Let no one imagine that the occasion of my first sailing was lacking in glamour, although glamour was more a term reserved for film stars (female) of the up and coming talkies. Yes, glamour was present, but my concern was to make it all appear a normal occurrence. Of course, I had seen many ships pass through the locks into the Humber, but I had never actually been on one, nor had I seen the view from the river itself. So as we passed slowly through the open lock on that fine but still chilly morn, I leaned against the ship's side in the most nonchalant manner possible, as if I had spent a lifetime at it. Secretly of course I was rather hoping to receive admiring glances from the few onlookers, who would point me out as the new wireless operator. Unfortunately no one did! Naturally, having been brought up in the town, I knew quite a lot about a seafaring life and what in later years I would call `the form'. Whilst the ship was in dock, there would be a watchman, probably an old Skipper or mate past sea going days, whose job it was to see the stores arrive and prevent pilfering, guard the personal belongings left in the bunks, and most important of all, ensure that there was tea ready for the crew's arrival. The tea was made in an enormous kettle that held about two gallons and kept hot on the galley stove. Traditionally and for very practical reasons, fishermen took their gear, personal clothing, in a black waterproof drawneck seabag. Holiday makers would often ask who the men were carrying black bags over their shoulders, for round about tide times, there would be quite a lot of them walking the streets, both in Grimsby and Cleethorpes. The practical reasons for these seabags were that there was nowhere on the ship to stow a suitcase, and so the bag had to go in the bunk where it served as a pillow; if it fell into the dock when boarding it would float, and if the owner followed it there would be something to cling to, especially if by some cruel chance he was Under-the-lnfluence at the time.
It was a well known fact, according to Uncle Wilf, that you only washed and changed your un- derclothing once a trip, and that just before arriving back home. Little did I realise that he was talking about six or seven day trips twenty years before. A six week voyage to Greenland was quite a different matter, as I was to learn. Fortunately, at Mother's insistence, I had at least two changes, although I did have a suitcase and not a seabag. After Frostie's departure, the crew started to arrive. Well before any one else came the two Engineers and the Trimmer, in order to raise a full head of steam by sailing time. The job of the oddly named trimmer was to shovel the coal in the bunkers so that it could be fed into the boiler fires, and also to ensure that the ship was kept on an even trim. Then in dribs and drabs came the rest - deckhands, Cook, Mate - each of whom gave me a quizzical look and then made straight for the galley for a pot of tea. Strictly speaking, this was a mug, but as I found out, always referred to as a pot. They all enquired if I was the new operator, probably somewhat surprised to see a fresh faced youth of seventeen, barely shaving as yet. Never-the-less, I was Certificated to do a man's job and quite determined to go down with the ship after sending a dramatic SOS. After a few words with each other, mostly as far as I could gather about boozers, hangovers and The Old Woman, they set about their various tasks. The Cook, checking his stores, muttered something about What does the Gaffer think we eat; the Trimmer seemed to be very anxious to lower a couple of large metal containers down into the engine room as quickly as possible, while the deckhands stowed coils of rope and other exciting items under the forecastle head. Then a tall, cheery fellow with a rather naive looking face, who answered to the name of - and in fact was - the Mate, called out The Old Man's here. Poor Nodge Norris, some years later he was accidentally knocked overboard within sight of the docks and drowned. The Old Man had arrived in a taxi as befitted a Skipper, dressed in a natty gents suiting, quite different to the rather Up and Down Dock suits the others wore. But then, theirs had to be rolled up into the seabag, while his could hang in his cabin. There was no excitement, no shouting, no drama about the actual sailing. The Skipper just asked if they were all aboard; Nodge said yea, the new operator was here as well, a call Let go For'ard, a tinkling clang on the engine room telegraph and I suddenly realised that there was a widening gap between us and the quay side. We passed through the narrows of the swing-bridge, across the outer dock, smoothly through the lock and out into the muddy Humber. I was off to sea !
About ten minutes steam out into the roadstead, Nodge went up on to the fo'c'sle top while others did some business or other below; there was a long and loud clanking noise, and we were at anchor. To await, I found, the arrival of the Compass Adjuster to swing the compasses.
