Chapter 5

Harry Thompson was a friendly type and I think that he enjoyed explaining things to me as we went along, even touching on the methods he used to find the right spot to fish. He said that having got a positive fix off Cape Desolation, his navigation should be then spot-on, and he could with some exactitude get to the general area in which he intended to fish. Having got there, it was then necessary to take soundings of the depth of water and obtain samples of the sea bottom. This was done by filling the bottom of the leadline weight with tallow. It was a question of searching around; a sounding here, steam a few miles in this direction, another sounding and a look at the bottom, a further steam in that direction, and so on until he was satisfied. He told me how he got to the desired position, but not why. That was his mystery. He was a Skipper. He had found out the hard way, by experience. So, after another day's steam, we stopped for a sounding to be taken. The first job was to haul in the logline before the engines were stopped. This item was a twenty fathom line of a special type that was streamed from the stern. At the end of it was a vane that revolved with the forward motion, the inboard end of the line being connected to a counter that registered the nautical miles run. The reading was not too accurate of course, but it served. It was important that the logline was hauled in before way was lost, otherwise it would foul the propeller. I had been interested in the story of tallow on the bottom of the sounding weight, and soon my curiosity was satisfied. The weight was a rod of lead about two feet long with a hollow bottom, and into which was stuffed the tallow, the whole being rather heavy. This led to another disillusionment. From my reading of boy's adventure books, I thought that someone would stand up at the bow, swinging out the lead, and as the line ran out over his hand, would call out such romantic depths as By the mark fiveor By the deep nine. Not a bit of it. With a lead weighing two stones or so and sixty fathoms or more of water, you can't do it that way - you need a steam winch. So the line was dropped over the side amidships, passing across a roller that had been placed on the starboard rail, so that it could be hauled back by the small vertical winch. In the meantime, other preparations had been made. On the foredeck, square fish pounds were formed by dropping heavy wooden planks into slotted uprights and aft, by the port quarter, a wooden platform or stand had been erected. Under the whaleback were stored a score or so of large baskets, each holding a great coil of fishing line. Every coil was several hundred fathoms long, to which, at two fathom intervals, were lengths of thinner line, snoods, about three feet long with a four inch hook at the end, these being impaled into a short length of grassline whipped to the basket rim. During the outward passage, when the weather had been fine enough, the contents of each basket had been carefully overhauled and now they were dragged aft to the wooden platform. From the rigging, members of the crew unlashed a tallsparred buoy that was laid on the foredeck in readiness. Then up from the fishroom were brought boxes of herring. At Scrabster I had seen these being stowed away and concluded that the crew were very partial to this particular fish. Now I learned differently. They were to be chopped up for bait for the first day's fishing. After that, I was told, we would be catching our own. As soon as the Skipper had finally made up his mind that this spot of open sea was the right spot of open sea (it all looked the same to me), shooting began.

First, sufficient line was attached to the buoy for the depth of water, about a third more I believe. The other end of the line was bent on to, that is tied to, an anchor and also to the top end of a basket of line that was already in position on the stand. With the engines going slow ahead, the anchor was carefully lowered, the strain being taken by someone on the foredeck; this of course pulled out the hooked line and shooting had commenced. Standing in front of the basket was a deckhand who carefully unpinned the hooks, one at a time in sequence, and handed them alternately to two others who were in position on either side. Their job was to bait the hook and then throw it overboard. When the anchor touched bottom, the buoy was released to act as a marker, and immediately another one was taken from the rigging and prepared. A second basket of line had been bent on to the one running out in readiness to take its turn, and so on until six baskets had been shot. At this point, another anchor was inserted into the sequence and shooting continued until thirty baskets had gone away over a distance of ten miles.

The whole operation was one of careful preparation and unhurried timing. Both the buoy line and the main line had to pay out at the speed of the ship or the weight of the anchor would drag them out too fast - the hooks had to be handed first to the right and then to the left, making sure that none were unpinned out of order. The hook had to be baited without it sticking into the hand, the baskets had to be lined up in readiness, the next one for shooting being bent on the one on the stand. The baskets of bait had to be constantly replenished and all this had to be done while possibly shipping water. On this occasion the weather was fine, but later I was to see some very bad conditions. And all the time, the whole team had to be prepared for the inevitable thing to go wrong, even to having a sharp knife in readiness to cut, just in case anyone did get hooked up. That is why all the preparatory work had to be done correctly every time. It just wouldn't do to suddenly find that the hooks should have been unpulled from right to left instead of left to right!

