the telegraph as the engine is rung on.
I watch expectantly but Peter does nothing. As I lean over the casing rail I can see the dockyard matey throw the headline aboard and there is only one rope holding us fast by the stern. The steering chains rattle along their grooves in the casing as the helm is put over.
Water begins to boil under our stern but still the line is not cast off. With a tortured creaking noise all slack comes out of the thick rope until it becomes bar tight, water squeezing from its compressed fibres. Still we wait. The starboard quarter grinds into the dock wall as, almost imperceptibly, the rearward motion stops and the bow starts to swing out as Canberra slowly pivots on her moorings.
Now the bow is clear of the two trawlers berthed ahead of us and the bridge door flies open, “Leggo aft”, shouts Barney. Peter eases the thick rope around the bitts until all of the tension has gone and the dockyard worker can cast the spliced eye off the iron bollard on the dockside.
Peter pulls it aboard and I nip down onto the deck. Together we drag the thick, wet rope into a deckhouse on the stern, containing a very discoloured apology for a toilet. “Don’t want that coming loose and fouling the screw”, Peter says. I nod sagely, I don’t want it either.
We slide towards the locks and a loud booming frightens the living daylights out of me as the skipper uses the steam whistle to signal the lock keeper to swing the road bridge back. At this time of morning there aren’t that many people about so we don’t inconvenience anybody as we slip through the narrow locks with, seemingly, inches to spare at either side.
Past the wooden jetty we go, past the hidden, sandy menace that is the seaward end of Kirk Scar, christened the Tiger’s Tail, a trap for many an unwary trawler skipper who has left his sailing a little too late on the ebbing tide.
“Stay here”, he says “I’m going get the log and we’ll get it over the side as soon as we clear Wyre Light”. I’m really puzzled now, thinking in terms of log books, why would he want to throw a book into the channel?
Out past Jubilee we go and we turn into the river proper. The wind is more evident out of the shelter of the dock and it begins to rain. Small boys and water have never mixed so I duck into the shelter of the lifeboat to wait for Peter.
He re-appears as we pass the RNLI lifeboat house, his arms full of mysterious apparatus including a spinner that looked like a huge version of the lures that I use when angling. This is the log. Not the log book but the patent log, a device to measure the distance the vessel has travelled. “Here”, he says, passing me loops of rope, “lay this out on the deck and make sure it’s not tangled”. Bursting with importance at being entrusted with such a great honour I flake the rope out with engineering precision. I’m a Sea Cadet, I can do this.
Peter clamps the fitting that holds the clock onto the stern. Taking the rope he clips it to the clock and then fastens the spinner onto the other end and starts to lower it over the stern. “Won’t the rope tangle the screw”; I ask worriedly, my inexperience booming like a foghorn.
“Not much chance of that”, he grunts, grinning at my ignorance. The large, phosphor-bronze blades churning the waters beneath our feet would soon make mincemeat of the thin rope. He lets my carefully flaked rope pay out through his calloused hands until it’s streamed astern and the wheel at the back of the clock is spinning merrily.
Job done and he’s off to turn in ready to stand his watch and I’m left to my own devices. Suddenly I realise that the boat isn’t steady. Instead it’s lifting and dropping and rolling from side to side. This sudden realisation generates a queasy feeling in my stomach and I start to sweat despite the cold wind that’s sweeping across the exposed deck.
I head for the comfort of the messroom. Big mistake. The mate is sitting there sipping a mug of tea. Wedged into the corner he is impervious to the motion of the boat which gets worse as we round Wyre Light and head into the wind.
He grins when he sees the delicate shade of green that paints my face. “Not feeling too good”? He says. The heat in the messroom coupled with the smell of hot oil wafting from the engine room is not helping one little bit. “What you need is a good long rasher of greasy bacon and a couple of runny fried eggs. That’ll set you up”.