The St. Keverne was about 135 feet long with a counter stern and something in the order of 200 tons displacement, built as a trawler but now used as a Codman, one of a fast dying breed of vessels that fished with long lines. It had a high yellow funnel bearing a large C in a blue band around its top. This stood for Crampins, the owners. The Gaffer, old Mr. Crampin, was a Skipper who had founded a small fleet of steam fishing vessels, as my own Grandfather had done with sailing smacks. The fo'c'sle head, the whaleback, curved to throw off the seas, sheltered the hatchway to the fo'c'sle itself and also the anchor winch or capstan, the cause of the clanking when we anchored. On the foredeck were three small hatches to the fish storage rooms, their size ensuring that they would not be stove-in by heavy seas. Also on the foredeck was a small upright winch with a horizontal drum used to haul in the lines, while just forward of the midships bridge structure was the main winch. This was very large and powerful, designed to haul in a full trawl in all weathers. The wheelhouse - the bridge - with an outside verandah, was fully enclosed; the Skipper's cabin - the chartroom - was below, reached by an internal ladder. Aft of the wheelhouse was the new wireless cabin. Grouped behind all this were the two main stokehold ventilators and the funnels, with the engine room casing leading to the galley. Further aft still was the lifeboat, secured in a cradle bolted to the main deck. Right aft in the stern over the counter was a small deckhouse that had certain utilitarian functions. Unlike a trawler proper, the St. Keverne had no gallows. Not those for hanging mutineers, but two arch-shaped frameworks, fore and aft on each side, through which ran the trawl warps. The ship had been built with them, but they had been removed when Crampins bought her.
Feeling somewhat aggrieved that no one was taking any notice of me, I climbed the ladder by the bridge and went into my kingdom. This was only about four feet by four feet with a door that opened on to the veranda, or to be more precise, to the elements, a fact not conducive to dry comfort, as I later found out. Inside was a desk for the apparatus, although this was a rather flattering term as it was only a wide wall-to-wall shelf, at which I sat on a wooden stool facing aft. An unfortunate feature of this, from my point of view, was that the stool was not secured to the deck. The transmitter and receiver were on the desk and beside me on the bulkhead was the was the battery charging board, an impressive affair of thick slate, bearing several imposing and open switches with a row of light bulbs at the top. These were carbon filament lamps, just like the very first electrical lights invented, and they glowed when the batteries were charging up. Fortuitously they also gave out a lot of heat, a fact that was greatly appreciated later on in the cold weather. For there was no other heating provided. Beneath the desk was a motor generator that was revved up by sliding a handle inside a starter box.
Sitting there, surveying all that I could see with no little pride, I was startled when a sliding hatch opened just behind my head and I was bidden to see the Skipper in the chartroom. After providing details of my name, age, address etcetera, I signed-on, that is signed the ship's articles and became, officially, a Merchant Seaman, Witnessed by Harry Thompson, Skipper. The Mate then asked where I was to sleep as there was no spare bunk and was told by the Skipper that the Gaffer's orders were that I was to sleep on the locker on which I was then sitting. This was about a foot wide but at least it did have a cushion, which was more than my stool had. Little did I realise that this narrow sofa was to be my bed for the next eighteen months. According to the custom on the port, I had provided myself with blankets, two if I remember correctly, but it was fortunate that I was to sleep on the cushioned locker for as I said, I did not have a Donkey's Breakfast. This fact also saved me a little money, as they only lasted about six months before becoming somewhat smelly and a new one had to be bought from the Ship Chandler.
Shortly after this a tug came alongside bringing the Compass Adjuster, who seemed encumbered with a lot of equipment. Greeted by the Skipper as an old friend with the inevitable pot of tea, he clambered up to the top of the wheelhouse and created a sort of surveyor's tripod. In the meantime there had been a lot of activity up for'ard, with some more clanking noises, but this time with a lot of shouting that seemed to be directed down a small hatchway under the fo'c'sle. I then realised that the anchor had been heaved in and we were underway. Swinging a compass does not mean that it is actually swung around at the end of a rope, but is the process of checking the readings against known readings observed by lining up markers on the shore, making corrections by the use of small magnets around the compass bowl, and preparing a list of residual errors. It has to be done periodically and also when structural changes have been made. All this involved steaming slowly around in circles under the orders of the Adjuster as he lined up the shoremarkers. Eventually the job was done, and he departed on a tug that had been summoned by six blasts on the ship's whistle. And then were off, on our way.