After shooting was finished, there was a gentle steam back to the beginning and then a lay-to at the buoy for an hour or so. The reason for the division of the fishing line into sections of six baskets was simple. If the line broke during the hauling in, it would be necessary to go to the other end buoy and start again. Should another break occur, then that was it - lost the lot! But with the sectioning, a maximum of six only would be lost. Another task in this operation was to set the mizzen sail on the mainmast. This was hoisted up, by traditional arm power, to provide greater windage and so assist steering when the ship was proceeding at slow speed, and was required to keep on an accurate course.

While laying-to at the buoy, a one-man bridge watch was kept and he, together with the engineer, would be the only ones around apart from the cook, who would have been busy catering for the needs of the hungry fishermen. There would be a slow downwind drift from the buoy and then a short jog back, all the while keeping a sharp eye out, for woe betide you should it be lost. The best thing to do then was to jump overboard immediately, without waiting to tell the Skipper. During the passage out, the large hand steering wheel had been used, but with the advent of fishing operations, a steam-driven smaller one was brought into use. This was a small horizontal engine, controlled by a much smaller wheel and it had two main advantages; during fishing manoeuvres, particularly in trawling as I was to find out later, it had much more power to bring the ship round smartly, and it also enabled one man to work the vessel single-handed, as it would not spin back to central when a sea hit the rudder. This meant, however, that it could not be used in bad weather.

By this time, there had been some changes in the crew formation. The two firemen became deckhands, as the steaming would now be only at slow speeds, and the engineer could fire the boiler as well as look after the engines. The trimmer too changed his role. While still trimming the coal in the bunkers, not now an arduous task, he also became chief chopper and shoveller of ice down the fishroom. Little did I realise that I too would change, and in a month or so would be taking the buoy watch myself as a regular thing; seventeen and in charge of the ship!

When 'Haulo' came, the Skipper returned to the bridge and brought the vessel up to the buoy, which was picked up and brought inboard, all available bands assisting in an awkward job. When the anchor was also inboard, we were ready for business. The main reason for the long trek to Greenland was to catch halibut, then disappearing from other fishing grounds. Halibut is a prime fish and expensive to buy, hence the effort. Beside halibut, there was cod in plenty, for which there was always a good market. Halibut is a sea bottom fish while cod is middle water - together with the aptly named catfish, so called because it looks just like a cat, at least round the head. Surprisingly, there was little sale for it, although it is one of the nicest and meatiest fish to eat. So only small quantities were saved. Another fish caught in plenty was soldier, really saltwater bream, a red spikey thing but not bad eating, and quite unsaleable at home except for fishmeal. But we were told that the poor benighted Continentals loved it. During the haul, one deckie was at the small foredeck winch, and as it was the critical post, only experienced men were allowed to take it. He had to sense the strain on the line as the ship heaved around; ease up as she rolled away, a little faster as she came to. But all this time of course, the Skipper on the bridge had to control the wild monster of a ship, not to let it fall away so far as to break the line, nor bring it over so much that it could be cut on the keel. Altogether the epitome of seamanship. Once the buoy anchor, was in, up came the hooked snoods, hopefully each with something on it to help the profits. One man stood by the rollers and brought the fish over, and then swung round sharply so that it flew off the hook into the pound. Another stood by to help with a gaff. Cod and cat wore usually manageable but halibut, being so precious, had to be treated with great care. Small ones were easily held, but large ones had to be handled circumspectly and the gaff hooked only into the head, or at least on the dark side, as fish with cuts on the white side were reduced in sale value. As some of these fish could be nearly six feet long and weigh up to twenty or more stones, gaffing could be tricky. Gaffs were called Hawks, Auks or just 'awkes. I was never sure of the spelling, and two types were kept handy; short all-metal ones, and ten footers on a pole. As soon as a halibut was sighted coming up the line, the winch would be eased so that the fish floundered about on the surface and could be grabbed by a gaff, two or more if necessary. A cry of Another 'awke meant that anyone nearby bad to jump to it. Skippers tended to get somewhat cross if one was lost, particularly a genie. Very large ones, for some reason, were called genies. The largest one I ever saw weighed twenty six stones.

In the pound, other deckies gutted the fish, cut away the livers which were dropped into baskets, and threw the fish across to the opposite deck pound where they were washed in fresh salt water. The guts themselves were dumped over the side to feed the fishes, while a certain amount of rough fish was put to one side for use as bait. The baskets of livers were dragged aft for storage in barrels, eventually becoming codliver oil. Halibut livers were stored separately as they had greater value: in terms of money that is. Down in the fishroom the Mate was king, and his job was to pack the fish into compartments, built up by the Trimmer as work progressed by use of yet more slotted boards. To preserve the fish so that they were in good condition when market was reached in about three weeks time, they were laid in rows on a layer of crushed ice, which was also freely sprinkled over them. Half the fishroom had been full of the ice loaded before sailing; although it had arrived down a chute in crushed form, it was by now frozen into an almost solid mass and the poor old Trimmer had to attack it with his axe before it could be shovelled across to the Mate. The Mate's job was undoubtedly the most crucial of the whole operation, apart of course from actually finding the fish in the sea, and it called for great experience. Sometimes things went wrong and the fish was condemned by the Health Inspector: the following voyage there would be a different mate.