It sets me up all right, the thought of greasy food starts me flying for the door and back out onto the deck where I lose my breakfast to the waiting gulls. The mate walks past, “Cheer up”, he smirks sadistically as I pull myself back over the rail and stand shivering and huddled in the lee of the lifeboat, “it’ll get much worse than this”.
There’s no sympathy to be found aboard a trawler.
I head for the bridge, I desperately want my bunk. Canberra is taking water across the foredeck now as she plugs into the south westerly wind, the bow rearing up then dropping off the crest with a loud thud.
The skipper has the watch, still in the clothes that he came aboard in, flat cap, oiled wool jersey and, weirdly, a well-worn pair of carpet slippers. A tickler is hanging from the corner of his mouth as he eases the wheel a spoke or two.
“Keep out of my bunk if you’re going below”, he remarks. He must be a mind reader; “I’m turning in myself shortly”. It’s the settee for me then.
A thought penetrates the misery of my seasick mind that all people seem to do is sleep aboard this ship. I learn why later.
Jamming myself on the settee in the hot, smelly cabin I begin to wonder just what I’ve let myself in for. An oily frock hanging on the bulkhead swings out and back with the motion of the boat. I watch fascinated, despite my sickness.
It’s an hour or two later and, bump, I must have dozed off and I’m thrown off the settee to land in a sprawling heap on the deck just as Barney enters the cabin to get his head down, “If you are going to do that again, he yawns, try and do it quietly I’m turning in”. No sympathy aboard a trawler.
He turns in, throwing his cap on the table and kicking off his slippers as he rolls into the bunk fully dressed. Not only has he not had a wash but he hasn’t cleaned his teeth either. This goes against all that has been ingrained into me. It’s not disagreeable, though, as I said, washing and small boys don’t mix. I later find out that the only washing that will be done is when we are heading home. Water is all around us and yet it is at a premium because we are restricted in how much we can carry in the fresh water tank.
I stagger up the companionway feeling distinctly unwell, I’m sure that someone has kicked me in the stomach. The mate has the watch and Canberra is still performing gymnastics over the waves.
“Still poorly”? he asks grinning. I could get to hate this man. The heat and smell of stale tobacco on the bridge gets to me and I make a dive for the door, “Not that one, the mate shouts after me you’ll……..”, too late, “…..get your own back”.
That’s the last time that I’m sick over the weather rail, I’m a quick learner, next time I use the lee side. By now I’ve got rid of what food I contain and am dry retching, a most painful process so I stagger back to the cabin and wedge myself in the corner of the settee wishing that I had never wanted to go to sea. Despite Barney’s snoring I fall into a fitful sleep.
The jingling of the telegraph and the rattling of the chains that run from the wheel to the rudder waken me. The ship’s motion has eased somewhat from a roller coaster ride to an easy wallow, I can handle this. The skipper’s bunk is empty so I climb the companionway to the bridge to find us anchoring in Church Bay, Rathlin.
The wheelhouse door and one of the windows are open, admitting a cooling breeze, refreshing after the usual fuggy stuffiness.
“See that buoy over there”, says Barney, pointing out of the window, “HMS Drake from the first World War, She was torpedoed and came in here and sank”.
Little did I know, at that time, that the Hewett trawler, Ella Hewett, would strike that very wreck and sink on top of it some years later. A small launch pulls alongside. Peter sticks his head in the wheelhouse, “Come on Sam, we’re off ashore” he said. For some reason that I never ever discover, he always refers to me as Sam.
Balls of twine, shackles and other bits and pieces are surreptitiously lowered into the boat, as trade items to be exchanged with the locals for alcohol. What seems to be the entire crew follow the items into the overcrowded launch, and we set off for the stone jetty jutting out from the shore.
Once there we enter a small building, used as a pub, and drinks are soon dispensed. Being nobbut a pup I ask for a glass of milk and great mirth is generated when the owner trots a nanny goat in and I’m told to help myself.
Eventually the goat is persuaded to give up her warm bounty and I find it to be musky but quite palatable despite the still delicate state of my stomach.