In those days, all communications with ships was exclusively by wireless telegraphy: morse code. The wider use of telephony came later. One of the advantages of telegraphy is that operators of all nationalities can communicate with each other despite their different languages by using abbreviations and coded signals. There are a hundred or more of these, most beginning with the letter 0 which are used to ask and convey very precise items of information. The morse code itself and these abbreviations become so much a part of an operator that it is simply a form of speech or understanding, and there is no consciousness that any intermediary is being used. And the great part of it is that to any individual it is all in his own tongue. As all transmitters sound similar, it comes as a shock if you meet a fellow operator and find that he doesn't speak a word of English and that even his features and the colour of his skin are different. And probably only a abort time before, you had been communicating with each other perfectly. So my transmitter could only be used for morse and like many others of that era operated by sparking a high voltage across a disc gap every time the morse key was pressed. It was said that this could be heard all over the ship. Not strictly true, but it is the origin of the traditional name for operators: Sparks. Although the transmitter was simple enough, the receiver was much grander. It had no less than eighteen knobs, switches and controls, all of which did something - and two valves. Magnificent!
The duty of every ship passing up the coast of the British Isles was to send a message termed a TR to the nearest coastal station giving details of the ship's passage. Now the nearest coast station to Humber was and still is, not unsurprisingly, called Humber Radio, callsign GKZ. At one time, this station was situated on the docks at Grimsby using a very powerful transmitter of the spark type, and whenever its key was pressed, no one around could hear the BBC on their newfangled crystal sets. According to Dad, it always started up around news bulletin time and I remember him writing an irate letter to the Postmaster General himself, claiming that it was done deliberately. As we were now proceeding to sea, it was my fearsome duty to send the TR. Carefully writing out the message in full, callsigns three times and not forgetting to include every abbreviation and letter required by the regulations, I started up the motor. Then completely overcome by the awesome nature of the act I was going to have to perform, I just had to wait a while before I could pluck up courage to actually press the key. For this WAS IT.
Training on these procedures, I had always been connected by wire to my fellow student at the other end of the practice table and in any case, I knew him and could see him. If the worst happened and we got into a tangle, we could always chat our way out. But this was different. I had to actually talk over the air in morse to a totally disembodied voice. Eventually, my knees knocking together, I placed my hand on the morse key, called up GKZ from GTKC, my new callsign, and stopped the motor. Fright I expect. Then in sheer terror I waited. Would he understand my morse? He must know that I was a beginner. Would he reply? Maybe he wouldn't even bother, for I was only a little boy. I waited for ages it seemed, probably about two seconds. Then back it came, loud and clear: GTKC K - go ahead. Oh my God. It's me. He's answered. He understood. What shall I do? Reply. Press the key - it doesn't work, start the motor you fool. Impatiently he come back: K. Then in my best morse I sent the TR. Immediately came the reply: R received, followed by an nonchalant: New ship ?. He got it. I did it. He didn't know I was a beginner. I was a man, a King among operators ... ... well not exactly.
The Humber is a dirty brown colour, an estuary rather than a river, some seven miles across at its widest, but narrowing down to about four by the Spurn, a peninsular that curves southwards and inwards, providing good shelter for vessels during periods of bad weather. Fast receding behind us was the newly seen vista of Grimsby and Cleethorpes, dominated by the silhouette of the Dock Tower, the landmark that in future years would be such a welcome homecoming sight. Away to the right were the two forts erected during the Great War as protection against naval raids. I was interested in all the happenings, the thump thump of the engines, and particularly the hiss of the sea as we steamed along at our full ten knots. This surprised me as I didn't realise that one would actually hear this, even though the sides of a trawler are low enough to be able to pull in a bucket of water from the end of a three foot line. Little did I know that dry decks were few and far between. How innocent I was.
