by Charlie Gregory
Hull – a couple of hours before dawn in the Autumn of 1953. I find myself in-among the men milling round the store on St Andrew’s fish-dock. I buy a seabag and stuff it with oilskins, seaboots and warm clothing. Then I get some the bacon and half-a-dozen eggs to keep me in breakfasts during the trip north. And finally, with my seabag over my shoulder and donkey’s-breakfast under my arm, I step into the night and follow the men heading for the trawler, Carthusian.
I stand in the fug of cigarette smoke in the mess-room, watching the crew as they gather. They all know each other. They’re not just shipmates. They are neighbours – in-laws – and ex-school-friends from the tiny rows of terraces that line the narrow streets between Hessle Road and the fish-dock.
They parted company less than forty-eight hours ago, after three gruelling weeks at sea. Now they are back, to go through it all again. The talk is of fish and money; family; the time in port; and old shipmates.
By now the mess-room is full, with twenty of us spilling into the galley and the alleyway beyond. To me – they are strangers. But over the next few days I will learn their names and their jobs by rote.
Eight of them are Spare-hands. And that young bloke over there is the Deckie-learner. The two wiry-men stood by the door turn out to be firemen – stokers. The slim young guy with the limp is the Cook; and the youngster with him is the Galley-boy. The rest are the officers. That’s the Mate and the Bosun, deep in conversation with the Third Hand. And the two pale-faced chaps at the table are the Chief and Second Engineers.
I’m the Wireless-operator – that’s what they call us on trawlers. I’m new to all this. At just turned nineteen I’m younger than the Deckie-learner. But I’ve already been going to sea for two years as a foreign-going Radio-officer.
A Sea-sage comes talking to me. ‘This isn’t a life,’ he tells me. ‘It’s an existence.’ A Fireman chips in. ‘I used to be down the mines,’ he tells me. ‘The mines are bad. But this is worse. At least the miner has a dry bed to sleep in. And when he’s on a downer he can pop into the pub for a pint.’
‘So why do it?’ I ask.
‘Where else can we get money like this?’ they want to know.
‘Trawler-men and their wives are the best dressed people in Hull,’ says the Sea-sage. ‘One day a month, I live like a lord,’ the Fireman tells me. ‘Taxis everywhere; and meals in the best restaurants. Who else can do that?’
‘It’s an addiction,’ the Sea-sage concludes. ‘Once you’re hooked you can’t kick-it.’
The bulky, excitable man, in the blue polar-neck-jersey and checked cap, turns out to be the Skipper – Toby. Toby makes the rules around here. And he can – and will – enforce them with his fists.
Like most Skippers, Toby is a living-legend. One of the many stories they tell me about him is that, thirteen years ago – 1940 – when in command of an armed trawler evacuating Allied troops from Norway, he charged at an unidentifiable warship as it emerged from a fog-bank – and challenged it. It turned out to be HMS Kelly which replied with the signal: ‘You’ve got the heart of a lion.’ Quite a compliment – coming from Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten.
(Years later, when I learn that this incident really took place between the Northern Spray and HMS Warspite, I feel as if my favourite film-star has died).
Toby’s big round here, but he isn’t God. The Trawler-owner is God.
The Skipper lives in the Trawler-owner’s pocket. If he doesn’t bring back fish he’s out of a job. And the Mate wants the Skipper’s berth so he’s breathing down his neck all the time.
Half of those Spare-hands have Skipper’s Tickets. They’re either Skipper’s going up – or Skipper’s coming down the ladder. Most of the younger-ones have Mate’s Tickets.
It’s the same down the engine-room. Seconds want to be Chiefs. Firemen want to be Seconds. Everyone is looking over his shoulder.
The Cook’s up for inspection every meal-time. And the Skipper pays my wage out of his own pocket. So I must to deliver too.
It’s not easy for the Spare-hands either. If they want to hold their job they’ve got to prove their worth. And, in a close-knit community like this, word gets around.
All this plays into the owner’s hands. He can sit back and make demands. And his demand is – ‘profit!.’
I find the radio-room behind a door at the starboard end of the wheelhouse. It’s tiny – and crammed with more equipment than I’ve ever seen gathered in one place before. I stand, jammed between the chair and the bulkhead, and weigh it up. We’re under-way now – and I must fathom how to send a TR – traffic-report – to Humber Radio.
When I sit down I’ve got an Electra receiver and Gannet receiver – one on a shelf above the other – stuck in my face. The Oceanspan transmitter fills the after-bulkhead to the left of the receivers. A Transarctic transmitter – or its predecessor – stands to the right of them. The Lodestone direction-finder is angled across the inboard corner. OK so far. I can cope with this lot..
But my right elbow is jammed up against an RT – radio-telephone – transmitter. This is not good. RT is an alien world. I’ve never come across radio-telephony before. We went through the motions in radio-college, of course. But that was a game – with people I knew. I’ve never even seen an ordinary telephone since then. This is 1953 for God’s sake. I’m not rich enough to know anyone who sports a telephone. I thought they were like lifebelts – hung inside those red kiosk-things you see on the corner of city streets – for use in emergencies. I’m full of hang-ups about sitting here shouting at myself.
There’s a second Gannet receiver, jammed between the RT-transmitter and the for’ard bulkhead. I work out that this receiver, and that wheel above my head, are the Fishsnatcher. The Fishsnatcher is a rotating-loop direction finder tuned to the RT band. It’s used to home-in on other trawlers that might be on fish. In the coming months I will spend many happy hours hanging from this, and similar wheels, as I perform a merry-legged dance on the leaping-decks.
I straighten up quickly and bang my head on something behind. It’s an echo-sounder, screwed to the for’ard bulkhead. It’s beside a Heath-Robinson battery charger. I’ve seen another ‘sounder’ in the wheelhouse. So we carry two.
I work out that the power supply is 110 volts DC from the engine-room generator. And I’ve seen a battery box stuck on top of the wheelhouse, out of harm’s way – just.
I tune a receiver to 500Khz and switch on the Oceanspan; to be greeted by the whine of an unhealthy alternator, tucked in some inaccessible corner.
‘Shit!’ No aerial-amps. This is a good start.’ I clamber up to the monkey-island to look at the insulator and find that the antenna has been dropped at the mainmast. It was dark when I boarded and I was a bit bemused by the new routine, so I didn’t notice.
‘They lower the aerial when they put the bunkers aboard,’ the Third-hand tells me as we hoist it back into situ. This is novel – the Carthusian’s a coal-burner.
I grunt a line of from a sea-song I know, ‘and the whole bloody issue was driven by steam.’
I wander into the wheelhouse where the Third-hand is talking to a Spare-hand who lounges over the massive wooden wheel which stands well back, near the after-bulkhead. I ask them where we’re bound-for. My TR, ‘bound north,’ satisfied Humber. But it’s too vague for me. I like to know where my life is going.
‘Dunno,’ the Third-hand shrugs. ‘Depends on the Skipper,’ he tells me.
He explains the system. After we sail, the Skipper disappears below to hype himself up for the trip. One of the officers takes the watch. But he doesn’t – daren’t – make any decisions. The Skipper will appear for the evening meal. That’s when we find out where we’re going.
It’s mainly grey skies out this way; and we’re heading away from the sun; so navigation is by dead-reckoning, backed by radar and radio-direction-finding. And we steer by the magnetic compass that pivots in the deck-head, for’ard of the wheel. If the Third-hand sets a ‘true-course,’ due-north as we leave the Humber, it leaves all the options open for the Icelandic fishing grounds or a run up the Norwegian coast to the North Cape and beyond.
I copy the weather forecast from Cullercoates Radio. The Third-hand looks unimpressed. ‘We listen to the BBC shipping forecast,’ he tells me, ‘switch it through to the wheelhouse speaker.’
He gives me a rough idea of what I should be doing – like monitoring the RT bands and eavesdropping on conversations between trawler skippers and operators. I do this. But all I can hear are Geordies and Jocks, telling the world that they’ve got no fish. It’s all hit-and-miss, because I don’t know what I’m looking for.
I tune to 2226Khz and wait for a conversation between two Wireless-operators to finish. Then I call the loudest and clearest. When he responds, I ask him what I should be doing. And he gives me a run-down.
He’s bound home, and asks me for the latest ‘trips.’ I shout to the Third-hand, and he puts me right. ‘Trips’ are lists, published in the local papers, of ships that have landed fish on the morning market. ‘Trips’ gives a breakdown of the catch each ship has landed, the money they made, the fishing ground they have come from, and how many days they spent at sea. It’s somewhere between a football-league-table and the stock-market; but more important than either. I’m suddenly in demand. I’ve got information that people want. Skippers running for home are desperate for knowledge. They need to know how many ships are heading for a specific market – and what the market is doing. They must make the decision, ‘do I go on “wet-steam” and drive the ship to the limit to land on Thursday, or hang-back and wait for Friday?’ And it’s his Wireless-operator’s job to feed him with facts.
More ships call me, to get verification or fill in gaps. Then they rattle them out to the ships further up-north on their company’s WT – wireless-telegraphy – scheds in Morse code. Other ships relay them further on and, by lunch time today, these ‘trips’ are common knowledge from Cape Farewell in Greenland to Cape Kanin in Russia. This happens every day that there is a fish-market.
In return, Wireless-operators pass me rumours from the various parts of the Arctic Circle – regarding weather conditions and fishing prospects. But they never – never give a hint about their own catch or position – or the market they’re running for. Fishermen are professional gamblers. I’m now a tiny-player in the world’s biggest, and most dangerous poker game.
Among the ships to contact me is the Laforey, out of Grimsby. I get talking to the Wireless-operator and it turns-out that he’s from Manchester – like me. His home is in a place called Gatley – that’s Cheshire way. I’m from Abbey Hey, between Gorton and Openshaw – where the factory drop-hammers bang away all the day and night. From now on, whenever we make contact, we go by the names of Abbey and Gatley. And we resolve to have a drink together, the next time we hit ‘The-Hub-of-the-Universe’ at the same time.
There are no showers or washing facilities aboard. The only source of clean water is a tap in the galley, fed by an old fashioned hand-pump.
At the end of day-one I get a bucket – and half-fill it with cold water. Then I treat myself to a strip-wash and shave before turning-in.
While I’m scrubbing-down, a couple of Spare-hands come to the doorway of the mess-room and stand, drinking from their steaming mugs, passing the time of day with me.
The next day, I go through the same routine at the same time.
This time, there are several men in the mess room. When I begin my performance, they come and stand in a group – watching.
