By Eric Haworth
I spent most of my school summer holidays in Fleetwood and had been intrigued by the trawlers as they left or returned on the high tide. As many as twenty or thirty trawlers would pass the families lined up on the prom waving goodbye to their dads for weeks on end. Each trawler would sound the fog horn in its own way so even at night they would be recognised by the families left behind.
The Taxi came to my Granddad’s shop in North Church Street at four o’clock in the morning. We swept past the police at the dock gates on a cold dark rainy night and drove straight up to the trawler Red Rose that was to be my home for the next three weeks.
The quayside was frantic, ice and provisions were being loaded, men were leaping on and off the ship. The whole crew it seemed to me, were all drunk, arrived cursing and swearing as they fell out of taxis in a last minute dash before we sailed. If they were lucky they would have had two days ashore with their families (or in the pubs) before setting off on another trip.
The Red Rose was a new ship built in Aberdeen in 1955 and was one of the last oil fired trawlers built to fish the Icelandic and North Russian fishing grounds out of Fleetwood. In those days it was revolutionary in providing decent aft crew quarters, with showers and flush toilets. (It was later relocated at Hull, renamed Lord Howe and finally scrapped in 1968.)
We sailed on the early morning tide to Heysham where we filled up with fuel oil. The heavy smell of the oil gave me the first hint of seasickness which was to plague me for the next week. Being sick for days on end and not eating meant that my stomach was throwing up bile and my muscles were aching with all the retching. These first few days were a nightmare not helped by the whole crew recovering with foul hangovers only to start boozing again when the `bond store` was opened.
As the crew sobered up, and we approached Iceland the fishing gear was made ready. It started to dawn on me how hard and dangerous the work was as the net was manually hauled over the side and the bobbins and trawl doors were winched into the sea (In the 1950’s all the trawlers had side nets).
The skipper, Captain McKernan, up on the bridge in a high chair lashed to the side rail, leaned out of the window and controlled every movement. He really was the boss, and was acknowledged as one of the most successful trawler captains in Fleetwood.
The net was trawled night and day for the next two weeks, weather permitting until the holds were full of fish. The crew worked 16 hours at a time in the worst conditions imaginable often soaked and covered in fish blood as they gutted the fish on the open deck .
After helping to gut the fish my jeans were soaked in blood and slime of the fish and stayed that way for the rest of the trip. I must have smelled delightful!
A more pleasant but equally difficult job was to chop the ice down in the fish holds and cover layer after layer of fish as they were placed in the aluminium storage racks.
The worst was to come in the form of a Force 9 gale when all we could do was to stow all the gear and steam slowly into the storm. The ship literally sailed up a wave then down into the trough repeatedly for two days. It was sheer terror to a young teenager. The bow would dive into an oncoming wave which would wash onto the bridge blacking out the windows, in what seemed ages they gradually turned dark then light green and then cleared as the wave moved down the ship.
As the stern and propeller came out of the sea, the engines raced to maximum revs and the ship shuddered violently. The ship was almost like a submarine with all doors locked and hatches closed. The pitching motion was so violent that the only way to sleep in my bunk was to tie myself in. Another boy on the same trip didn’t, and ended up smashed against the cabin wall as he was thrown out of his bunk.
At the other extreme, we steamed through flat calm in a dense fog among a least twenty other trawlers all determined to carry on fishing. We were the only ship with radar but that packed in and like all the others had a lookout at the bow and regularly sounded the foghorn. It gave a whole new meaning to fishing blind.
The weather changed again as we steamed back from Iceland on a beautiful summer evening the sea was like a mill pond and myself and several of the deckies were leaning back against superstructure enjoying a bit of warm sunshine.
Literally out of the blue we were reminded how fickle and unpredictable the sea can be. A rogue wave quietly bore down on us and although we spotted it at the last minute all we could do was grab the hand rail and hold tight whilst it swept over the trawler. We rolled through what seemed like 90 degrees and were
completely engulfed by seawater which rushed through the open doors and flooded the crews quarters. It also deluged down the galley skylight where the cook luckily escaped scalding as the water hit the stove.
Two minutes later we steamed on through flat calm as though nothing had happened, but then had to bail out and dry everything. Then as now, deep sea fishing was dangerous and out of our twenty-one crew,
three died at sea within a few years. Tragically William Cooper the radio operator on the Red Rose later became the radio operator on the Red Falcon and died when she went down in 1959. I spent a lot of time with Bill since I was interested in becoming a radio operator. His other job on the Red Rose was boiling cod livers in the bow . This was a peculiar feature on the Red Rose in that cod liver boilers were usually located astern.
In spite of the weather, at the end of two weeks non-stop fishing we had the hold full of mainly cod and haddock all neatly stowed in ice. The latest i.e. freshest was carefully laid out in trays head to tail to get the highest price at the quayside auction. Everyone had a vested interest since the wages depended on the value of the catch. After a good catch, the crew with children would shower them with presents
and sweets, and the pubs which lined Dock Street did a roaring trade.