During the circling around while adjusting the compass, I noticed the cook clamber up to the galley top and proceed to place large joints of meat into a couple of large barrels. He explained that it was only possible to keep about a week's supply of meat in fresh eatable condition, so the pork and mutton would go first and the rest, the beef, was pickled in brine to become salt horse, the sailors traditional fare. Beef in brine casks on a ship was the only real method of obtaining proper salt beef It's the sloshing about that does it. Gets the red right through to the middle. As soon as it was possible to get through the wheelhouse, I took my case down to the Skipper's cabin, changed into old clothes and laid out my blankets on the locker. This cabin doubled as the chartroom, and it contained a fore and aft bunk, the Skipper's on the port side, with a central table close up to my locker on the other. Later on, I found that this was a lifesaving arrangement. By now, the crew had all changed into sea-going gear, dark blue or Shetland guernseys and dun coloured fearnaughts, which are trousers of heavy material, short in the ankles for a good reason and with a three-layer warmth providing wrapover across the stomach. Around the neck, stuffed into the guernsey collar was worn a shawl, a square of paisley patterned material rolled lengthwise. The deckhands, firemen and trimmers all slept down the fo'c'sle, while the rest lived aft in the cabin. This was a horseshoe-shaped affair right over the ship's counter, which served as a mess deck for all hands, as well as sleeping quarters. It was entered by a companionway that led from the galley entrance, from which one could descend the steep ladder into the engine room. The cabin was entered facing aft, on the left-hand side being a small berth or cabin occupied by the mate, while the chief engineer had a similar one on the opposite side. The whole atmosphere was rather gloomy, daylight coming through small ports in the lowish deckhead which was supported by a couple of samson posts, conveniently positioned in the most awkward place. All the deck space was taken up by a horseshoe table, around which were storage lockers that doubled as seats. Higher, at shoulder height, were four bunks, effectively only horizontal cupboards, each a with sliding half door and a small curtain, and occupied by the second engineer, cook, a deckie and the Third Hand who ranked just below the Mate.
Later on I found that there were two sittings for each meal, one for those going on watch, and the other for those coming off. Seating, I also found, was in strict hierarchical order. The Skipper sat at the corner nearest the door so that he could make his entrances and exits without encumbrance, and sometimes an exit had to be very precipitate indeed. The other corner was the prerogative of the engineers. In the absence of the Skipper, the Mate had the place of honour. The rest squeezed in around the top of the table, and late comers had to crawl around the locker seat over the backs of those already seated. My first experience of all this was somewhere about midday when there was a call of Meal-oh, and I was told to go down with the first sitting. There had not been time for the cook to pre- pare a full hot dinner, so it was a substantial fry-up of sausages and bacon, with bread and jam to follow, plus the inevitable pot of tea. Still trying to be a keen type, I returned to the wireless cabin to see what was going on, and found that we had made a northwards turn and were passing through the two mile gap between the Spurn Head and the Spurn Lightship. Spurn Head was a desolate place, noth- ing but a sandy strip with the lighthouse at the end and the lifeboat station with the crew's cottages a little further towards the mainland, the sheltered bay.
The Mate then came up to the bridge and told the Skipper that everything was stowed away. At this, the Skipper called out Set the Watch which I found out was the classical order that the vessel was now on passage and that watches would commence, turn and turn about. Nodge gave a grin and ordered the Third Hand to take the first watch. This he did in company with one of the deckhands, both muttering something about He always does this. The Third Hand, who answered to the name of Skrimper, told me that the Mate was clever. He would himself take the next watch, the one after tea, which meant that he would have a full night's sleep from midnight until breakfast time the next morning. Over to the left, the coast of Yorkshire slowly disappeared, only to come back into view as we passed the cliffs of Flamborough Head.
The exploitation of the Greenland fishing grounds on a regular basis was a comparatively recent development at Grimsby. As the bunker capacity of the available vessels was insufficient to operate at such vast distances from home, extra coal had to be taken in one of the fish holds. In addition, more had to be carried as deck cargo. Also it was necessary to call at the small Scottish port of Scrabster to top-up the bunkers, so that maximum fuel would be available for the long voyage, as there was no possibility of calling at any port should reserves run out. Vessels going to Iceland or Bear Island did have bolt holes, but at Greenland there weren't any ports to go to, and even in emergency, no one would have been allowed ashore for fear of influenza which had decimated the indigenous population in the 1921 world epidemic.