The following night, there are two groups. One at the mess-room door, and another at the alleyway door.
The Sea-sage scratches his head and fumbles to find a reason for my strange behaviour. He finally solves the problem and tells the others. ‘Big-boat training,’ he announces.
I look at the two seas of curious faces, and realise I’m the only one doing this. The others have darker skins and longer facial hair with every passing day.
The next morning, the bosun joins me as I tuck in to breakfast. ‘Toby’s looking for you,’ he growls. ‘You’re in the shit.’
It’s the story of my life. I continue to munch my bacon-butty. ‘Live for the moment,’ I tell myself.
‘I hear you’ve been wasting water!’ Toby roars as I enter the wheelhouse. His fists are clenched.
‘It was only for a wash,’ I protest.
‘Well don’t wash! Not on my ship!’ He explodes. ‘Water’s for drinking. Not for splashing over mucky-bastards from The Midlands.’
To Toby, everywhere outside Yorkshire is ‘The Midlands’ – populated by morons who know nothing about the sea.
But he’s right about the water. The Carthusian is only 462 tonnes gross – 178 feet long and 27 wide. And she has to carry three weeks coal and a cargo of fish. There’s not much room for water for 20 men for 21 days.
My bedroom turns out to be a duct in the radio-room bulkhead, little over two feet wide and six feet long that runs above the ladder-well to the Skipper’s cabin.
The opening is about five-feet-six-inches above the deck. I feed my donkey’s-breakfast into the void. Now I must to follow. This entails standing on the chair and clinging to the metal bracket which is screwed to the deck-head. Then, I wedge my left foot between the RT transmitter and Gannet receiver and feed my right leg into the duct. I’ve now reached the point of no-return. Somehow, I’ve got to un-jam my left foot and get my spare leg alongside the one that’s already in bed. And all the time, the ship is bouncing-about and standing on its beam-ends.
Once inside, I wriggle down until my head joins my body inside the duct. But the fun has only begun. My donkey’s-breakfast is now in a hard lump beyond my feet. And I’m in a straight-jacket, so I can’t reach down for it. And I can’t sit up because I’ve only got six-inches headroom. And there’s no light in here. And I wish I was somewhere else.
In the morning, like a grub emerging from its chrysalis, I go through the same ritual – backwards – with a full bladder.
And so, for 21 nights, I am doomed to lie inside a coffin which is strapped to the back of a bucking-bronco. And on 21 mornings, I will go through the process of reliving the pangs of birth.
The Sea-sage sees my scattered clothes when he pops his head round the door to give me a shout.
‘Always sleep fully-dressed,’ he tells me later, ‘in case you have to run-for-the-lifeboat during the night.’ You don’t pick-up tips like that in Manchester.
The second day out of Hull, Toby strides into the wheelhouse rubbing his hands together. ‘Show Sparks the liver-house,’ he tells the Third-hand.
I’m prepared for this. The boys I met in the Marconi office told me about the livers. That’s why I bought the seaboots and deck-clothing.
Later, we stand on a wooden grating among a stack of fish-baskets, in what looks like a paint-locker situated on the main-deck in the very stern of the vessel. There are three large boilers before us, with taps at various levels. ‘When they gut the fish, the boys throw the livers into the baskets,’ the Third-hand tells me. ‘When they finish gutting, you drag the baskets down aft and dump the livers in a boiler.’ He holds up a dragging-hook. ‘When the livers reach this level,’ he taps a boiler, ‘you boil, then simmer, then let them stand to cool and settle.’ He tells me the exact time for each operation, and shows me the taps that supply the steam from the engine-room. ‘When the flux settles to the bottom of the boiler, tap the oil off into the storage-tank – one level at a time. Start with the top-tap and work your way down – to keep the oil clear.’ He delves among the baskets and comes-up with a large scoop. ‘When all the oil’s tapped off, lean into the boiler and squeeze the flux with this,’ he shows me the scoop, ‘you’ll get loads more oil out of it. Get every last drop, because we get a bonus for it. But don’t let any flux get into the oil. It has to be pure.’ He picks a piece of string out of a basket and loops it round a deck-head pipe. ‘After every boiling, tie a knot in the string,’ he tells me. ‘That’s how the boys keep a check on their bonus.’ He points at the boilers again. ‘They’re all in use at once,’ he tells me. ‘As you’re filling one, the second is boiling and settling, and you’re tapping off the third – then getting it ready for more livers. When all the oil’s out of the flux, empty it into that tank there. The flux is sold to the fish-meal factory. Nothing’s wasted.’
Back in the wheelhouse, Toby rubs his hands together again. ‘Time you learnt to steer,’ he tells me. ‘I use you in the wheelhouse when we’re towing. So while we’re on passage, you’d better get your hand-in. So take a turn on the wheel for two hours every afternoon.’
So, every day, on our way to and from the fishing grounds, I stand my trick on the wheel, and discover the unique magic of the wheelhouse of a trawler. The ship is moving relatively fast, and I’m low-down, near the water. I have a sensation of skimming over the sea; rising and dipping over the waves. Forever speeding along – until I feel that I’m flying like a seabird.
It will be days before the RT conversations on the fishing grounds come into earshot. So I start intercepting the WT – wireless telegraphy – scheds. The messages are all coded. That doesn’t help. But a bit of chit-chat goes on. So I manage to link a few Operator’s names to their call-signs or to their style of Morse – which is as distinctive as hand-writing. That will come in handy later. And they sometimes let things slip – which I pass to Toby.
The Eton Fishing Company has two ships. This one, the Carthusian, is called after the boys of Charter House School. The other ship is the Etonian.
Toby tells me that the Etonian is running down from the White Sea at this moment. I make contact on RT. And the Skipper gives Toby some useful information. The conversation is in riddles. Things like – ‘the Tedder’s doing OK on that bank we were on the trip-before-last,’ or ‘Jud’s on his favourite spot – and he’s keeping quiet.’
When a Skipper finds fish, he imposes radio-silence – so the mob won’t take bearings of him and come and scoop it all up. So Jud’s silence is significant.
But the Skipper of the Etonian complains bitterly that he, personally, hasn’t got any fish at all. Once he feeds the crew, he says, there’ll be nothing left in the Fish-room. I stand by the doorway, looking through the wheelhouse-window at the grey world beyond, and wonder why he’s so interested in the latest trips – if he’s got nothing to sell? No Skipper ever admits to having fish. They beat farmers at pleading poverty. It’s a game they have to play. Competition is fierce. So the Skipper has to find fish – then keep it to himself. Then he has to run for home with his secret catch – and get the best price he can for it. If information gets out about the market he’s running for – or what he’s going to land – it could affect the prices.
The Skipper’s Master, the Trawler-owner, has an insatiable appetite for profit. And there is a percentage spin-off for the rest of us.
Toby makes a decision. ‘It’s the White Sea,’ he announces at the evening meal – with his mouth stuffed full of fresh-baked bread.
The White Sea is a general term, covering the Barents Sea from the North Cape to Cape Kanin. Another name for the Cape Kanin Grounds is The Bottleneck – because you are now going into the White Sea proper.
At the North Cape you are about six days from home. And at Cape Kanin you may be eight. The banks off Murmansk are about midway between the two. For Bear Island, make for the North Cape – then keep going north until this – the harshest weather you’ve ever seen – gets even worse.
To get to any of these spots, we spend a day and a half steaming through the Norwegian Fjords. This takes us out of the wild Norwegian Sea and saves a bit of time.
On our second-day-out from Hull, on Toby’s instructions, I tell the crew ‘you’ve got two days to hand-in all the personal messages you want to send between now and the end of fishing.’ There are reasons for this. I will be too busy to send ‘non-urgent-stuff’ when we are on the grounds. And radio communications will be dicey, before and after fishing, due to screening in the Fjords.
First one up to the wheelhouse is a Fireman. He hands me a form with a message to Interflora scribbled on it. As the man leaves the bridge, Toby snatches the message from my hand and reads it to the Mate and two Spare-hands. ‘I can still taste your kisses,’ he scoffs, curling his lip and shoving the paper back at me. ‘Huh – she gave him the crabs,’ he adds scornfully. ‘The bugger was up here for the blue-ointment, first thing this morning.’
This is when I find that trawlers are high-traffic ships. Fishermen spend their lives at sea. They have to conduct their affairs by radio. It’s a two-way thing, husbands and wives keeping each other informed – and keeping the marriage going – by telegrams, rattled-out in Morse code, and channelled through Wick Radio.
The romantic stuff comes thick and fast. Many messages are almost identical because, if someone thinks-up a catchy phrase, the others copy it. A couple of the favourites, for delivery while we are fishing are ‘If snowflakes were kisses I’d send you a blizzard ‘ and ‘If fishes were kisses I’d send you a shoal.’ And maybe, for a marriage reception ‘Oilskins should be worn when entering port.’
Wick Radio has an arrangement with Hull Post Office. Between them, they will hold on to our messages and deliver them on the day requested in the delivery instructions. So, after I collect the traffic from the lads, I clear the bunch to Wick on the 1.6Khz band. But that’s not the end of it. Fishermen are born gamblers. They gamble for a living and they gamble for pleasure. Many have accounts with bookies in Hull. While I’m drumming up the messages, the crew ask me to get tomorrows runners for them. They tell me that Rugby Radio broadcasts the horses every night – ‘after the big-boat news.’ Everyone knows this job except me.
The betting messages start to outnumber the rest. The bets are on horses, dogs or football. And they keep coming until we get to the Fjords. These messages are always urgent. There’s money at stake. With an ‘accumulator’ you are talking big-bucks.
Wick Radio isn’t always easy to contact. After his traffic list it seems like every trawler in the northern hemisphere is trying to get hold of him. That’s fine on 1.6Khz while you’re on passage, because you’re booming-in to each other. But, as you get further away, you’re jammed out by the louder boys so you have to use either 8Mhz or 12Mhz. Wick only has one Radio Officer on each band. This guy has to search the calling-band and give us all a turn-number. We call it his QRY list. When the list is complete he starts working the ships.
When you are turn-ten, you’re in for a long wait. By the time your turn comes round the band might have gone wobbly and Wick can’t read you. If you don’t get picked for a turn after the list you’ve got problems, because once he starts working down the list, the Wick Radio-officer is going to be too busy to search the band again.
