After our forty eight hours at home, we sailed again with the ship's regular Skipper, Fritz Hillier, who was on his last year at sea before retiring. He was one of the seniors in the Company, one of the old school - probably something like my own Grandfather had been. His normal garb was a fawn Burberry type mac buttoned up to the neck and a cloth cap, usually with a pipe clenched between his teeth. Having been a Skipper for more years than many of the crew wore old, what he thought of sharing his cabin with a youth I do not know. But he made no comment, just part of the life I suppose, and so it also seemed to me. Although Harry Thomson was rather a gent, nothing like the bully-boys I met later in my career, at least be did give orders. Fritz didn't! He just seemed to ask. But the result was the same - instant obedience.
By this time, I had acquired fearnaughts, seaboots and oilskins, and so considered myself a real fisherman, although my attitude to this changed somewhat later. After calling at Peterhead to collect fresh herrings for bait, we called at Scrabster. This time there was no whisky drams with the harbourmaster, and we did not carry 'the bond', much to the disgust of the crew who had to bring their own smokes at full shore prices. Twenty for eleven pence halfpenny. As the weather was blatantly fine, there was no night stop, nor any subsequent ones unless conditions were really vile, and the Skipper did not believe in stretching a point to savour the delights of Thurso. Indeed, it is probable that be had never been there; after all, it was a two mile walk.
Quite possibly he dind't really believe in the new miracle of wireless, but when he found that twice daily weather forecasts appeared and he actually received messages from his old chums on other ships, he seemed to accept it all. Although he had navigated his commands to and from Iceland for so long, it must be admitted that reading and writing were not his strong points. As the long trips to Greenland really required the use of a sextant, this part was done by his eldest son Dave, the deckhand. This was a most unusual arrangement - navigation by one of the fo'c'sle gang! But Dave was unable to hold a Mate or Skipper's ticket for some reason, colour blindness perhaps, although be had attended the Nautical College in the past.
Then followed trip after trip. Sometimes the weather was good, sometimes in wasn't. In fact, there were many occasions when it was flat calm for days on end. Never having seen mountains before, the distant views then possible of Greenland were most impressive, especially Cape Farewell, standing right out into the Atlantic and visible on one occasion at seventy miles. Unfortunately, there was little occasion to go in close and get a really good look. In any case, the charts were non too reliable, and no Skipper would chance his arm and run into unmarked rocks. Messrs Imray, Laurie and Wilson, makers of Bluebacked Charts for Fishermen, did their best but the surveys in those waters had been made many years before, and from the Admiralty Pilot for Greenland one gathered that some items of information were nothing more than hearsay.
A great matter of dispute in the Humber fishing world was whether the new wireless operators should be part-time deckhands or not. Many were officers from the Merchant Service, 'reduced' to trawlers on account of the depression; all were technically qualified and considered themselves to be somewhat above a deckhand, and in any case, the wireless watch had to be kept, for safety was one of the principal reason for being there. So any work on dock would have meant double duties. Who wanted that? Eventually, the issue was settled. In return for small duties, a reduced bonus would be paid, half-a-crown per hundred pounds of the gross earnings. Smaller than twopence in the pound of the profit, but at least something. For my own part and in the course of time I did help, partially because there was a bit of pressure, but mainly because I wanted to become a seaman in the wider sense of the term. So I learned the two basic knots; the reef turn and the clove hitch, sometimes called two half hitches and a round - the first because it will not come unfastened but can still be freed, and the second to secure a line to another object. Then how to coil a line by giving it a small twist with each turn; how to make a simple splice; to trick-up; to gut a fish and shovel ice down the fishroom. To know port from starboard; to read a compass; to steer a straight course and not to write my name in the ship's wash, a sign of bad helmsmanship, and not approved by ships' captains. I learned to understand the steering orders, for in those days the orders related to the movement of a tiller and not as now to the direction the ship's head is required to move and hence the way the steering wheel should be turned. In this context 'Port a bit' meant turn the wheel to starboard and bring the head around to that direction. But 'Port your helm' meant just that - pull the wheel to the left, and only used in a bit of an emergency. But all that changed within a year. And there were many near misses as ships were brought through the lock gates. Old habits die hard. Later, I was fit enough to be left alone in charge of the ship for a buoy watch. I can well remember the nonchalant aplomb with which I rang my very first order on the engine room telegraph. The clang of the answering bell really made my chest swell, but when the engines started to turn over and the vessel gathered way a cold sweat broke out, for now I had to control this giant ship against the wind and the current to bring it up to the distant buoy. Never-the-less, all went well and I made little of it. Which was to the good, for no one would have taken notice of me. That is, unless I had lost the buoy. Fortunately I never did, although some years later I had a good try!