Now answering to the name of Sparks, I told the Skipper of my watchkeeping hours, two on, two off from 0800 to 2200 with which he was satisfied and told me that I could turn in whenever I liked. This was a fine life I thought, a natural sailor like my Grandfather, as we steamed up the North Sea. My terror of using the wireless had abated a little, as I worked the next station up the coast before stretching out on the Skipper's locker. Much to my surprise, despite the narrowness of the bed, I slept soundly. The next day, we caught sight of the Scottish coast off Peterhead, and I was rather embarrassed to be asked if I could see the Maiden's Breasts. Seeing my confusion, I was informed that this was the name of a couple of hills which, I was assured, were just the right shape. Then we came up to Duncansby Head and passed through the Pentland Firth. It was then that I began to realise the power of the sea, for so far all had been smooth and calm, leading me to my belief that I was a natural sailor. But here, even I could feel forces trying to move and turn the ship from its course as if by a giant hand. And so into Scrabster. As we made preparations for entry into the harbour, a small passenger steamer, the St. Ola, came out and there was an exchange of blasts on the whistles and a waving from the bridges. Although this was Scotland, as far as I was concerned it was a foreign country, as I could not understand a word spoken by the locals. Or rather at first I could not, but after a while, began to get a glimmer of what was being said. Scrabster is a very small harbour nestling at the foot of the Pentland Hills with a single road along the harbour front, a few houses, a pub and a post office, at that time kept by the Rose family. From conversations among the crew, I gathered that we would be staying overnight, a treat almost guaranteed with Harry Thompson, but not with all Skippers. We were visited by the Harbourmaster and the ship's agent, and later on by the Customs Officer, who came to inspect something called The Bond. I wasn't clear what that was, but ,shortly after his arrival, a bottle of whisky appeared and they all had a dram or two. After loading coal in the late afternoon, most of the crew repaired to the pub, but due to my Temperance upbringing, declined an invitation to join them. In any case, I was below the legal age and was broke, apart from a copper or two. The next morning, the Skipper and Mate went into a huddle with the Harbourmaster in his office, consulted the weather fore- cast closely, and then ambled down the jetty. They were obviously giving very serious consideration to something and finally, with a grave look on their faces, shook their heads and returned. All this led to an announcement that the weather was too bad to sail and regretfully, we would have to stay another night. All of this the crew were expecting and ready for, because in no time at all, most were in their shore-going suits and setting off to walk the two miles into Thurso, in order to reach there before pub opening time. On the following morning, the wind had clearly abated and so we departed for Greenland. I had been shown on the chart the route we would take, along the Scottish coast to Cape Wrath and then set course for Cape Farewell, the most southerly point of Greenland, expected to be a six day's steam. Very smartly I got off my TR to Wick Radio, and prepared to be the ideal operator at all times. Then I found that the mysterious Bond was a stock of tobacco, cigarettes and spirits that were sold duty free, the stock being customs sealed until outside territorial waters. Perhaps the harbour at Scrabster counted as being outside territorial waters, or maybe the bottle there just fell out from behind the seal. Away to port I could see the coast, and knew that we should pass Cape Wrath in five or six hours time. Cape Wrath, what a name!
There is a literary clichZ that says something about a veil being drawn over the events of the next few hours, or days as the case may be. In this extremely unique case, a veil is not necessary. There were no next few days. No nothing!
I should make it clear that I was not afraid that I would die. Far from it! My fear was that I wouldn't! In simple terms, I was sea sick.
It was not the up and down motion that made me sick, nor was it entirely the side to side motion that made me sick - they both did it, especially when they occurred together. Which was all the time!
Eventually becoming just fit enough to reach the wheelhouse and look around, it was obvious even to my inexperienced eyes that we were not making much progress, as the engines were only running at slow speed and we were meeting the seas head-on, with no apparent forward movement through the water. This I found, was dodging; resorted to when the weather was too bad for normal steaming, and we had been doing this for a couple of days. So we had not progressed very far out into the Atlantic. Apparently the weather wasn't that bad, but we couldn't risk the deck cargo being washed overboard. But an hour or so later, the Skipper decided that the wind was falling enough for us to resume passage, and so the engines were rung to Full Ahead as we swung on to a northwesterly course.
I did then begin to realise the awful loneliness of the sea; as far as the eye could see, nothing but heaving grey waters, and in the middle of them this tiny vessel - pitching and rolling, tossing and turning, climbing steeply up a watery hill and lurching down dale with the smoke from the funnel streaming away to be lost in the wind. Up the hill, bow high to the sky, heeling over so far that the lee rail was under water, a shuddering crash down the crest, water cascading high in the air only to fall back onto the deck in a foaming white mass, down the opposite angle to slice head-on into the rushing water hill. Up again and down.
And so it went on. Hour after hour, day after day. Remorselessly, never a moment's rest. And then some clot casually mentioned that the weather got really bad in the winter, especially at Greenland.