Wick’s HF transmitter is only 300 watts. So you have as much trouble hearing him as he does hearing you. This makes collecting messages as much fun as clearing them. To be fair, every evening, Wick does a blind-broadcast of all his uncleared traffic. But the reception doesn’t get any better. And, as the Morse is hand-sent, some days are better than others. And, all the time, the Skipper is hounding me to search the intership bands for fishing information.
These difficulties and pressures lead me to learn new tricks. If I don’t get a turn on HF, I wait for Wick to give a ship a receipt for a message, then I give a quick call on my working-frequency – hoping it is the same as the other ships – so that I can follow-on. This sometimes works. Then, on the 1.6Khz, where all the ships are on the same frequency, I may try a bit of jamming. Naughty – but I’ve got to clear this traffic.
As we run north I pipe music from the BBC into the wheelhouse. The boys listen and chat among themselves. Trawler-men spend three weeks at sea and two days in port – trip after trip. That makes for a lot of sex talk. When I’m on the wheel I join in.
I’m a mouthy teenager. I can sit in a Third-mate’s cabin and shoot a line with the best of them. But this is different. This is big-boy stuff; rum-bum-and-baccy for real. The lurid-tales of multiple-orgies fill in a lot of blank-spots for me. Some of the lads tell of their romps with male prostitutes. This is new ground. These guys are not gay – just red-roaring-randy.
After one deep conversation, the Sea-sage gives me another useful wrinkle. ‘If you’re ever joining a daisy-chain,’ he says wisely, ‘always volunteer to go first. The virgin always hangs back until last. So, when the chain joins up – bingo!’ I get a sudden flashback. I’m back in the galley; a slender youth with a tropical tan having a strip-down-wash. And the men, watching from the doorway, grow in number each night
We are running up the Norwegian coast now; in a stern unforgiving world, where the wild Norwegian Sea continually batters the cast-iron cliffs. At 66.30N we cross the Arctic Circle. Winter’s coming. We’re heading towards the ice and continuous night.
I contact Bodo Radio with a message for the trawler agent in Lodingen. We need a few bits and pieces and a pilot through the Fjords. We still get our weather forecasts from the local broadcast station. But these days they are in Norwegian.
I’m used to the British forecasters. They always err towards caution. It never gets quite as bad as they say it will-be. Norwegians use the opposite philosophy. They play the weather down. OK, so you can wear your wig on deck when they forecast ‘vinds’. But a ‘kuling’ feels like a storm. And a ‘sterk-storm’ matures into a screaming hooligan.
Four-and-a-half days out of Hull, and we’ve made our landfall. Those sheer lumps of granite, lining up to port, are the Lofoten Islands. Toby knows this area well. He’s been coming ‘out this way’ all his working life. He fought the Germans here. ‘That’s Vaeroy,’ he tells me, pointing at one of the inhospitable masses, ‘and over there, to the north, is Lofoten Point. And there, in-between them – is Mosken.’
I look at the small island with its three jagged peaks thrusting-up through a swirling mountain mist – and can see from this distance, the confusion of frenzied water that surrounds it. The boys have told me about this. Those are the ‘Mystic Mountains’ and the swirling eddies and boiling over-falls are a part of the notorious ‘Lofoten Maelstrom.’ This mad water, that I study through the glasses, has appeared in the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Jules Verne. It’s the stuff of fiction.
Now, with two pilots aboard, we sail through water as smooth and clear as a sheet of glass. Sheer barren mountains, snow-capped and laced with frozen waterfalls, tower above us. In the twilight we see green valleys and forests with pastel-painted hamlets in-among the trees. We’re in the land of the troll and Greig’s Peer Gynt.
In spring, the mountain-air will be as crisp and intoxicating as the finest wine. Then, in summer, the days will turn shirt-sleeve balmy and never-ending. But now it seems forever dark and very cold.
The rocks hereabouts are full of minerals. MF and HF radio-communications cease. And, for me, VHF hasn’t been invented.
The pilot shows us places where the magnetic compass goes round in circles. Off Tromso, the boys point to a rusting hulk that lies, part submerged, like a dead whale. ‘That’s the Tirpitz,’ they tell me. She was damaged by a midget submarine attack while she was at anchor in Kaa Fjord. But she was repaired, and sailed to Tromso in April ’44. The following November, she was attacked by 32 Lancaster bombers. They put a 100 foot gash in her. She capsized – taking 971 men to their deaths.
Toby has become an unstable time-bomb. He’s morose with the pilots – either ignoring or snapping at them. But he’s excitable and blustery with everyone else. It comes to a head this meal-time. Toby and I are sat at the large table that takes up most of the officers’ communal cabin. He’s tucking into stew and dumplings with a spoon. I’m polishing off my duff and custard. Sat in the middle of the table, is a plate of the lightest and most delicious jam-tarts that I’ve ever come across. This cook is excellent.
Down the ladder comes one of the pilots. He ladles stew into his plate from the pot by the door, then comes and sits at the table and launches into a friendly conversation. Toby ignores him, but I respond. As the pilot and I talk, Toby’s spoon is hitting his plate ever harder and faster. I can feel the explosion building. It’s like watching a boiler that’s about to burst – steam hissing from every orifice.
Now the pilot reaches for a jam-tart. But Toby leaps up, snatches the plate away, and runs with it to the bottom of the ladder – roaring for the cook. ‘Take these cakes away,’ he yells, before the Norwegian’s eat them all!’ As the cook clatters down the ladder, Toby lambastes him. ‘Don’t ever make this trash again. They’ll gobble it up. They’re like bloody wolves.’
Now Toby turns on me. ‘And you’ he roars. ‘Stop talking to him! And don’t ever let me catch you speaking to these people again. They’re all Quislings! Every one of them. Quislings! Do you hear me? Quislings!’ I’m taken aback by the outburst. But the pilot keeps his cool. Maybe he knows that Toby lives in a black-and-white world. Cod are good. Norwegians are bad.
Toby decides to shoot the trawl off North Cape. Like all Skippers he has a notebook full of positions – the dates he trawled there; the direction he towed-in; the weather conditions; and what the result was.
We’re on fishing hours now – eighteen hours on and six hours off. Toby wants me on duty from 0800 to 0200 the next day. It will be like this for a week or ten days – depending on the fishing.
The Carthusian, like every other trawler I see, is a side-winder. She both shoots and hauls over the side. It’s dangerous work. And, as the weather worsens, so the danger grows.
The heart of it all is the massive winch with three-quarters of a mile of cable on the drum. From here the warps go through the gallows, which are structures that take the weight of the trawl. Then the warps go down into the water where they are attached to the two otter-boards, or doors. The doors are attached to the trawl and are towed in front of it. The water forces them apart, so they open the mouth of the net. Next comes the net itself, travelling along the sea bed with its open mouth and big belly – leading into the closed cod-end.
For our first haul, Toby’s alone in the wheelhouse and I’m in the radio-room Suddenly there’s a blood curdling scream. ‘Yaaahhh!’ I race through the door and find him writhing about on his back, like an upturned sheep, holding his tummy and screaming in pain – eyes rolling in his head.
I can’t do anything with him. Try as I might. I can’t get him up. And he’s too far gone to tell me what’s wrong. I need help. I go winging down to the galley, where the Chief is talking to the Cook. ‘Come quick,’ I cry. ‘It’s the Skipper. He’s taken ill.’
They look at me and shake their heads. ‘Toby’s OK,’ says the Chief.
‘He’ll be all-right when Dr Cod comes aboard,’ adds the Cook.
They are right. We tow several times, in various positions, before we find fish. And all the time, Toby is moaning and crawling round the wheelhouse on all fours, or rolling on his back howling with pain. Then, as the net comes aboard, he’s clawing his way up the for’ard bulkhead until his eyes peep over the bottom of the window. But, when only a bucketful of fish slither to the deck, he lets out a howl of anguish, drops back on all fours, and crawls towards the ladder to his cabin. But he can’t make it. He’s on his back again – wailing and thrashing.
The longer it takes to find fish, the worse he gets. Now he’s screaming for paper. I find a drawer full of old newspapers – obviously stored for this very moment. He snatches one from my hand, drops his pants and squats over it – filling the wheelhouse with a noise like a mistuned bagpipe. Then he leaps to his feet and, pulling up his trousers, screws-up the paper, dashes across the wheelhouse, snatches open the door, and throws it at the evasive shoals. Now he’s down on the deck again – baying like a hound.
A few hauls later he grabs the wheel to pull himself up. But it spins round and he goes staggering backwards across the wheelhouse and lands on his backside. Now he’s scurrying on all-fours to claw his way up the bulkhead and peep at the deck again.
This time a mountain of fish come thundering from the cod-end. Toby’s cured. He’s skipping up and down like birthday-boy. ‘Sparks! Sparks!’ he yells in delight, ‘come and look at this!’ And so it is, all the time we’re fishing. With a bad haul, Toby collapses and crawls round the wheelhouse, screaming for newspaper. With a good haul he’s walking two-feet above the deck and leaping up and down – and yelling for a buoy to be put down.
At times like this, when he’s feeling good, he orders me put him in touch with the other Skippers. Now it’s Toby’s turn to give a recital over the airwaves, telling the world what a terrible time he’s having.
It’s the end of my first eighteen-hour trick. It’s three-o-clock in the morning. I climb up the bulkhead and into the spout that I call my bed, like Wincey Spider when the raindrops relent. I wake to the blast of a radio-beacon – haunting the room like a wailing-banshee. Toby is swinging the knob of Lodestone direction-finder. ‘Come on Sparks,’ he roars. ‘You’ll get f’uckin’ bedsores.’
I drag my aching limbs out of my coffin and gaze at the clock in disbelief. It’s coming up to five-o-clock ship’s time. I’ve had less than three hours in bed – and Toby wants bearings. This is how I learn that my starting and finishing times are flexible. But that’s over and above my eighteen hours.
As the days pass, I start to sympathise with Toby and his strange behaviour. He’s under terrible pressure from the owner to catch fish. With every haul, his job is on the line.
But even for the likes of me, a towny from ‘The Midlands,’ there’s a big mood-swing between an empty bag and a full-net.
With a good haul, the massive net surfaces alongside the ship – swollen with silver fish. There can be no other sight like this in the world. You can hear the awe in the voices of the men. And the gulls wheel and scream in excitement. The magic never fades. This is what we came for. Now we go astern to push the fish out of the belly into the cod-end. Then the cod-end is heaved aboard. The cod-line is released and the fish thunders onto the deck. The cod-line is re-tied and the cod-end put back over the side and filled again and again until the belly is empty. Between shooting and hauling, we tow the trawl along the bottom for a couple of hours or more. The men are gathered in the pounds, gutting fish from the last haul – flinging the lights at the screaming birds and the livers into baskets; or they are down in the fish-rooms, cracking ice with pick-axes and dragging baskets of it to the shelves where the catch is stored in its various grades.