All too soon we are back at sea. In the skipper’s cabin the rattle of the steering chains still wake me but, at least, I seem to be getting my sea legs and my digestion is returning to normal.
Then, in the middle of the night, the telegraph wakes me. I stagger onto the bridge, rubbing my eyes, to see Barney presiding over a scene of chaos on deck. Canberra is wallowing beam on to the sea as men in yellow oilskins, glistening under the deck lights, get the trawl over the side. The winch is clattering and hissing steam and the large, iron shod otter doors are swung outboard to be secured to the gallows by their chain stoppers.
The full length of the footrope with its heavy bobbins follows the doors, as does the curiously named dan leno. Then the mate waves up from the foredeck and the skipper rings the engines on and Canberra gets under way as all the gear disappears under the dark surface, the winch paying out the thick warps as she goes.
Once two rope marks spliced into the warps are reached, the winch stops and the brakes are locked on. Peter is aft and he throws a strop around the two warps and runs it back to the whipping drum on the winch so that they can be drawn together. Once that is done, a heavy iron towing block is clamped around the warps and secured. Canberra is fishing.
The deck is deserted once more as everybody disappears. Now I know why everyone takes the opportunity to sleep whenever they can. A full a night in the bunk does not exist on a trawler.
Just before daylight we stop again and this time I’m on the bridge as soon as I hear the first jangling of the telegraph. Barney is there already, unshaven and tense as he peers out of the window. There is a lot riding on the catch, his job for one.
I scoot aft to watch Peter. He is waiting again; he seems to do a lot of that. A large hammer is in his hang and, at the shout of “Leggo” from the bridge; he swings it against the towing block.
Impelled by the pressure of the warps springing apart, the heavy iron block crashes back against the side with a force that would crush a man’s head. It doesn’t get Peter, though; he has jumped back out of the way.
The winch begins its asthmatic wheezing again and the bar tight warps crack and bang their way around the fairleads as they are wound back, dripping, onto the drums.
The doors come up and are hung onto their stoppers while the footrope is hoisted aboard and the heavy bobbins dropped behind the rail as calloused hands grip the net and, using the roll of the boat to aid them, pull the wet net inboard. Solid water comes over the rail as Canberra rolls in the heavy swell and the men are waist deep at times as they heave, illustrating the need for oilies and thigh boots much better than any advertisement can.
With the first light the gulls arrive. How they know that there is food around I will never know but they always appear as we haul. The net surges onto the surface, triggering a cacophony of screaming from the waiting birds as they try to grab the fish. Gannets shut their wings and dive after escapees. Barney is dancing up and down with rage at the antics of the birds. “Get that bloody bag aboard”, he screams from on high, “before they eat all the profit”.
The gilson heaves the bulging cod end aboard where it is caught by a preventer wire. It hangs there dripping and sheathed in protective cowhides as the mate stoops, reaches underneath, and looses the knot holding the bag shut.
He jumps quickly out of the way as the silver deluge cascades into the pounds and almost takes the feet out from under him. Cod, haddock, gurnett and huge, spindly crabs drop to the deck and then the crew start the business of shooting the trawl once more.
The cod end is returned to its watery element and the footrope is heaved over the side to disappear under the waves. Otter doors splash back as we begin to make headway. The warps are evened up, the towing block on and Canberra is towing again.
I’m called down onto the deck amongst the slippery, madly thrashing, silver prize. The transition from depth to surface has been too much for some fish and they have been unable to equalise the pressure. Their intestines bulge from their mouths. “Here”, one of the deckies calls, an eviscerated fish in one hand, “have a look at this, young’n”.
He expertly flicks a tiny crimson heart onto the edge of a deck pound and I watch fascinated as the minute organ continues to beat, “It’ll do that for about 15 minutes”, he remarks as he flicks the lifeless body into the washer, now running red with blood.