As the line came in, the winchman fed it backwards across the deck where it looped over the side and was then roughly coiled back into a basket. The full baskets were dragged back aft for tricking-up, that is, checked ready for use again, an operation that had to be done correctly and neatly, so that no foul-ups occurred at the next shooting. Firstly, the top end of the roughly-coiled line was draped free over the rim of empty basket, so that it could be bent on to the free end of the next basket when shooting. Then the rest of the line was checked inch by inch for wear and broken snoods, and missing hooks replaced as it was coiled into a pile. A most vital thing was to stick the hooks into the grassline in very strict order, always in the same direction, so that when unpinned for baiting in reverse order, no tangling of the line occurred. In addition, the position of alternate hooks was staggered so that each could be pulled out cleanly by a finger. Although tricking-up had to be done properly, some hands were better at it than others. Patsy Flynn was very good, and could lay one coil upon another so that the finished pile looked like a veritable Tower of Pisa. But even with the best of intentions, things sometimes went wrong and the lines became tangled up. For some reason, such a tangle was known as a frap, presumably because of the many twists and turns in the lines.

By seven or eight o'clock, all the lines were in, the fish packed away and the baskets tricked-up. One other job had to be completed during the day, and that was to split or fillet the rough old cod that had been set aside, and chop it up for bait to be used the next day. On my first day's fishing, Harry Thompson decided that things had gone according to expectations and we would have another day at the same position. But sometimes, I found later, a Skipper would move a mile or so and go through the depth sounding business again. In any case, unless a long steam was required, a buoy with an accumulator-powered light would be dropped, to which we would lay all night. Someone explained to me that this was one of the good aspects of being a codman - you could normally expect a full night's sleep. Trawling, I was told, was quite different. There you just kept at it night and day.

During the outward passage, life had followed a reasonable set routine. First sitting breakfast at seven; a substantial meal of porridge, sausages or bacon and the inevitable pot of tea, followed by the watch change. As my watch started at eight, I usually went to the second sitting meal. Midday dinner had been a roast or a stew as long as the fresh meat lasted, but after that it was salt horse, boiled. Fresh vegetables had lasted only a few days, so from henceforth it was dried peas or beans, plus some sort of pudding; baked or boiled suet, rice made with skimmed, tinned milk or perhaps a pie made with tinned apples. As I had an important wireless schedule at 12:18 precisely, I always went to the first sitting at 12 o'clock.

The important schedule was to Iisten to Rugby Radio, who could be beard throughout the world on a very long wavelength, about fifteen thousand meters. Twice a day, this station broadcast a list of ships for whom there was a message, which were then broadcast blind as very few ships at that time were equipped for long range two-way communication. So if there was one for yourself, there was one chance only of getting it. It was a most boring job; just listening to scores of call-signs on the off chance that your own would be there, which was a very rare occurrence. Another function of this station was to broadcast a daily news bulletin, the British Official Press, and this was the only available source of information as to what was going on in the outside world, unless you were within range of the BBC.

Tea used up all the leftovers from dinner, often made up into a re-heated hash, plus lashings of bread and jam or perhaps a cake. And always the ever present pot of tea. The only milk we had was of the tinned variety, but not the world renowned one made by Nestles. Oh no! Our tins were clearly marked 'Unfit for babies' and rumour had it that some had been seen with 'Fit for pigs and fishermen'. Not a true tale I am sure, but I was told it in all seriousness. Going to a second meal sitting had both advantages and disadvantages. There was no rush to get on watch, there was plenty to eat and one could linger on; yarning, reforming the world, or recounting past exploits - sea, war or fast women. Not that they were really believed, but they made a pleasant interlude. On the other band, the cabin would rapidly get up a fug from the tobacco smoke and that wasn't too healthy. Still, I couldn't have it have it all ways, learn the fascinating facts of life and breath pure air as well.