We put a marker-buoy down and tow around it until the shoal moves away. But it’s not often like that. Sometimes it’s bad, and the trawl floats to the surface and lies on the cold-black water, deflated and impotent. The dejected deckhands go mechanically through the motions with a few stragglers flapping in the cod-end. The depression is tangible as they shoot again – with the cheerless deck-lights casting mocking-shadows in the endless Arctic night. When their chores are done the men trudge wearily aft to the galley for cocoa or a bite to eat.
Like the Sea-sage told me, all we do here is work and exist. Bad hauls prolong the agony. We want to go home. But we’ve got to pay our way. We must stay out here for as long as it takes. In fact, most hauls are somewhere between the good and the bad.
Because of the pressure, some Skippers are tempted to keep-on fishing as the weather worsens. I’ve heard of crewmen being washed-overboard while they were gutting. I even hear tales of men being washed-overboard in bad weather – and then being dumped back on the ship as she dips beneath them.
But Toby’s a careful sailor. He never puts his men in danger.
Through the good and the bad I drag baskets of livers along the deck. The scuppers have been covered to stop the fish from slithering back into the sea. So there’s a lot of water trapped on deck, swilling to and fro with the motion of the ship. So I’m always in thigh-boots and often in oilskins.
Until I get the knack, its not easy to lift a full basket of livers high enough to tip it into the boiler – standing, as I am, on a slippery wooden grating, with the ship slanting up rollers and dipping down troughs. So the first load lands on the deck and the livers scatter and slither away – as if scurrying for the fish-room and the bellies they were torn from. But I am soon in the swing of it – making cod-liver-oil. I’ve got one boiler steaming and another settling – while I’m filling the third. The liver-bonus is serious. On their way back from the pounds, the men often come to the boiler-room door and count the knots on the string that hangs from the pipe. So I’m looking over my shoulder too. But I’m on top of it. Whenever there’s a change of watch, I do the boilings but miss out the knots. So I’m doing more boilings than they think. This pays-off at the end of the trip. The boys get a bigger bonus than they were expecting – and I get the credit. I may be a no-good Wireless-operator – but I can boil livers. You don’t learn much about the sea in Manchester. But you do get to be street-wise.
Toby has an insatiable appetite for information. I have to swamp him in it. Livers done, I hurry back to the radio-room to monitor the conversations that wail from my speaker. They are mostly on simplex. First of all, there’s a monologue in one direction; followed by an almost identical monologue in the other direction. It’s all negative stuff, complaining about the weather and the fishing – punctuated by exclamations like ‘uwhhh!’ and ‘come back you bitch!’ as the men brace themselves against the motion of the ship. I look for clues that will identify ships and Skippers and what they are catching. I scribble it all down on the back of old echo-sounder paper – along with the time and a snap-bearing. Often, after a good haul, when I get back to the wheelhouse, I find Toby waiting – tense as the trawl-warp – ‘about bloody time,’ he snaps. Then he gives me the ship’s heading and tells me to take over the watch while he skips down-below to snatch forty-winks. I go to the radio-room and turn up the gain. For the next hour, I’m the Helmsman, the Lookout and the Wireless-operator.
And so the fishing goes on. One haul is a goldmine. The next is the poor-house. Then we are underway and chasing one of the voices I’ve ‘snapped’ – in-case they’re on fish. Now we’re fishing alongside a German. But, when Toby comes back from his kip, the German has gone. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ he screams. ‘Why didn’t you tell me he was moving? He knows where there’s fish.’
Toby locates the German on the radar and we race after him. He leads us to a bank off Murmansk – the Russian naval base. We shoot the trawl and tow alongside him. This time we catch nothing but a few tiddlers. Toby’s back on all-fours – crawling round the wheelhouse.
Next, he spots a Russian trawler on the move. We follow him. But he does worse than the German did. ‘They’ll put this Russian in the bloody Siberian Salt Mines when he gets home,’ Toby complains to the world over the radio.
Then a Russian warship comes on the scene – towing a target. He releases it to the south of us. Then he goes to the north of us and starts firing at it – over our heads. This is cold-war stuff. It’s not comfortable. So Toby’s up with the trawl and we’re on the move again. ‘You tell ’em, when you get back to The Midlands,’ he tells me. ‘Tell ’em what we have to go through to get their fish.’
We gravitate into an international fleet – fishing somewhere off the Russian coast. ‘Sparks! Take a look at this!’ Toby shouts as we arrive on the scene.
It’s black-dark outside. But it isn’t the darkness that Toby’s showing me. It’s the lights – the navigation lights. They start close by and stretch as far as the eye can see, from horizon to horizon, in every direction. It’s as if we are in the middle of some great city.
But, more awesome still, is the realisation that those lights are ships. And each one is towing a cumbersome trawl. And they’re all heading in different directions.
‘Tell ’em about this too – when you get back to The Midlands,’ Toby orders. I do tell them – back in the Manchester pubs – but they don’t know what I’m saying.
In this melee of ships we sometimes find ourselves towing a parallel course to a Russian trawler. They have women working on deck alongside the men. These are not your doe-eyed Muscovites. These are tough, red-flannel-knicker-types from the Tundra; countless layers of clothing imposing a purdah.
Sometimes, in the gloaming, we find ourselves making our way aft from the pounds at the same time as they are. We give them a wave. They cast furtive glances over their shoulders. Then, when they are out of sight of the Communist-commissar on the bridge, they give a hasty wave back.
In the midst of this terrifying crowd, Toby returns to the wheelhouse after leaving me alone for a while.
Suddenly there’s a roar. Then a speaker-full of foul-language bursts from the main-receiver. I decipher a message, hidden amongst the expletives and the F’s and the B’s. ‘Somebody has towed my buoy under,’ the message reads. ‘I know who he is. And I’m going to break his back when I get him on Hull fish-dock.’
Toby points to the nearest trawler. ‘That’s him – there,’ he says, rubbing his hands together. ‘He’s a real mean bastard. If he’s talking about you – you’d be safer jumping overboard right now.’
I feel the channels coming on, and head for the lavatory.
Our only toilet shares the stern of the ship with my liver-house. The liver-house is on the starboard side; the toilet is on the port side. The toilet door is permanently jammed open by the spare anchor which lies secured to a grating. When I sit on the toilet I am looking along the length of the main-deck. Passing crew-men give me a cheery wave as they wander to and from the fo’c’sle or the pounds.
Today, before squatting, I peer into the well and wish for deliverance from evil. I find myself looking down a pipe that ends a few feet above the water – cunningly placed to focus the ship’s slip-stream onto bull’s-eye of my backside. This might explain some to the peculiar sensations that I’ve been getting over the past couple of weeks. But it’s bad news in the Barents Sea, because the local zephyrs either come straight off the ice – or the Russian refrigerator.
As I sit in frozen penance, it strikes me that the breeze is the least of my problems. If the ship dips her stern into the water, I will receive a deep-frozen colonic-irrigation. On the other-hand, if she takes a big wave, I’ll be martyred like a witch on a ducking-stool. In bad weather, the toilet becomes a no-go zone. This is where the pelvic-exercises pay off. The alternative is to go down to the stokehold, hover over a shovel, and feed the results to the furnace.
The Sea-sage offers advice on this one too. ‘Squat with your shoulders in line with the motion of the ship,’ he tells me. ‘Then you won’t fall back in it.
All this fun must come to an end. We’ve got to go home. After the boys haul-in the trawl and stow it away, they batten-down and hose and scrub. My job is to hose-down and bull-up the liver-room. I may be the Wireless-operator, but I’ve got the smelliest job in the ship. My clothes reek of cod-liver-oil.
So it’s up and away. As we race down the fjords, I look over my shoulder before talking to the pilots – like a Soviet-decky.
Then it’s out into the Norwegian Sea to smash through a Sou’wester, where the waves have come out of the Atlantic with a potential build-up of five-thousand miles.
The betting messages are flowing again. Then the romantic ones. ‘It’s hard for both of us,’ a Spare-hand confides to his wife. ‘The longer I’m away the harder it gets,’ a Fireman reveals.
We’re heading into the home-straight – racing for a market. Wick Radio hauls into RT-range. We put a link-call through to the owner and get permission to go on ‘wet-steam.’ I never get to know what wet-steam really is. The boys tell me it’s dangerous. But they don’t say for who. Is it bad for the engineers? I wonder. Or just the engine? I don’t really care – so long as it’s not bad for me.
Now we’re allowed a wash and shave. We don clean clothes for the run ashore. Then we gather in the mess-room, pink-faced and ten-years younger.
We dock in the late evening; all champing-at-the-bit. We want to get off the ship. We want some freedom. We want comfortable beds. We want to see our families. And we want a drink with our mates. Some of the boys are so desperate that they scramble ashore while we are going through the locks.
Time is precious. We’ve got 48 hours – four tides – to come back to the office and collect our catch-money; do everything that we have to do, and everything we want to do. And, on top of that, I’ve been told to report to the Marconi Office.
And during these few precious hours, we’ve got get ourselves back here to the dock – queue at the store for our eggs and bacon and whatever gear we need. Then get aboard and get the ship racing up to the Arctic again. If this isn’t exploitation – tell me what is?
After a couple of hours kip in the Flying Angel Mission, I meet up with some of the crew as we collect our pay. Then we wander along to the corner of West Dock Avenue and Hessle Road for a drink and a chat in Rayner’s Pub before heading home.
In Rayner’s, the boys send drinks across to a young bloke who is standing at the end of the bar. ‘He’s the only survivor off the Norman,’ they tell me. The Norman was lost about a year ago – October ’52 – off Cape Farewell in Greenland. She went on the rocks and the crew couldn’t get the lifeboats away. The ship gave a lurch and they thought she was going over. In the panic, they tried to scramble ashore. But the tide took most of them. Help arrived several hours later. By then there was only the one survivor. That chap at the end of the bar – clinging to a rock.
‘Hasn’t been to sea since,’ the boys tell me.
The tragedy was, the Norman didn’t go down that day. When help arrived, she was still wedged on the rocks. ‘If the crew had stayed on the ship, they would have all been saved,’ the boys conclude. ‘That’s the golden rule,’ the Sea-sage tells me. ‘Stay with the ship until the last minute.’ Nobody’s told me this before. I’m learning new tricks every day.