Peter joins in the carnage, passing me a Real Eye Witness. “Grab a fish and do like I’m doing”, he orders as he grips a haddock by its gills, slashes just behind his fingers and then opens a lengthways cut down to the anal opening. Slipping the tip of the knife in he separates the liver and flips it into a close-woven basket. “Keep these separate”, he says, they fetch good money for us.
The rest of the guts are flipped over the side where screaming gulls fight over the choice morsels.
Grabbing a fish as I have seen the others do I manage to cut my hand on a sharp fin. Sticking the injured part into my mouth I immediately spit it back out again to a chorus of laughter as I realise that my hand is covered in foul-tasting fish slime. “You’ll learn”, comes back a chuckled comment. No sympathy on a trawler.
Swallowing my injured pride and ignoring my injured hand I try again, this time with more success as my blood mingles with the fishes. Soon I am joining in the butchery with gusto as fish are gutted while still alive. The rest of the crew are doing five to my one but I’m trying.
The fish are all gone, gutted, washed and sent below into the fishroom. “Get down there and chip some ice”, I’m commanded. Climbing over the hatch coaming I descend into the hold. It’s dank, chilled and smelly and my (still delicate) stomach starts to do bellyflops once I lose sight of the horizon’s orientating influence.
All around are walls of ice. The mate is stowing the fish, head to tails on a bed of ice cracked from the walls. Once a layer is complete more ice is sprinkled over the corpses and boards slid into grooves over the top of them. Then the process starts with the next layer.
The mate gives me a, seemingly, huge shovel. “Sling some ice over here”, he commands. I give the ice an almighty whack with the shovel and the jarring spreads up my arm, into my neck and back down my arm, numbing it. Unfortunately it doesn’t numb my injured hand which feels as if someone has just stood on it. I drop the shovel in agony and dance around as the mate cracks up laughing. No sympathy on a Trawler.
I may be young but I learn quickly and take small pecks at the ice rather that almighty swings and soon can keep him supplied with enough ice to keep even his sarcastic comments at bay.
Dressed in relatively light clothing I’m soon frozen, so he sends me back onto the deck where the sparks grabs me and tells me to drag the basket of livers aft where he tips them into the boiler to render them down for the nutritious oil that my mother always has to fight to get me to take.
Now I seem to be getting my appetite back and am ravenous all of a sudden and head for the galley.
Most of the crew are there, dirty and smelling of fish as they chat and fill the air with the pungent smell of Old Friend.
A kettle of battered fish is on the table so I saw a couple of doorsteps off the waiting loaf and slap them liberally with butter and jam and sit down to listen to the ribald tales plentifully laced with obscenities. I learn things about life that make my hair stand on end in that session.
I’m tired now so I decide to turn in. The mate has the wheel and Barney is snoring his head off in his bunk. I’ll never get to sleep with that noise, I think, grumpily, but about 2 minutes later I am following the skipper’s example.
Soon it’s hauling time and the whole process begins again in an exhausting cycle that loops every two to four hours or so, depending on the skipper’s intuition. Sometimes the haul is good and sweetness and light descends from the bridge but other hauls are disastrous and obscenities and invective are issued in a non-stop tirade.
The trawl has come fast on something on the seabed and the warps start to pay out despite the best efforts of the squealing, smoking brake shoes on the winch. Peter orders me off the deck as the bar-tight wires bang and shudder. If these part under the strain the jagged ends have the capability to cut a man in two as they flail across the deck. Peter is mindful of the unspoken warning that my mother gave him as we were leaving, she would never forgive him if I got killed. I wouldn’t be too happy myself.
I hide round the corner of the bridge as a jangling announces that Barney is taking the way off the trawler just as she starts to heel dangerously to starboard under the restraining influence of the trawl. After some careful manoeuvring and an awful lot of swearing, during which time I learned some new words, the trawl is freed and we haul it in to discover the belly ripped out of it and no fish.
The bad language from the bridge is turned up several notches as the crew get the damaged net inboard and begin the laborious task of repairing it.