After this, I had to get my sea legs, to learn how to stand without constantly being tumbled over, to learn how to move around without being thrown against immovable objects and how to get along the deck and not be washed overboard. The standing bit was fairly easy - just get your feet apart, knees slightly bent and sway with the ship. All lean to the left together, a foreword sway as we climb the hill, wait for the shuddering downward crash at the crest, and then a half circle backward swing to the right for the decent into the valley. It all became natural in the end, but one's middle did become sore from the constant writhing. Most of the time it was convenient to hang on to some firm object as well, a stauncheon or handrail perhaps, especially when moving around. Getting along the deck was the trickiest part, a necessary part nevertheless, as the fo'c'sle crew had to get across the open foredeck and everyone had to get aft to eat. At first, one of the watch would accompany me or at least watch over me, but in time I was able to manage alone. There were two dangers. Not to get knocked over and hurt or worse, and not to get wet, especially if you were not wearing seaboots and oilskins. The trick was to position yourself halfway down the bridge ladder on the lee side and wait your moment. When the ship gave a lurch to leeward, hopefully the deck would drain enough for you to sprint along. Keeping close to the casing, always poised ready to grab the handrail, with a little luck you should reach the galley door before the next flood of water. But sometimes you would get caught out and have to leap up on to the tramway that protected the rudder connecting rods and finish up doing a mad sideways scramble.
But if the weather was rough enough for the sea to come rampaging in waist high, it was necessary to do an even wore athletic dash, this time over the top of the engine room casing and the galley. Just aft of the funnel, the casing was reasonably clear and flat, but then come the peaked engine room skylights that were securely covered with tarpaulins and well lashed down. One waited in the lee of the funnel for the right moment and then moved quickly, bobbing your head clear of the funnel stays and taking care not to slip on the wet iron plates, up over the triangular peaks of the skylights, one foot on either side, up the ladder to the galley top, dodging the beef casks, and down the ladder to the deck.
Sometimes it was even more tricky, as the galley half-door would be closed to prevent water rushing in and it was better to swing in through the upper half of the door space direct from a mid ladder position. All quite a feat, especially if you were encumbered with seaboots and oilskins. And you had about thirty seconds to do it in, from bridge to doorway. Crossing the deck in bad weather to reach the fo'c'sle could be really dangerous, and safety lines were rigged up from foremast to bridge front as a help. The open deck could be swept by a flood of water that poured in over the sides, and frequently there would be nothing in view between the bridge and the whaleback but sea, with the mast sticking up out of it. The essence of getting safely along the decks was that one had to wait in the strategic position, and as the ship reached a maximum roll, by some instinct choose the exact second to start moving. In the end I learned, sometimes the hard way, or perhaps more accurately, the wet way. Having become a little more compos if not mentis, I was able to resume my wireless duties. As the wavelengths used were in the medium band, the stations became fainter as the distance increased, just as voices carry in the open, and it was this feeling of distance that makes this type of wireless working so live. Already the powerful North Sea stations were fading away, although I could just hear the Faeroe Islands and a very faint voice from Iceland. Reference books formed part of the wireless installation, and so I was able to ascertain the stations that would come into range as we progressed. Their callsigns had to be remembered; just three letters, never a name. Who could remember Vestmannaeyjar Radio, let alone pronounce it. TFB was much easier. Even half a century later, old colleagues corresponding together, without thinking about it, will still use these letters to indicate places. The air was pretty quiet during the daylight hours, but when darkness fell, many distant stations could be heard, including one of our own ships coming up astern of us, the Lord Talbot, also newly fit- ted with wireless. I found out that the operator was a chum of mine who had joined the Marconi Company in Hull at the same time as myself. But was that just a week ago? So much had happened.
In the light of subsequent experience, the weather wasn't at all bad on that first trip, in fact it become progressively better as time went by. There had been two jobs to do that even I had realised could be somewhat risky. One was to shovel the deck cargo coal down into the fish hold just as soon as there was room. Later, when all this coal had been used, the hold had to be thoroughly scrubbed out. Both of these operations required that the hatch should removed, and to do this when there was lots of water sloshing about required careful judgement.