Toby’s regular Wireless-operator is back off leave so I’m out of a ship. I pop over to Manchester to collect some clean gear. Then I’m back in Hull, in the Marconi office, waiting for another berth.
I’m one of a band of Operators, hanging around the office, laughing and joking and wandering to and from the coffee-shop that lies round the corner.
My new friends are the small-craft Operators. They offer their services to Marconi, Hellyer Brothers, and United Towing – among others. They’re a different make than your deep-sea Radio Officer. After my trip on the Carthusian, I have a special respect for them.
I already know a couple of them from my radio-college days in Brook’s Bar, Manchester. That lad over there, the tall slim blond one, is Clive Knaggs from Ilkley. He was at the Bridlington college before he joined us in Brook’s Bar. And that dark fellow with him is Angelo Parez. He’s a Spaniard. He loves this way of life.
That young chap in the smart brown suit, the one with a tie on, is the Operator off the Hildina. He’s not happy just now. Because the Clerk has just told him that, after one more trip out of Hull, the Hildina is being transferred to Fleetwood. So that lad wants to leave her as soon as possible, because he’s just got married to a Hull girl. But the Clerk says that, ‘if you do this trip out of Hull, and the next trip out of Fleetwood, it’ll give us time to arrange a relief – and you’ll probably get Christmas at home.’
I wouldn’t mind sailing out of Fleetwood myself. It’s handy for Manchester. In fact I did try to get a job there before I came to Hull. I was on a day-trip to Blackpool at the time. And I popped-up to Fleetwood and went into one of the trawler-offices, looking for a job. But the manager took one look at me in my tailor-made tropical suit and flash Singapore-tie, and shook his head. ‘I don’t think you would like the trawlers,’ he told me. But the Marconi Company isn’t so fussy.
This guy with the black curly-hair and wax running down his ear-lobes onto his collar is the self-appointed leader-of-the-pack. He’s been weighing me up ever since I came in. Now he’s speaking to me. ‘A lot of people come out-this-way,’ he tells me. ‘But they don’t stick-it. But you look as if you might. You look like one-of-us.’
It’s meant to be a compliment. But it makes me worry. I don’t want to be a Waxy. The Clerk is calling me over now. He asks me if I’ll take a freighter up to Newcastle. I jump at it. The lousiest rust-bucket in port will be like a luxury-hotel to me. But now Waxy’s leaping up and down in protest. He tells the Clerk I’m a trawler-man and can’t be switched across to cargo-ships.
‘They’re only paying us small-craft wages,’ Waxy tells me. ‘So we don’t take the big-ships for them.’ The others mutter agreement. So I go along with them. ‘When in Hull do as Hull does.’ That’s my motto.
Later, I find out that most of this particular group have Special Tickets. They’re not qualified to go on ‘big-boats’. That’s why I was singled out.
I’m sent to join the Milyna. At 416 gross, she’s even smaller than the Carthusian. That’s OK by me. She’s 15 feet shorter, so I won’t have to drag the livers so far.
The Milyna is the same age as me – nineteen. You’ve got to think small aboard this one. The radio-room is tiny. But it’s got the same gear crammed into it as the Carthusian has. All the remaining deck-space is taken up by the chair. It’s like being in a complicated telephone kiosk. There is no room for a mattress in here. So I sleep in a communal cabin with the other officers. The officers being the Mate, Bosun, Third-hand, Chief and Second-engineers – and me. The cabin is down aft, below the grating, toilet and liver-room, and above the prop and rudder. You get to it down a vertical ladder situated by the galley and engine-room doors. At the bottom of the ladder you are in a windowless poke-hole. This is the crew’s mess. On this ship there is no room for a mess behind the galley. The Cook and Galley-boy sleep in this place. So do the two Firemen. I don’t know how the Cook manages. He’s twenty-stone if he’s here at all. The crew sleep in the fo’c’sle like they do in all the trawlers I know.
Through a doorway from the crew’s mess I’m in the officer’s quarters. This is an equally poky and windowless room. A lot of deck-space is taken up by a table – designer-shaped to the stern of the ship – with a bench round three sides of it. There are six narrow ledges round the bulkhead, just wide enough for a donkey’s-breakfast. These are our berths. The ledges are fitted with sliding-doors to stop the occupants being shot across the room when the ship performs. The ledges for the Mate and the Chief have bulkheads round them – to form tiny offices. The two messes are heated by a single coal-burning stove.
When it’s time for beddy-byes I clamber into my cupboard and slide the doors closed. There’s no light in here. And I’m right up against the metal of the ship’s hull with the freezing ocean on the other side. I’ve been in cosier places. Condensation runs down the metal all the time. By reveille the mattress resembles a dunked-biscuit. So the first job of every watch is to go to the engine-room and throw my mattress over a boiler – to dry-out.
The Milyna’s a brilliant sea-ship. She’s a little dancer. She tackles every ripple. She has this rhythm with the waves – over-and-plunge, over-and-plunge. But when you get above force-eight, you get those rogue lumps. They stop her dead in her tracks. It’s like being on a bike and hitting a brick wall at ten-miles-an-hour. That’s when she flings her backside up in the air – with the rudder out of the water and the screw racing. Then, even with deep battens holding the plates in place, she’ll clear the table for us. But the beauty is, she warns us first. She gives this little wobble. It’s like she’s tap-dancing. Then it’s – ‘hold on boys.’
The Skipper aboard this one is Ernie, a tall strong-man with eyes that drill into you from below a cloth cap. He’s a legend too. One of the tales they tell is that, during the war, there was a convoy assembling in Bridlington Bay. Then someone spotted a German mine – drifting in on the ships. Without a second thought, Ernie dived overboard, swam out to it, and held it off until the navy arrived.
‘The Skipper’s a man of few words,’ the Mate tells me on our first day at sea. This is before Ernie makes his debut on the bridge. When Ernie does appear, I find that the Mate’s statement is a wild exaggeration. Ernie is not a man of few words – he’s a man of only two words -‘garn-fuck.’ I work this out to be some kind of code. It really means, ‘you’re getting on my wick. If you don’t clear-off – I’ll drop you.’ Every-time I approach him, he tells me to ‘garn-fuck.’ It doesn’t matter what I give him, navigation warnings, messages, trips, fishing information, bearings – every mortal thing gets a ‘garn-fuck.’
It’s back to the White Sea this trip. That’s another twenty-one days at sea. I was hoping for Iceland. That’s only eighteen days, or less. An extra three days at sea doesn’t look a lot on paper. But when you only get two days in port – minutes are precious.
The radio and liver routines are the same as on the Carthusian. Credit to Ernie, I do get my six hours below on this one. But winter’s coming-on and the weather’s closing-in.
We’re off Murmansk now and the big winds are blowing. The seas are mountainous. When we’re off Norway or Iceland we can run for a port or lay-up in a fjord until it calms down. But the Cold-war Russians won’t let us in. No matter how fierce the weather blows, once we get within a mile of territorial waters, a gun-boat appears. So we hold our position over the ground by ‘laying and dodging.’ We dodge into the wind and sea for as long as we dare – with just enough speed to give us safe steerage. Then, when we have gone too far or are standing into danger, we batten down and shut-down the engine – like yachtsmen do. Now we’re beam-on to it and life is full of interest. When we’re back where we started, we re-start the engine and repeat the performance.
We’re laid just now – and the weather is so bad that the Mate and Bosun have joined the Skipper in the wheelhouse. There’s a Spare-hand ready by the wheel, and everyone’s hanging on to something. I automatically turn up the receiver-gain and join the others by wedging myself in the radio-room doorway. Maybe there’s comfort in numbers.
When we go up on a sea it’s like being on a hill – with the lights of the other ships way down below. Then we’re down in a trough – in a valley of black-water. Now she’s over on her side. She’s staying there – straining and creaking. ‘Jesus,’ gasps the Mate. ‘If she’s trim she’ll come back,’ Ernie growls. By the tone of his voice I reckon she’ll get a damn good hiding if she doesn’t. She recovers. But now she’s over again. My heart’s in my mouth. ‘Jesus,’ repeats the Mate. ‘If she’s trim she’ll come back,’ Ernie growls. She recovers. Then she’s over again. The Spare-hand gets in first. ‘Say she isn’t trim?’ he growls.
It’s like a magic formula. Everyone bursts out laughing and the tension has gone. The Mate isn’t the only-one to call on the Lord. The boys confide in me that Whatsaname, one of the younger Spare-hands, says silent prayers when things get hairy. It’s as if they’ve discovered that he’s got his wife’s knickers on. Whenever there’s a big bang and the ship labours under the weight of water, Whatsaname turns his back and bows his head. One day there’s a group of us standing in the accommodation passageway, having a smoke – when she takes a wallop. The Cook and the Galley-boy flee from the galley yelling -‘there’s water coming down the vent!’ The boys nudge me and nod towards Whatsaname. He’s turned away and bowed his head. It’s like they’ve spotted his panty-line.
I screw-up my face, showing suitable disdain at such wimpish behaviour. I don’t bother to tell them that every-hour, on-the-hour, I renew my pact with God, the devil and Neptune that – if they get me back to Manchester in one piece – I’ll never swear, drink or have sex for the rest of my life.
On these coal-burners there is no sheltered route between the accommodation and the bridge. If you want to eat, drink or go to the toilet, you’ve got to go out on deck. It’s even worse for the deckies. They’ve got to come over the exposed foredeck using lifelines. When it gets really bad, they’re trapped in the fo’c’sle
There’s always a kettle of hot cocoa, battened down on the galley-stove, and a big tub of fried fish battened to the table. So sometimes I nip down for a ‘smoko,’ and while I’m there I grab a chunk of fish and a hot drink.
In bad weather there’s always a lot of water swilling round the deck, so I sometimes go over the boat-deck and down the ladder at the after-end of the accommodation. No-one else does this. Now I’m making my way aft in foul weather in the black of the Arctic night. I’ve no shelter and I’m aware of the wind tearing at me, and the breakers racing around me with the white foam flashing like snarling fangs. I suddenly feel very vulnerable and lonely. When I get back to the bridge, the Bosun tells me never to go that way again. It’s not advice. It’s an order.
The next day, Whatsaname and I decide to take our ‘smoko’ at the same time. By now the weather is atrocious and we’re lying beam-on. Just going for a drink is a thigh-boot-job. Whatsaname is more experienced than me. He’s out through the lee door, onto the engine-room casing, down the ladder – and dashing along the main-deck.