The damaged section is cut out altogether and a new belly is dragged from the net store under the whaleback. Now I’m put to work filling needles with twine so that the deckies can lace the new section into place. “Get us some singles”, or “Some doubles over here”, is the cry as I desperately try to keep up with their flashing hands.
The coarse sisal is playing havoc with my soft hands, particularly the one that had been spiked. It’s swollen, red and throbbing and I’m cold, tired and my wellies are full of water.
Once more I begin to wonder why I had been so mad as to want to go to sea.
The trawl is repaired, shot away and we are towing again. I show Peter my hand and he takes me up to the bridge to let the skipper have a look at it. All around the wound is an ugly, pussy, gathering. He feels the heat from it and has a good look, “Infected”, he snorts, soon fix that, just wait here.
He vanishes for a few moments as Peter takes the wheel from him. When he returns he shoots a knowing glance at Peter, “I’ve got that medicine from the first aid box”, he grins, “that’ll clear it up in no time”.
Taking me over to the flag locker he tells me to rest my hand on the top as he lays out cotton wool and Dettol. “Soon have you right as rain young feller”, he says.
I’m tough, I can take a bathing with Dettol, I think to myself.
Gripping my soft hand in his calloused mitt Barney looks across the bridge, “Another trawler over there Peter”, he says. Totally suckered in I unsuspectingly follow his gaze and he strikes with the speed of the snake that he is. A violent pain shoots up my arm as he grips it in an unshakeable grip. Whipping my gaze back I’m just in time to see him lay a long needle on top of the locker. It’s covered in my blood and the pus that is pouring out in (seemingly) endless quantities from the open wound in my hand. The rotten beggar has stabbed me.
I later find out that he has sterilised the needle before lancing the wound but that didn’t make me feel any better and neither did the Dettol that he poured over the wound.
My knees buckle and my face goes a delicate shade of pale and I just know that I’m going to be sick again. Barney puts lint over the wound and fixes it in place with generous quantities of Sleek, “That’ll sort you out”, he said grinning, no sympathy on a trawler.
Years later, while sailing for the Blue Star Line, I fall for the same kind of trick. I have a blind boil on a knee and it won’t shift so I go and see the chief mate. I sit cross-legged on a chair while he has a look at it.
“I’ll need the medical directory for this”, he exclaims going over to his bookshelf and getting down a weighty tome as if to consult it.
Without warning he brings the heavy book down with a mighty smack on the recalcitrant boil which immediately vents its contents. “Always works”, he smirks, as I hobble out of the cabin. No sympathy on a merchant vessel either.
During times when we are not hauling or shooting Canberra is like a ghost ship. The only people to be seen are the watchkeeper or the cook. Everybody else is catching what sleep they can, while they can.
Nobody has the time or inclination to wash as the most sleep they can hope for is a couple of hours at a stretch due to the crushing routine. Washing is out of the question because we can’t carry enough water for such luxuries. The fo’csle is attracting flies.
Food is often eaten on the run as the crew grab a quick brew on their way on deck or before they turn in. Fish is always available, in a rich, crunchy batter. There’s always a kettle full of it in the galley for those who want it. The crew like a full fillet slapped between two slices of bread and drenched in tomato sauce.
The cook bakes bread every couple of days, perspiring bucketfuls in his tiny, smoky sweatbox with its coal fired stove. His grimy vest is stained and damp as beads of sweat drip into the food, “It adds flavour to the scoff”, he grins at me. The bread is lovely and golden brown when it comes out of the oven despite, or perhaps because of, the unwanted contribution of the cook’s bodily fluid. He often sends me onto the casing for a bucket coal from the bunker to stoke the galley fire. My reward is a piping hot crust straight from the oven, dripping with butter. Despite the unsanitary conditions in the galley I wolf it down as if starving. I’ve got my appetite back.
Toilet facilities are rudimentary. A deckhouse is situated aft with a toilet in it buried under mounds of spare gear and mooring ropes.