For the night watches, there was always available a tray of bread, margarine, jam and occasionally a scrap of cold meat which were kept, not in the galley but in one of the seat lockers down in the cabin. And always tea! I do not suppose that there was anything in the Ships Articles or the Board of Trade Regulations making it compulsory, but invariably there would be the two gallon kettle of tea keeping hot on the galley stove. During the night, one of the deckhands or the trimmer would brew up a fresh lot, and woe betide him if there was none when the watches were changed. And this procedure was universal in the fishing trade. Once, about a year later, the Skipper at that time shipped an old man as a deckie, purely as a favour as he was really getting beyond it. This old boy had an awful habit; when he made the tea, he actually boiled it up - the taste of boiled tea defies description. He was not exactly popular!

Now fishing had started, things had changed, especially at breakfast and tea. For it was fish for both, every time. There were two reasons for this. Firstly it was free and the owners didn't have to pay. Secondly the men liked it, almost insisted on it, for the fish was of a freshness and flavour almost unbelievable. So fresh, that sometimes the chopped up portions would still be quivering as they were popped into the frying pan. But always the meals were subservient to the catching of the stuff. If shooting or hauling were delayed, or things had gone wrong, then mealtimes had to suffer, even though longlining went more to a routine than trawling, as I was to discover. Shoot at dawn, lay to the buoy, haul and all finished not too late in the evening.

After a couple of weeks fishing, it was time to start the long trek home. This was a matter of calcu- lation on the part of the Skipper. He told me that he had to decide whether there was enough packed away down in the fishroom, weighed against the necessity for there being enough coal and stores to last another ten days in order to get it back. Then he had to calculate the market. Not to arrive for a Saturday one as prices tended to be low, because the fish would have to be kept on ice until Monday by the merchants. Not to arrive on a Saturday either. This may have been popular with the crews as it meant extra time at home, but was decidedly unpopular with the Gaffers for they didn't like to see their assets lying idle in the dock longer than absolutely necessary. In any case, the fishroom tended to warm up when not in the colder sea water, and there could easily be deterioration in the quality of the landed fish. All this with the imponderables of the weather.

So he made up his mind and we were off on the long steam home, first down the Davis Straits to round Cape Farewell, then the twelve hundred mile passage to the Pentland Firth, hoping that we would make a reasonable landfall as we neared the Scottish coast. By this time, I was beginning to know the nomenclature of my new life, not of course that it was entirely fresh, seeing that I had been brought up in its environment. A voyage was a trip. A trip was also the details of the catch, calculated in boxes, and was also the amount of money realised at the sales. A box was the container that the fish was transferred in from the ship to the quayside, and was a nominal seven stones. The jetty was in Grimsby what is often called 'the quay' in other places. Steaming northwards to the fishing grounds was Going Down, not going Up North, although you Sent Down to London, which was south of home. The fish landing day was, not unnaturally, the Market. What you made on your trip was how much the catch was sold for at the auctions, synonymous with trip of course. How the fishing was at any given moment was the Living; fair, poor or just plain bloody awful (no Skipper really admitted that it was good!)

Pay was a combination of wages and X share in the profits, if any. Deckies earned two pounds a week, Second Engineers two pounds ten shillings, with three pounds for Chief Engineers and Third Hands. My own wage was two pounds ten shillings, rising to three pounds after six months. But Skippers and Mates were on a share basis entirely, something like twelve percent for Skippers and seven for Mates, win or lose, profit or loss. The owners were responsible for the ship, maintenance, insurance, gear, bunkers, wages etc, but each trip was a separate accounting for the crew shares. For any type of fishing vessel and the grounds it sailed to, the smallest to the North Sea, the middle sized ones for the Faeroe Islands, and the largest to the more distant waters, there was a standard crew. But this crew and many other considerations were based on somewhat ancient standards. A crew for distant waters would be eleven, and the wages above this number were charged to expenses. In the old days, lighting was by oil lamp, or acetylene gas. The introduction of electric light being considered a luxury, it was found necessary to charge for the steam used to run the dynamo. There were several other anachronisms, and so the field was clear for the odd fiddle, or at least questionable procedures, for it was widely averred that shipowners of all types and nationalities were never above such nefarious practices.

It was also recounted that even the wear and tear on the deck boards, caused by the barrels in which the livers were kept, was charged to expenses. This probably wasn't true, but it was a good yarn to spin to greenhorns such as myself.