I’m taking my time. I start to descend the ladder when – bang! There’s an almighty thump on the far-side of the ship. She lurches and turns to lead. I instinctively hook my arms through a rung and lock my hands together as a wall of freezing-water thunders over the casing, past the funnel, and crashes over me. I’m submerged beneath the icy mass. I don’t know if I’m in the sea, or still aboard, or if the ship’s afloat or sunk.
The water begins to ebb and the thin yellow stack comes slowly into view – looking like a wet woodbine. That wave has just put a massive dent in the far side that funnel. Then I see the Third-hand, officer-of-the-watch, with his nose pressed against the wheelhouse window. He tells me later that he thinks I’m a goner and has put the telegraph to standby. If I was going over the boat-deck today well say no more.
Now I’m on the lurching main-deck with my thigh-boots filled to the brim with sea-water. After this – don’t talk to me about handicaps. My legs and body are frozen-numb. Whatsaname is already under the shelter-deck, which is the underside of the boat-deck, hanging like a monkey with his arms and legs locked round a pipe. He’s well clear of the deck. I’m staggering towards him, stiff legged and leaden when – bang! She’s takes another one. ‘Get up here!’ yells Whatsaname. ‘I can’t. My legs are too heavy,’ I cry, locking my arms round a handrail that runs along the casing. Now the water comes charging round the corner – crashing into me, chest-deep, winding me and dragging me. I hang on like a welded fixture. I’m too scared to die. At the accommodation door I’ve still got problems. I can’t go inside with my boots full of water, and she’s still shipping big ones.
Now, at last, I’m down in the cabin, changing my clothes. ‘Look at the way Sparks is shivering,’ says the Second-engineer, ‘he must be freezing.’
‘That’s not cold,’ the Bosun growls. ‘That’s fear.’
They’re both right.
The sea’s not the only problem. They’ve built dangers into the ship too – to keep us on our toes. Harry, one of the Firemen, has the daily-job of humping coal up from the stokehold to galley and the cabin to replenish the stocks.
We’re fishing again now. And a group of us are heading back to work after a snatched meal. As we emerge into the passage, Harry is climbing up the engine-room-ladder with a sack of coal over his shoulder. Suddenly, the ladder collapses under the weight. The sack and the ladder crash down to the metal-deck below. Harry dangles, screaming, over the void with his elbows hooked over the lip of the doorway.
The Cook appears at the galley door to see what the fuss is about. ‘What’s the matter, Harry?’ he asks in a matter-of-fact-voice, looking down at the Fireman.
‘I wanna get down! I wanna get down!’ screams Harry.
‘Well – let go and you’ll drop down,’ says the Cook.
Back in the radio-room I trawl the bands. This is when Captain Parrot arrives on the scene. He’s a Grimsby Skipper who started the trip in northeast Iceland. Now he’s here in the Barents Sea. He must have come via Jan Mayen and Bear Island. He’s already been at sea for twenty-odd days and has had to take extra bunkers aboard in Iceland. ‘It cost me a fortune,’ he wails. ‘I’ll never pay for this trip.’ His voice reminds me of Smiler off ‘On The Buses’ and ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ – except that Smiler hasn’t been born yet.
Captain Parrot whines away on simplex – like Skippers do. Every time he pauses, someone breaks in and squawks, ‘Pretty-polly,’ or ‘whose a Pretty-boy then?’
‘I can’t find any fish anywhere,’ complains Captain Parrot. (Pretty-polly. Pretty-polly). And what little bit of fish I did have has gone rotten. (Who’s a Pretty-boy then?).
I offer to take a snap-bearing, but Ernie tells me to ‘garn-fuck.’
I rig up calls for Ernie too. He will speak to other Skippers, but it’s a set piece – all about catching nothing. And he always finishes with the same line – ‘it’s this Wireless-operator they’ve give’ me,’ he grumbles. ‘He’s a fuckin’ Jonah from the West Riding.’ This becomes his personal amen at the end of every monologue. To Ernie, everywhere beyond the stench of the fish-meal factory on Hull docks – is the West Riding. Unless it’s south of the Humber. Then it’s Lincolnshire -and enemy.
So the sunless days roll on in an endless routine of fishing and boiling livers – laying and dodging – gathering information – direction-finding and chasing fish – monitoring trips and Norwegian weather-forecasts – as well as copying traffic-lists and broadcasts from Wick Radio.
Along with the moment when that bag of fish breaks the surface, yet another recurring sight is imprinting itself indelibly on my memory. I see a group of deckies standing in the pounds beneath the deck-lights, knee-deep in silver fish – gutting – laughing and joking; yellow oilskins glistening wet; with the ship dipping and rolling; and the gulls screaming.
These guys amaze me. Out here in the freezing wind and spray, they can roll a cigarette with one hand, stick it between their lips, light it, and then puff happily away – and keep it going. One of them, Peter, is a real gem. He’s got this powerful, beautiful tenor voice. And all the time he’s gutting he’s singing ballads and pop-songs. His voice, now loud, now snatched away on the fitful wind – is forever lilting and haunting.
We’ve been doing OK for a while. But now we’ve had a couple of bad hauls, so we move along the coast a bit.
We’re doing our first tow in the new position as I make my way aft for dinner. As I come down the ladder and through the crew’s mess, I shout to the boys at the table, ‘we’re Ok now – we’re on fish!’
‘Who said?’ they ask.
‘Me – I can smell it,’ I say confidently – because I can.
They pull wry faces at one another.
We haul an hour later – and the trawl is bulging.
I’m getting there.
Now I’m back in the radio-room. And I’ve stumbled on Captain Parrot again. This time he’s on about his Cook. ‘I wouldn’t mind if he was a bad Cook,’ says Captain Parrot. (Pretty-polly. Pretty-polly). ‘I’ve sailed with lots of bad Cooks in my time.’ (Who’s a Pretty-boy then?). ‘I can live with a bad Cook. But this fellah can’t Cook at all.’ (Pretty-polly. Pretty-polly). ‘He can’t cook anythin’. We even have to make our own cocoa.’ (Who’s a Pretty-boy then?).
Homeward bound at last. The Norwegians are forecasting severe gales for the Norwegian Sea – and everywhere else. But the markets are promising, so we just keep going.
The Norwegians are right. As we leave the shelter of Lofoten we enter a world of massive black lumps with snarling white tops and lashing spray. There’s no option but to plough into it.
Every now and then the Milyna does her crazy little dance, stops-dead in her tracks, and flings her backside up in the air.
We’re well out to sea now. Then tragedy strikes. Bill, the Chief, is on watch. He climbs a ladder to do a job in the engine-room. Then the ship hits a sea. The jolt throws Bill from his perch, and he crashed down, legs spread apart, on to a metal handle or spike. The spike hits him between the testicles and anus and drives up into his body. It’s bad – real-bad.
‘We’ll have to get him in somewhere,’ the Mate shouts to Ernie above the din of the weather, as he comes into the wheelhouse.
‘Garn-fuck,’ Ernie growls, ‘I’ve known Bill for years. Bill’s all-right.’
Then the Bosun and Cook come up with the same demand. The pressure is on. So Ernie goes down to see the damage for himself.
When he comes back to the radio-room door his face is grim. ‘Get me a doctor,’ he growls.
I send an Urgency-message, XXX in Morse, to Wick Radio on 500klhz. It’s winter and night. Radio-range is maximum. So we manage to set up a limit-of-range link-call to a doctor. It’s difficult to understand each other, but the doctor gets the drift and tells us to get Bill into hospital – urgently.
It’s decision time for Ernie.
Alesund, in Norway, is the nearest port. That means running before a force nine. The boys don’t want to know about it. They tell me that if you run before a following sea in a gale, the waves will overwhelm the ship and push her under. The only people who ever attempt it are the Icelanders – when they are icing-up on the northerly fishing grounds. A build up of ice will turn a ship over. But when you’re icing-up in a northerly gale you can’t go on deck and chip the stuff off. When it comes to this the Icelanders take the bit between their teeth. They make a run-for-it – away from the ice. That means running before the gale. But when it’s a choice between possible death, and death with a written-guarantee – what do you do?
Ernie’s alternative is Lerwick, which is further away. He removes his cap and scratches his bald-head – deep in thought. Then he feels naked and plonks the cap back on his head. ‘Tell Wick we are taking an injured man into Lerwick,’ he growls at me.
Ernie’s primitive radar has little range. So navigation at this stage is by dead-reckoning and radio-direction-finding. The Mate and I are working together. He’s watching the magnetic compass and noting the ships course every time I yell ‘head!’ It’s interesting work, trying to synchronize a radio-bearing with a trawlers head when she’s kicking and yawing in a gale. I don’t rate any of my bearings higher than class-3 – plus or minus ten degrees. Ernie greets them all with a disdainful ‘garn-fuck.’
I keep searching for the beacon at Bressay – BY – which will ‘home’ us into Lerwick, but its range is only about 20 miles. Ernie is growling at his primitive radar, trying to make sense out-of a mass of rain-and-sea-clutter.
Now Sod’s-law kicks-in. The radar packs-up. Ernie needs that radar – badly. I can hear him in wheelhouse, banging and cursing. The Mate and I keep our heads down – taking a string of bearings. But I’m too scared to hand them to Ernie.
Now Ernie goes quiet. I’m really glad that I’m not involved in this. I don’t know anything about radar. I’ve never sailed on a ship that had one – except the Carthusian. And Toby wouldn’t even let me see the pretty-picture. This is 1953 – I’ve never even seen a television-set. I give a sigh of relief. I can pass on this one. I’m not involved. I’m absolutely fireproof.
‘Sparks – come here,’ Ernie’s standing at the radio-room door with a manual in his hand. I feel a deep sense of foreboding. The manual is open at the photograph of a scanner. ‘Go up top,’ Ernie tells me, ‘and unscrew this plate.’ He taps the photograph. ‘There’s a crystal under it. Take it out and put this one in.’ He hands me something like a large slug-gun pellet.
That’s how I came to be up here – the radar-mast of the Milyna – in a full gale, in the Shetland winter, frozen and drenched in spray, struggling to hang-on and replace a tiny-crystal with numb-fingers. Ernie has reduced speed, and is doing his best to control her, but the ship is still leaping and yawing. I wish I was Postman Pat or someone.
Job done, I return to the warmth of the wheelhouse. ‘Where’s the old crystal?’ Ernie asks, rewarding me with half-a-tumbler of rum.
‘In the big locker,’ I tell him. I flicked it triumphantly overboard as I returned to the safety of the monkey-island.