Although we saw no ice on my first trip, sightings were plentiful thereafter. With the advent of warmer weather along the east coast of Greenland, the glaciers were breaking up in the fjords, and enormous portions of them drifted south with the current. These were the bergs, great irregular masses of ice standing scores of feet above the waterline, with an even greater mass below. Due to the melting and the constant buffeting, they were unstable and liable to turn over at any time. For this reason they were unsafe to be approached closely, as well as the fact that the submerged portions stuck out like reef and could easily rip the bottom of a ship. And did to the Titanic! Sometimes the bergs were flat topped, half a mile or more in length, and it was easy to visualise a glacial river of ice simply breaking across and floating quietly away. Many years later, I was fortunate to fly over some of these glaciers, and could see clearly that they were in effect simply frozen rivers flowing down to the sea. The bergs rounded Cape Farewell and moved up the Davis Straits, many of them to be held there during the next freeze-up. Then with the Spring they drifted once again, probably southwards on the Labrador Current, finally melting away on the Grand Banks.
Ice fields. although not very spectacular in appearance, were dangerous as well. Reaching only a few feet above the waterline, they presented not much more than a white line on the horizon and a ship could easily be in trouble if a sharp lookout was not kept. Sometimes they were a solid mass, and at others just a slushy covering of broken ice.
Fritz was quite a one for going far down the Straits, and on one occasion we were steaming merrily northwards when a field was spotted ahead. Course was altered westwards to clear it, then north again, then west and west again until we were heading southwards from whence we had come. And still the field was barring our passage. But now it was on both sides. Quite soon, we were near enough for us to hear the sea breaking on the ice, and lumps were clumping down the ship's side. By this time, we had gone down to half speed, lookouts were posted up the rigging, and all the crew seemed to be on deck.
For myself, I assumed that it was a normal occurrence, but at the same time found it rather exciting. Trapped in the ice - just like the explorers! But slowly it dawned on me that every one else was looking worried, and then someone pointed out that we were at slow speed on half rudder and had already done two complete circles. 'Remember the Hammond', he said. This episode had occurred the previous year, when the Hammond bad been trapped in an icefield and had been squeezed severely enough to buckle the plates. Fortunately the ice had opened and the ship was freed, but the Skipper, 'Mad' Argent, had expressed his desire. nay his intention, to proceed on the voyage. But the crew had intimated, in the nicest possible terms, that be had better go on by himself. The ship was making water, but the level was kept down by the bilge pumps which were driven by the main engine. On arrival in the Humber signals were passed, and both the main and dry dock gates were opened so that she could steam straight in and settle on the cradle. But as the engine revolutions were reduced, so the pumping action fell and the water level rose. Finally she gave up the ghost and sank halfway into the dry dock, although sank is not quite the right term. She just sat upright on the bottom looking rather foolish. I saw her myself! Easily this could have been another mysterious disappearance, as wireless was not then fit- ted - it was one of the incidents that had caused crews to insist on having it.
Our own saga continued a for a little while longer until a load in the pack ice was spotted, and we made somewhat indecent haste to steam clear. After this, we proceeded a hundred miles or so out into the Straits, before turning northwards again. This was the occasion, I think, when we reached our most northerly point, almost to Disco Island where one of the remotest Danish settlements was located. Little did I realise that some thirteen years later, an enormous US Air Base would be built nearby, and later still would become a staging post for passenger air services.
As I had gone to sea young, with no experience and no one to guide me, it was like being thrown into the deep end. And my lack of experience was not confined to lack of seamanship. It was also in my own job. If I had joined the Merchant Service proper, I would have gained maturity as a junior. Here I was on my own. At first of course I went strictly by the book - only correct procedure to be used, and in full at that. Everything written down - every letter sent or received entered in the logbook. In my innocence, I did not realise that there was a lot of unofficial chatter taking place on non-distress wavelengths, especially away from the busy sea lanes. From this I learned a new set of abbreviations for the English language and once again, when thoroughly conversant with them, they became part of my operator's thinking. Perhaps the most interesting one of these is WX, meaning weather, and even when writing this book I automatically tend to put WX. Gradually I was able to talk to other operators without actually having to write everything down. Much to the relief of Frostie, who was annoyed at the number of logbooks I used.
There was another aspect of the job. What was I there for? Safety certainly. To mend and receive telegrams on behalf of the owners and crew? Yes of course. To provide an information service for the Skipper as well? Apart from the weather forecasts, no one had mentioned that. In any case, I was bound by my oath of secrecy and could not and would not divulge anything I heard. But slowly things fell into place. Fortunately the whole thing was new, to both the owners and the Skippers, and so I was not expected to act like an old hand.