As the hire of the wireless apparatus and my pay were placed on expenses, it meant that each member of the crew lost out. If these expenses were considered unjustified, there was an appeal possible at the Board of Trade Shipping Office, but never in my experience was this ever carried out. From the profit at the end of a trip, most of the crew were paid twopence in the pound, with threepence for Thief Engineers and Third Hands, but the poor Skipper and the hapless Mate received only their percentage share after deduction of the weekly allotment received by their wives. Although their share could be considerable, they could also be in debt and unfortunately were from time to time unless extremely lucky. A Skipper had only to have a short run of bad luck, and be was out. And having been sacked for not producing the goods, it was not always easy for him to get another ship. This uncertainty of employment also extended to the rest of the crews, particularly the deck sections. Anyone was liable to be sacked for no reason at all. Perhaps the Skipper just didn't like your face, or he thought you had not pulled your weight for some reason. There was no warning. Probably just a comment as the ship passed through the lock-gates on arrival - Pack your bag or even to be told as you went down to collect your money. There were no rights in the matter. You were little more than casual labour. A year or so later I found that out myself. At the time, I was employed directly by a shipowner and when I went down to collect my money, was told that there would be a change. All I can think of that I upset the Skipper by calling him, on precisely one occasion, by a more familiar term.

Navigation by the sun is all very well if you can see the sun. Most of the time we couldn't. So on the homeward passage it was ded. reckoning all the way, all the twelve hundred miles of it, hoping to make a landfall reasonably in line with the Pentland Firth. Too far north would bring us dangerously close to the unlit North Rona Island, too far south Rockall could be a menace, although some really bad navigation would be required to hit that. But beyond was the Outer Hebrides, a much larger mass of land. On the Butt of Lewis, the most northerly point of it, was a radio beacon. Unfortunately, as we had no direction finding apparatus it was of little use. So the Skipper, being rather anxious about our position, asked me to guess the distance from it. Now how could I guess the distance by just listening? A hundred miles, twenty, ten? After all, my experience only covered five weeks. But he persisted, and by careful listening I finally came to the conclusion that it was getting weaker, and therefore we had passed it, and were now crossing the Minch. And so it proved, for an hour or so later, Cape Wrath was sighted. Previously, a flag signal would have been made to the lighthouse there, or at the very latest in the Firth itself, and in due course a telegram would have been received by the owners, giving the first news of the ship since leaving port. But now, by this miracle of wireless, they already knew the expected arrival day and details of our catch. Wives too were in the know, as there had been a constant stream of visitors to my cabin asking how much it would cost to send a telegram. As a matter of interest, it was about one and sixpence.

Thirty six hours later, we made it back into the Humber, five weeks after leaving. As the docks are tidal, ships have to wait at anchor in the roadsteads. Often there would be up to thirty fishing vessels ready to dock, and they were marshalled by a tug into sections of six. When the river and dock waters levelled the lock gates were opened, a flag on the pier head lowered, the tug gave six blasts on its whis- tle and the first section made its orderly entrance. However, in my Grandfather's day I had been told, it was a free-for-all. A gaggle of ships would all be hovering as near to the pierhead as they could get, and when the flag went down, there would be a mad rush to get in first. Imagine, a dozen ships all trying to get through an opening only wide enough for one. Tempers probably became just a little frayed. Now it was more orderly. As each vessel passed through the gate, the piermaster shouted its berthing position. North Sea ships and the little white fifty foot wooden seine netters known as Snibbies in the first dock, codmen through the swing bridge, and the others on to the Stone Wall or Henderson's Jetty, all at the idiosyncratically named pontoons. Seabags having already been packed, there was a rather rapid exodus as soon as we had made fast at our berth. As an example of the tender care the owners took to get their asset away to sea again at the earliest possible moment, as soon as we berthed the engineering foreman came onboard to check the mechanical serviceability, the ship's husband came to obtain the mate's and cook's store requirements, and a manager to chat up the Skipper, not only about the catch, but to see how quickly he would be prepared to sail again.

By four o'clock in the morning, the hatches would be opened and the fish landing started by a gang of lumpers, casual workers on a fairly regular basis with various companies. Deck crews, by custom of the port, were supposed to take part in this. If they did not, then pay would be docked. Naturally, most refused to leave their conjugal beds, which was theirs for only a couple of nights a month. In some cases, it wasn't conjugal and not always available if her husband was at home as well. The few who did come down were usually treated with some scorn as mean so-and-so's by the rest of the crew. But the Mate had to be there, as he knew the fishroom stowage order and in any case, he wanted to make sure that 'his' fish was treated with the respect it deserved. For this was the final crunch. It all had to be fit for human consumption and if things had gone wrong, he would be hung at the yard-arm, not only by the gaffers who would give him the sack as well, but by his shipmates too.

My own duty was to report back to Frostie, in decent office hours of course, hand in the logbook, plus all the telegrams with the charges entered in the accounting sheet. Later in the morning, the crew would gather at the owner's office to see how much the catch had made and collect their tuppence-in- the pound. Actually, it was rather amazing how quickly everything was done, as all accounting was by hand.