Neptune takes care of the flushing arrangements as there is only a pipe leading straight down into the sea. As the stern rises and falls water is forced up the pipe to clean it. It also gives an enema to anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting on it at the time. Also, as the door hinges are locked into the open position by many coats of paint, any sea that comes along the deck down the starboard side hits the coaming and drowns the unfortunate occupant. Now I know why most of the crew prefer a bucket.
Bored, I wander into the sweltering cacophony that is the engine room and watch mesmerised as the huge, gleaming cranks move up and down with a hypnotic rhythm in their open crankpit as they turn the propeller shaft.
A greaser is attending to the metal heart of the trawler. On the side of each huge con rod is a dashpot which needs to be kept full of oil to lubricate the bearings churning away in the depths of the crankpit.
He has done this before. His arm moves up and down with the movement of the rod as he pumps the life-giving fluid into the tiny cup. The smell of hot oil, smoke and the heat are too much for me and I beat a hasty retreat.
On the bridge Peter has the watch, “Want to drive”, he asks me, “I’m busting for a pee?” I take the wheel feeling terribly important and grown up as he explains how to keep Canberra on her course. He disappears out of the door to relieve himself onto the deck below as well as on to anyone who is unfortunate to be walking underneath the bridge at the time.
I am alone. I am in charge. Canberra is mine.
I watch the compass rose mounted in the deckhead like a hawk. The slightest deviation of the lubber line I take as a personal slight to my new found skills as a helmsman.
Peter returns, buttoning up his fearnoughts, the thick, serge trousers that most of the crew wears. He makes no attempt to take the wheel back; instead he starts to roll himself a tickler while he regales me with tales of bodies and bombs that have dropped out of various cod ends. I stay with the wheel until it’s time to haul again. Peter calls the skipper and then calls out the mate and the rest of the crew.
All too soon we make our last haul. The fish is cleared off the deck and the fishroom hatch is battened down. The doors are lifted inboard and dropped behind the gallows. The trawl is lashed inboard of the rail and the decks are hosed down. Canberra becomes a ghost ship once more as the crew disappear to catch up on the sleep that they have missed for the last fortnight.
We turn east and sail into the rising sun. The sky is clear, the sea blue and we are on our way home via Rathlin once more where baskets of fish are exchanged for alcohol from the little boats that come alongside us.
The next day we are anchored in Lune Deeps, waiting for the tide. I can see The Mount in the hazy distance over the huge, sandy bulk of North Wharf Bank. Other trawlers are anchored as well. Barney is not happy, “This won’t do the market any good”, he grumbles to the mate. Too much fish on the market will drive down prices and affect the pay of everyone.
The murky tide begins to rise. No more blue sea, only the muddy waters of the deeps flow past us. The windlass on the fo’csle begins to reel in the anchor as the dripping chain rattles through the hawse pipe and the distant coastline begins to glide past our starboard side. We start the last leg of our trip. The forlorn, charred remains of Wyre Light pass by and we turn into the Wyre channel.
The crew begin to appear from their burrows, totally different beings from the dirty and unshaven individuals that I have been living with for the last fortnight. Now they are scrubbed clean and the stubble of two weeks has gone, as are the smelly clothes that they have lived and slept in for the same period. They are smartly dressed now and ready to get ashore and make up for the drinking that they have missed before the whole cycle begins again.
Gliding through the same locks that we left a mere two weeks ago, we tie up in the fish dock where Peter has his regular taxi waiting for him on the dockside.
As I climb ashore I am surprised to find that the dockside is moving. Sea legs don’t leave you immediately and it is a day or so before the feeling of motion leaves me.
The following day it’s off to the office for The Settling. All the crew are there collecting their wages together with the free fry of fish that they always get, parcelled up in the obligatory woven bass.
Because I helped by filling needles and doing a bit of gutting, most of the crew mug me. Slipping me pound and ten bob notes.
I come away richer than I’ve ever been. I definitely want to go back again, but not for a while.