I found the Skippers would exchange information with others, or rather they would with their friends, or put more precisely - if it suited their book to do so, especially when fishing was poor. But if both were on a good living, to quote the vernacular, or if both were thinking of going for the same market, they would be very cagey indeed. Not actually lying of course - or at least not quite - an actual barefaced lie could rebound on their own head at sometime in the future. To circumvent the spread of fishing information, the Company instituted its own code system, which had the added ad- vantage of reducing the cost of telegrams.
As our own Company's fleet of about eight vessels was the last of the long liners and no trawlers went to Greenland, there was no external competition, at least from British ships, except in the summertime. A Hull company, Hellyer Brothers, had two large ships that had been converted into freezer vessels, the first of their kind. These two picked up a crew of fishermen from the Faero Islands, and they worked from open boats or dories with hand lines. There were also the Gaul and the Yorrick, two converted trawlers that did test fishing for the guidance of the mother ship, and also acted as search and rescue vessels for the dories.
Living for weeks on end cooped up with a dozen others teaches one many things - such as growing to dislike most heartily indeed the mannerisms of others (your own, of course, upset no one!). There was one man who literally smacked his lips everytime he took a spoonful of soup. Another blew across his mug of tea to cool it down. Some would recount the same anecdote time and time again. At almost every meal, one old boy would retell the story of his divorce, then somewhat of a rare thing. 'Never said Hello, Goodbye, Kiss my Arse or Eff All. Just went.' And someone commented, 'What was he worrying about? She was on the game in any case. Had been for years.'
On this first ship of mine, arguments would sometimes develop over some factual matter such as the name of the last Pharaoh of Egypt. Then I began to notice that they always seemed to be settled by the same deckhand, who would produce the authoritative answer. After this I realised that the argument had been started by the same man; later be admitted to me that this was so. He said that he would read some item in an old newspaper or a book, and then slyly bring it into the conversation, perhaps weeks later. At least, he obtained some amusement from it. Once, echoing a favourite thought, someone remarked that he would like a shore job - give up the sea altogether. A bank clerk for instance, an obviously dull job but highly regarded in those days. Someone else then opined that you would require lots of clothes. 'Oh, I don't think so. Two suits would do, a blue serge one and a grey flannel one. Wear the serge one day, the flannel the next, the day after that the dark jacket with the flannel trousers, followed by the grey jacket and the blue trousers.' 'But you wouldn't wear a serge jacket with flannel trousers!' 'Well, you could if the they were Oxford Bags!' 'Not from the shop you go to, the Fifty Bob Tailors' This was a good argument - it went on for days. The cook took it to heart and nearly came to blows.
But the cramped conditions really did force you to accept the idiosyncrasies of others in order to live amicably. But there were two golden rules that I learned. Never use anyone else's possessions without asking permission, and if given, return them in good and clean condition. Also that there is a place for everything and everything in its place. Certainly the physical conditions were somewhat unpleasant. No real washing or toilet facilities, living and eating in quarters always fouled with stale tobacco smoke, and sleeping in a narrow bunk where you were continually rolled from side to side. And worse. For in those days, small ships not only pitched and rolled, they jumped up and down as well. With any sort of sea running, they would rear up with the fore foot right out of the water, and then drop down with a shuddering jar that could wrench electric light bulbs right out of their sockets.
Of course the fo'c'sle was the worst place. How men could endure it I couldn't really understand, for there was never any respite from the constant buffeting as the bow drove into the swell, however slight it may be. Fortunately, I rarely had cause to go down there, and certainly not in bad weather. But the after cabin was almost as bad, through the constant noisy vibration and shaking of the propeller immediately below the table. When the stern reared up, the engine would often race and the revolutions would have to be hurriedly reduced by the engineer. Most of the time the fiddles would have to be set on the table to divide it into sections, so that the plates and bowls would not slide about. But even this was often not enough. Many was the time that the stern lifted right up and then dropped ten feet on to a seemingly solid base, causing everything on the table - plates, knives, meat and veg to be thrown into the air and fall back in a shambles. In really bad weather it was necessary to sit with your knees jammed against the table edge, so that you could hold yourself firmly back against the locker. Not particularly good for the digestion, but the only way to eat at all. There was an art in eating under these conditions. The plate had to be held up in the air and balanced level with the movement of the ship; it was fascinating to see the half-moon of plates rising and falling, pitching and rolling in unison as the crew tried to spoon up their soup.
Naturally, bad weather produced the most discomfort, but surprisingly, fine could as well. A shallow sea such as the North sea will develop a nasty choppy swell within an hour of the wind rising, and then die down just as quickly. But in a deep ocean, the wind can blow quite strongly for a couple of days before the swell gets really bad. Conversely, for a week after a storm a strong swell will run, even if there is not a breath of wind. This gives the ship a constant and monotonous roll that actually makes your sides sore. At least with a breaking sea, the movement is irregular and one seems to be braced all the time. But the calm weather roll was most unpleasant, and particularly during the sleep periods, when your whole body did a continual side to side half roll.