Unfortunately, no weather forecasts were available of the areas we were approaching, and so some of the value of wireless was lost, but I was able to obtain time signals which made life easier for the Skipper as navigator. As he explained to me, providing that he could see the sun at noon time, and often for days at a time he couldn't, by use of the sextant it was possible to obtain latitude, that is, how far north the ship was. But without accurate time, longitude could not be ascertained to show the distance westwards. He continued to say that he could thus ensure that he was well south of Cape Farewell, but had to allow a very wide margin on his DR (ded. reckoning) before turning northwards into the Davis Straits. But now that accurate GMT was available, the margin could be reduced, so saving steaming time. This was a bit of a surprise to me as I had always thought, from adventure books, that every ship carried a chronometer. Maybe they were too expensive for trawler owners. One of the dangers of those particular waters, he went on, was ice, icebergs and drift icefields. In the late summer, the loose ice could extend a hundred miles or more south of the Cape as it drifted with the current down the east coast of Greenland and up the west. Night time was naturally the most dangerous, especially when there were bergs about, and often it was necessary to stop and lay-to until daylight came.
Perhaps I should mention how certain essential functions were carried out. Up under the whaleback a tiny cubby had a seat like an old fashioned thunderbox, with a waste pipe that opened directly down to the sea. Much to the occupant's discomfort on certain sitting occasions, the water would shoot upwards with some force. For normal purposes of this nature, it was necessary to draw a bucket of water from over the side, and one with the requisite length of line attached was on permanent station. In the after deckhouse right over the counter was another such facility, but unless the weather was quite calm, it was not possible to go into residence there. Consequently, one used the stokehold. By courtesy of the engineer on duty (and his fireman), you squeezed down a very narrow passageway by the side of the boiler to the stokehold, and there made a little pile of ashes, finally throwing them into the firebox. All very hygienic. For the other functions there was the decks, providing that you didn't spray to wind- ward!
Washing was another problem. Usually you didn't - excepting the engine room staff and the cook. The capacity of the freshwater tanks was limited, and on these trips reasonable care had to be taken not to waste precious water. If one spoke nicely to the engineer, he would allow you to go behind the engine and draw half a bucket of warm water from the condenser and have a wash. But this was frowned upon by the old shellbacks. At least not until you were on the homeward stretch. But there was some sense in this, as a dirty body was much warmer than a clean one and you needed warmth at times. Likewise with shaving. A beard helped to stave off the effects of the biting winds, and I was told it acted as a mask on to which the spray would freeze, rather on your skin. This seemed a tall story to me, but when winter came I was to realise the truth. Unfortunately for my ego, I hadn't yet reached a bearded age.
During the passage, I was becoming familiar with the crew and found that three lived at the end of my own street; two brothers called Thomas with a brother-in-law known as Cockney Alf as he came from the East End of London. Two other brothers were there from another family, both sons of the regular Skipper, Fritz Hillier. Most of the other names I have forgotten, but I recall a deckie known as Patsy Flynn, although he had never actually seen Ireland, and the second engineer called Cal. Relatives in the same crew was not encouraged, indeed in some companies it was forbidden. Should such a ship be lost with all hands, then more than one wage earner would go, and sometimes it had happened that all wage earners in a family group had been lost. Perhaps the reason for its existence in this company was that longlining was a remnant of the old days, when small boats were family owned. Certainly codmen considered themselves slightly superior to trawlermen. Harry Thompson was a regular Skipper, although at that time be did not have a permanent ship. Living down the Skipper's cabin as I did, the chart became less of a mystery, and soon I gained some rudimentary knowledge of how to read one, set off angles and distances, and how to find positions. This was necessary to find where the Greenland coast radio stations were. Eventually, we rounded Cape Farewell and headed in to the Davis Straits, still with several hundred miles to go. Visibility now being very good, I gained my very first glimpse of a foreign land; two whitish peaks standing up over the horizon and appropriately named Cape Desolation. Later, on subsequent voyages, I saw the land much closer in and come to understand why it was called Greenland. The ancient Viking mariners had a sense of humour.
About this time, I spoke for the first time to foreigners; Danish or even Greenlander operators, so proving that morse was an international language. In fact, it never crossed my mind that they were not the same as myself. One night, when more distant stations could be worked, I was excited to receive a call from a station that was not in my book. His transmitter had a very squeaky yet rough note, and he told me that he was a newly installed station located on Resolution Island at the other side of the Davis Straits.
Over twenty years later I was again to hear him as a most welcome voice in some rather anxious moments, although at this time I was at 18,000 feet above the Straits and our position was doubtful.
The old explorers certainly chose some descriptive names for these desolate spots; Resolution and Cape Hopes Advance, both across at the Hudson Bay, with Gods Harbour (Godshavn) and Gods Hope (Godthaab) in Greenland. I wonder who the explorer was who came from Nottingham and named an island after it.