Ernie begins to tremble and growl. ‘Uhrrr-rrrr !’ Ernie’s growl spells ‘grave and imminent danger.’ I’ve made him unhappy. I can tell by the curses and threats. Now I can see the problem. He gets a rebate on the duff-crystals.
I gulp down the rum in-case he snatches it back. ‘I didn’t know,’ I protest. ‘Nobody told me,’ I mutter as I scamper into the radio-room to resume the bombardment of class-3 bearings.
As Bill is being stretchered off the ship in Lerwick, Ernie appears at the wheelhouse door. ‘Do you want anything, Bill?’ he shouts.
‘Aye – a piss,’ says Bill. Famous last words. We never see him again.
St Andrew’s Fish Dock in the early hours of a winter’s morning; cold and dark with the rain slanting in the pools of dim-light that surround the quayside lamps. Trawlers lie tied alongside each other, wet-decked and lifeless.
The Milyna is the third ship out.
I clamber over the other boats, then pause, awed by the very wee-ness of her. Yeah – I know she’s small. The Third-hand told me that, when she’s fully-laden, she’s only got a nine-inch freeboard. But tonight, even with several pints-of-beer swilling round my gut, I’m taken aback by how tiny she appears.
I shrug it off and drop down to her, mindful of the half-dozen eggs stowed in my seabag. Making my way aft I join the crewmen, gathering below-decks in the mess-room and cabin.
Conversation is centred round the price we got for the catch the liver bonus Bill, our injured Chief and the few hours in port with family and friends.
We nose round Spurn and plough into the weather. The never-ending gale is shrieking round the superstructure. Ernie, with a ‘don’t disturb’ growl,’ goes down to his cabin. The Third-hand takes charge of the watch. The Bosun and Mate go down for a kip.
Time passes. Morning dawns. The Bosun comes into the wheelhouse to take over the watch. ‘She’s handling badly,’ the Third Hand tells him. ‘And she’s getting worse.’
They stand together, peering, thoughtful and puzzled, through the wheelhouse window. Heavy seas continually crash over the bow. The ship feels heavy and sluggish. This is not the little girl who leapfrogs the Atlantic rollers and dances in the arms of the Arctic storms. She doesn’t shake the water off. She’s beginning to labour like a whale in its harpoon-death-throes.
Suddenly – realisation dawns. The Bosun let’s out a curse. ‘She’s down by the head,’ he blurts. ‘Get the Mate!’
‘Christ!’ The Mate doesn’t hesitate. ‘ Skipper! Skipper!’ he yells down the ladder. ‘Get the boys to the pumps!’ Ernie orders, emerging from the ladder and striding across the wheelhouse pulling his braces over his shoulders.
But the Mate’s already in action.
‘The pump’s blocked!’ The Deckie Learner snatches open the wheelhouse door and yells at Ernie.,br> Ernie shoots through the door and disappears down the casing – off to see for himself. He finds the pump is blocked with coal. Every time the crew clear it – it blocks again – instantly.
Last-trip, when Bill the Chief was injured, the chain-of-command was broken. The Second-engineer had to cover two watches. The Firemen were stoking like the demons-of-hell to keep us on wet-steam. And, at the same time, they had to help the Second to run the engine-room.
When we arrived in port, the Chief would normally allocate tasks and supervise them himself. One of the jobs was to pump the bilges and replace the bilge covers. The covers were left open to allow water from the ice and the hoses to drain into the bilges, from where it could pumped over the side.
This time home, Bill wasn’t there and the engine-room crew are knackered after the extra work. Soon-ever the ship docked they automatically reverted to their normal roles. None of them had the job of making decisions. Like the rest of us, they wanted to get off the ship and head for home.
So no-one pumped the bilges or replaced the covers.
Then, for the second time in a week, Sod’s-law kicked-in because, during the trip north we carry the coal for the voyage-home in the after fish-room. This fuel is moved into the main-bunker as space becomes available.
But this time, when they bunkered the ship in Hull, the coal they put in the fish-room poured through the open drain-holes into the bilges.
Now the bilges are overflowing with coal and water. The Milyna is wallowing and awash, and the pumps are choked – so the fish-rooms are flooding.
Ernie sends a party to swing the lifeboat, then hurries back to the bridge.
I tune one transmitter and receiver to the Morse distress-frequency; and a second transmitter and receiver to the radio-telephone frequency. I’m a belt-and-braces-man. The batteries are charged. So it’s all-systems – go.
Now I stand in the doorway and watch the action. Last trip, I sent an Urgency Message – XXX. This trip is building up to a Distress Message – SOS.
The wheelhouse door is flung open again. ‘The derrick’s buggered!’ The Third Hand yells above the din of the wind and sea. ‘The boat’s seized in the cradle. When we tried to swing it, everything collapsed.’
Ernie shoots through the door again.
A short time later, Ernie strides back into the wheelhouse looking thoughtful. He’s a worried man. The ship’s foundering in bad weather. The pumps are choked. There’s no lifeboat. And we’re not fitted with life-rafts.
It’s decision time again. An enquiry will call this crew-negligence. We didn’t pump her-out or replace the bilge-covers.
And it was all so obvious when we joined her. Even I, the greenhorn Sparks from the ‘West Riding,’ could see she was low in the water, but said nothing. I took it for granted that other people knew better than me. I didn’t realise that she hadn’t been pumped-out. I just thought she was small. It fitted-in with the thought of a nine-inch freeboard. Besides – I’m new around here. I’ve got an image to create. I don’t want to say stupid things. I’ve got to look cool. Maybe some of the others have similar reasons. I don’t know.
On stand-by – alone in the radio-room – I weigh it all up.
This is not the crew’s fault, I conclude. The culprit is the trawler-owner’s profit-greed. Everything about this industry is about making money. There’s nothing about safety. Trawler-owners are Gets. ‘Get fish! Get it ashore! Get it sold! Get bunkered! Get iced! Get to sea! Get fish !’
Limiting ships to a forty-eight-hour turn-round is a scandal. It’s asking for trouble. There’s no time for anything. This is my third time ‘out this way.’ And I’ve never done a boat-drill yet – or seen a boat swung.
Forty-eight hours in port doesn’t equal two days at home. During that time you’ve got to hang around for your pay, get organised, and get back to the ship. And the boys head back to the dock knowing they are in for another gruelling three-weeks. So they call in for a drink – to mask the pain. I know I do. And whose going to blame us?
The boys are in a rush to get off the ship when she docks. And they scurry aboard at the last minute before she sails. And that’s how ships get lost.
The pompous know-alls in the enquiry will call this ‘crew-error.’
I call it exploitation.
For the second time in a week, Ernie removes his cap and scratches his bald-head. The buck stops here.
I ‘wig’ around the inter-ship channels discreetly. None of the ships I hear seem to be in our vicinity. And there’s nothing to be seen visually. So if she does go-down there will be no instant salvation – and we have no lifeboat to scramble into.
We need ships to divert towards us – immediately. But if we put out an urgency-call, Pan or XXX, our plight will become public knowledge. All the fishing community will know – including the owner. After that, even though the ship may be saved, questions will be asked.
Stories will flood the fishing-fleet and Hull fish-docks in an unstoppable tide of Chinese Whispers. The crew will be blamed – and everyone aboard the Milyna knows that.
In this game, you have to earn your berth on a ship. There are scores of men clamouring for your job. Reputation is everything. Today, on the Milyna, reputations and careers are at stake. Ernie’s in a trough between two great waves. One is the safety of his crew – the other is their reputation.
‘Go below and get plenty of warm clothes on,’ he tells me. ‘Then get back up here – quick.’
As I move along the ship I see every-one going calmly about their tasks.
In the main cabin, I find the Mate taking floats out the locker and stacking them on the big table. The floats are about 2 feet square with a couple of rope-loops on each side. Each float has the words ‘THIS WILL SUPPORT 8 MEN’ stencilled on it.
The Mate holds one aloft. ‘Look at this Sparks,’ he shouts, ‘imagine eight of us stood on that.’ I emerge from the ladder by the galley door where the cook is busy making stew for the crew who filter wearily-in from their toil.
As I come into view the Galley-boy looks up from his job of ladling to the men and says, ‘we’re sinking, Sparks.’ His voice is full of incredulity. I nod my head and say ‘yeah – I know,’ equally disbelieving. It all seems a bit unreal.
Back in the radio-room, nothing has changed. Familiar signals chirp from the receivers. The transmitters hum. It’s warm and cosy. The vessel isn’t listing crazily. There’s a false sense of security. ‘We’re foundering in a gale in the North Sea,’ I tell myself. ‘And this is what it’s like.’
I often wondered. Now I know – and I feel strangely relaxed.
Below decks, in another world, the crew frantically shift coal round the after-fish-room. They must get to those open grids, clear the bilges of coal, get the covers back on, and pump-her-out. They trim and re-trim the ship; and continually relieve each other for refreshments and a rest.
Up on the bridge, Ernie plays it cool.
At last, it all pays off. The pumps are free. The bilges are pumped. The ship is trim. We’re underway to the White Sea. Fingers begin to point, and the rigid-bollockings begin. It’s another near-miss. They must happen all the time. But nobody knows.
It’s the 1st December ’53. The bollockings have finished and we’ve settled back to work. We are somewhere to the east of Orkney, and I’m in the queue with Wick Radio, waiting for a link-call. The Radio Officer at Wick suddenly breaks in and tells us to retune to the calling frequency and standby for a distress broadcast.
I switch it through to the bridge-speaker so that the Bosun can follow events.
On the calling frequency the Skipper of the Velia is shouting to Wick. ‘That Mayday was from the Hildina,’ he says. ‘She’s fishing with me – 50 miles north by west of Sule Skerry. She towed away to the west. I can still see her smoke on the horizon. We’ve chopped the gear and we’re heading for her.’
I stand at the radio-room doorway with the Bosun and one of the Spare-hands, smoking and listening to the drama. The other Spare-hand sprawls over the wheel, cigarette in mouth, listening intently.
This is the Hildina’s first trip out of Fleetwood. She was transferred from Hull on the 26th of November – five days ago. And that newly-wed Wireless-operator is aboard her.
The story unfolds piecemeal. ‘I’ve picked up eight men,’ the Velia reports at last. The Velia is a sister ship of the Hildina. She’s out of Fleetwood too. They’re both owned by the same company – J Marr & Son.
The Velia’s Skipper gets the story from the survivors and passes it to Wick. The Hildina is fishing in rough weather. Suddenly, her trawl ‘comes-fast’ on the seabed. The fouled gear pulls the ship onto her side and she takes a huge sea that smashes through a watertight door and fills the accommodation. More seas follow and she begins to capsize.
An Engineer runs back down the ladder to shut-down the engine. The Wireless-operator dashes to the radio-room and gets out a Mayday.’ The Skipper and three crewmen try to clear the gear. The Mate and the rest of the crew are swinging the boat and getting ready for the ‘abandon-ship’ order. In the midst of it all, the Hildina turns-over and goes-down.
The Wireless-operator, Engineer, Skipper and his three helpers go down with her.
Going through the Fjords with Ernie is more relaxed. I can talk to the pilots. And this trip, the Norwegian forest-folk have got their trees ablaze with Christmas lights. We’re cruising through a beautiful Fairyland.
Reality comes with the North Cape. We’re back in the fishing-routine and the weather’s going down-hill.
The Brits are a law unto themselves up here. We take over a British ship-to-shore radio-channel as a communal calling and answering frequency. That leaves all the inter-ship channels free for fishing-chat. Channel-six is the obvious choice because the nearest station to use that frequency is Humber Radio. He’s not going to hear us from this distance. It’s very handy because you can always find who you are looking for if you dip-in on channel-six.
There’s a Spare-hand on one of the Grimsby-boats who has a beautiful baritone voice. And every Sunday morning his Skipper puts him on channel-six and he sings the Lord’s Prayer to us. It’s another magic-moment. And we need magic-moments.
The weather’s too bad for fishing now – and still deteriorating. There’s a whole fleet of British ships, gathered from all the fishing ports – laid-and-dodging – trying to hold their position on this bank. But now it’s force-nine and gusting storm-ten in the blizzards. It drags on and on. Still – there’s nothing we can do but dodge and lay – dodge and lay.
Now one of the lads is shouting over the radio. ‘Is everyone here? Are all the ships accounted for?’ He’s just dodged out of a blizzard and seen red-flares going up. But now he’s back in the snow and can see nothing.
We do a quick check. All the Brits are accounted for. On every trawler the Bridge-watch and Wireless-operators begin straining their eyes and ears. Ernie can’t make anything out on the radar. But I find that Vardo Radio is handling a full-blown distress.
A Finnish freighter, right in the midst of us, is foundering in the storm. And, because we’ve let the distress-watch slip, we haven’t heard his call for help. I screw up my face. Guilt hurts. God – I’ve got enough receivers in here to keep a distress watch.
The trouble is, we’re all so focussed on fish that everything else goes out of our minds. Every minute of every day, whatever the weather, we’re under pressure to get fish. But I swear never to let the distress watch lapse again.
Two trawlers, one from Grimsby and one from Fleetwood, manage to rescue the freighter’s crew – eighteen men and two women – in the most appalling conditions imaginable. Other trawlers stand-by and assist with searchlights between the snow-squalls. The Milyna’s not required. Thank God – because we can’t see a goddam thing where we are.
Now Ernie’s dodged into this tiny cove near North Cape to get us out of the weather. God – it’s harsh in here. Sheer rock-walls towering all round us, glistening with ice. They’re so close you feel you can touch them. When the blizzard closes in it’s real scary. But it’s better than that sea. *** The storm’s abated a little, so we nose outside. Ernie’s using the bad weather to dodge up to Bear Island. We can’t fish in this anyway.
All the ships that are heading up-north from the UK at this moment are going to be at sea over Christmas. So they are all sending their ‘bunches’ of Christmas-greeting-messages via Wick Radio. They pump out anywhere between ten and thirty messages at a time – for Christmas delivery. And Wick’s sending the same back to them. So trying to get Ernie’s coded-reports back to the owner, and keep up with everything-else, is pretty hard-going.
This is Bear Island. The weather round here can be the worst you’ll find anywhere. It’s the coldest place you can fish. Just look at the sea. Do you see that mist creeping towards us over the surface? That’s the Black Frost. See how ghostly it is. Watch it creeping up on the ships until all you see are the shadows of their superstructures and funnels. Can you sense the eerie silence of it? Do you feel how cold it’s gone? It feels to me like the fingers of death. Now watch – see how the spray freezes as it lands on deck. Everything is icing-up already.
The boys will go on deck now and start chipping the ice. They’re really wary of the Black Frost. It’s got this sinister reputation. It can build up on a radio-antenna and bring it crashing to the deck. Ice like that will capsize a ship. That’s how bad it gets. But it’s OK so long as they keep it under control – and the big winds stay away.
But if a gale comes while the frost is around – you’ve got real problems. Because when you go on deck you are standing on ice. And you can’t stand on ice in bad weather – so you can’t chip. You don’t need a Skipper’s Certificate to know what that means. Ships can ride-out storms. But ice will ride-out ships – and take them to their deaths.
Fortunately, at Bear Island, the big winds come from the south-west. That brings massive seas. But the storms are warm enough to keep the ice at bay. So you don’t get the fatal combination. But on the north coast of Iceland the gales come from the north. That’s when the ice comes in the teeth of a gale. And that’s bad news.
But look on the bright side. Up here, with a clear sky like this, they switch on the Northern Lights. If you look up now – that’s them you can see. Today they look like searchlights – beaming across the sky. I caught a glimpse of them the other day and they were like massive smoke-rings – waxing-and-waning above my head. If you keep your eyes open, before we go home you will see fantastic multi-coloured patterns all over the sky. It’s a hypnotic kaleidoscope up there. It’s where God makes the rainbows.
We’re back in the Norwegian Sea again – homeward bound. The weather today is as bad as it gets. It never lets-up. But what do you expect in winter? And hey – we’ll be home for Christmas.
God – I’ve never felt a wave like that before. It’s stopped her dead in her tracks. What a wallop! It’s a wonder she didn’t fly apart at the seams.
Do you feel the Milyna rearing-up – trying to get over it? It must be massive. Feel her shuddering and labouring – I’ll swear she’s going backwards. Now she’s plunging down the other side.
What’s that shouting in wheelhouse? What’s going on?
Thud! God – it’s like she’s hit a mine.
It’s another big one. She’s taken a lot of water aboard this time. Just feel her. She’s turned to lead. She’s dead in the water. And she’s shuddering-hard – struggling to rise.
I don’t believe this. That’s another one. And she hasn’t recovered from the other two. Feel her trembling under the weight of water – straining – trying to shake it off. She’s rising. She’s still afloat. Thank God for that. She’s done it. She’s away again now – over and plunge, over and plunge. What a star.
That was a nasty moment though. The Skipper’s in the wheelhouse now. He wants to know what happened. The Mate’s telling him about it. The man-at-the-wheel sees this massive wave coming and eases her into it. Then the Mate sees him freeze.
The man can see two more giants charging after the first – one behind the other. The Mate takes it all in, leaps for the wheel, knocks the man out of the way, and takes over. That’s what the shouting is about.
‘Sparks!’ That’s Ernie from the wheelhouse. ‘Are there any ships in trouble?’
‘No,’ I tell him. I’ve no hesitation. I’m keeping a watch on both the WT and RT distress frequencies.
‘Well come here and take a look at this,’ he tells me.
I go into the wheelhouse and stand with the Mate and one of the Spare-hands. Ernie has got the glasses trained on the freighter that’s on the starboard bow. The other Spare-hand, the one who froze, is back on the wheel and fully recovered.
The freighter is listing badly and labouring in the heavy seas. As we draw close, I can see that the deck-cargo has shifted. Some of it is hanging over the side. It’s pulling the ship over. As we come up to her we can see crew-men – desperately working on the sloping-deck.
‘She’s in serious trouble,’ says the Mate.
I nod. ‘If she was hit by the three waves we got, I’m not surprised,’ I tell myself. Ernie hands me the Aldis-lamp. ‘See if she wants assistance,’ he tells me.
I signal several times but there’s no reply. So I go the radio-room and call her on RT – ‘Unknown ship to starboard. This is the British trawler Milyna. Do you hear me? Over.’ Still no joy. So now I try it in Morse on 500Khz. But it’s all in vain.
She’s a Russian. We can tell that from the hieroglyphics on her bow and stern. This is the cold war. She doesn’t want to know us. Death before dishonour.
We’ve no time to play silly-buggers. We’ve a market to catch. And Christmas is coming. So we wish her a silent ‘bon-voyage.’ Then steam away and leave her to her fate.
I maintain my distress watches. But there’s never a cheep from her. Our mystery ship remains a mystery.
It’s February ’54. I’m in Manchester, dumping evil-smelling washing on the Laundry-fairy. I arrived home yesterday evening. And I’m going back to Hull this afternoon.
I’ve already got the beer in for the train-journey.
I come downstairs, bleary-eyed and hung-over after last-night’s-clubbing.
‘Another trawler’s sunk,’ my mother tells me accusingly. She’s very religious my mother – eats fish every Friday. But in-spite of her prayers, trawlers keep sinking and fishermen drowning. She feels there’s conspiracy afoot. She can’t put her finger on it. But, somehow, she feels I’m a part of it.
I listen to the one-o’clock news.
The Laforey has been found upside-down on the Norwegian-coast.
Gatley sent an SOS last-night. He said they were on the Yttero reef and capsizing. Time passes. The search is called off. There are no survivors.
While I was out playing, Gatley and his nineteen mates from Grimsby died a violent death at the hands of that callous-team – the cruel Norwegian Sea and its vicious-coast.
Our Chief-engineer, Bill – and those two ships, the Hildina and Laforey, have all met their fate in a little over two months.
And this is peacetime.
Three weeks later I bump into the Mate of the Carthusian in Rayner’s Pub on West Dock Avenue. He gives me more bad news. One of their Spare-hands is dead .
When they were shooting the trawl the man was down aft. Somehow, he lost his footing and slipped on the grating.
‘Ruptured his belly-button,’ says the Mate.
When the ship docks the man makes for home – and dies of his injuries.
The Mate attended the inquest.
He shakes his head in disgust. ‘There wasn’t a single seaman on the jury,’ he says. ‘All shore people who didn’t know what I was talking about. I had to draw pictures for them. I even had to draw a grating.’
‘Why didn’t you get this man straight to hospital when the ship docked?’ Demands the Coroner.
‘I was busy getting the catch ashore. There was money at stake.’ The Mate tells him.
‘Is money more important than a man’s life?’ Demands the coroner .
‘On Hull fish-dock it is,’ replies the Mate.
That sums it up.