When the WX, sorry weather, wasn't actually awful it was pleasant to spend the afternoons or the midnight hours on the bridge talking to the watch and listening to their tales, few of which concerned fishing. Dave Hillyer had been a prisoner of war in Germany, and loved to recount his experiences there. Patsy Flynn, he who had never been to Ireland but had sailed not only out of Hull but Aberdeen as well, which made him a bit unusual, was a great story teller - mainly about women I may add. Most were unrepeatable, and some were unbelievable. During the war he had been in the Navy at the Dardanelles and was full of his exploits while ashore in Port Said and Alexandria. There, he said, the pimps touted around 'You want my virgin young sister, Sir? All same Queen Victoria. Pink inside.' He was also full of good advice for an innocent youngster. 'Sparks' he declared, 'If you bag-off with a woman, hide your money down your socks' and, referring to having a 'bit on the side', 'Never mess on your own doorstep. Your wife will find out and that's worse than her husband knowing.' Having sailed out of Hull, he assured me that it was the place where tarts were sent for re-bushing. 'They stick a hamshank up and pull out the bone' and it was a very long time before I understood his meaning. He also used to tell tall tales of another well known character, known as the Cockney Perisher, who once come home from the pub drunk, leading a horse he had bought and told his wife that they would keep it in the kitchen. Patsy's watchmate was the one who started the arguments down the cabin, and he too had many tales to tell of his army days. There was another sandy haired, squarely built fellow who came from Yarmouth (we forgave him for that) who said that be had only to hang his trousers on the bedhead and his wife was in the family way. And there was Phil who was so mean that be didn't smoke because he was trying to save up his second hundred pounds - a veritable fortune in those days. Plus the gentle Fritz Hillyer and also Harry Tbompson who, as a Skipper, felt that he should only patronise certain pubs and grillrooms into which lesser mortals ought not be allowed to enter. Lesser mortals included anyone who was not a Skipper. He had once been on a cruising holiday, a sort of home from home for him, and even stayed in a grand hotel in London. Very posh, we thought it. We couldn't afford such pleasures. One benefit of these yarning sessions was that I heard the Received Word. The first was that there was no such thing as superstition, the old one that it was unlucky to sail on a Friday being a lot of bunkum. Never-the-less, it was not wise to chance your luck and actually sail on that day, although Monday was worse. Monday was wash day - wash your husband away. Another truism was that to whistle was foolish - the wind might get up to strength. That may have been all right in the mailing ship days, but not for steamships. Also never mention the words pigs, rabbits or parsons - all extremely unlucky. The first two were always referred to an 'Them things' and the last, a Sky Pilot or a Missioner. And never accept the salt from the hand of anyone. One Skipper I sailed with in later years was fanatical about that. Many was the time when an interesting conversation or an argument would be deliberately started around the table, and the salt casually passed over to the Old Man, preferably when he was expounding on his own views. But we never did catch him out. Women on board before sailing was also said to be frowned upon, but with the narks I had to sail with, it was observed in the breach, although always decorously. Not that the opportunity occurred very often. And always have a coin in your pocket, even at sea, then you will never be broke.
There are traditional pranks played upon the young at sea, the apprentices, cabin boys and cadets, such as sending someone for The Long Wait or 'Go and ask the engineers for the key of the keelson; the keelson being a part of the rib structure of a ship. Fortunately I had been well primed on these and did not fall into the trap, except on one occasion when the Mate shouted up from the fishroom for me to go and get the ice shovel from the engine room. The tables were turned when the Chief Engineer tied an empty milk tin to a broom handle and the Mate had to thank me for getting it.
All too soon, as the summer went by, the weather became worse and the days shorter until by November there was little real daylight at all, although as we were still south of the Arctic Circle it was never completely dark for the whole twenty four hours. At least not officially. Then I began to realise how awful life could be. It wasn't the fact that it was cold, it was that it was wet as well, and it wasn't the fact that it was wet, it was that it was cold with it - plus the never ending lurching and heaving of the ship. Altogether a combination designed to test the staunchest of mortals, let alone me. So for those who had the unfortunate duty of working in these conditions, in the open, at sea level, constantly drenched with icy water, appropriate dress was called for. Flannel vest and shirt, long woollen underpants; two or three guernseys, thigh length rubber sea boots and socks to match (two pairs); oilfrock and sou'wester, with two shawls tucked in round the neck, and cloth wristbands to prevent chafing and consequent salt water boils. On the hands, woollen mittens when working with lines or hawsers ,and protective cotton gloves when gutting. Not that these were ever dry, but at least they provided some protection from the gutting knife and sharp fishbones. All this produced an enormous fat man with a little pea sized head. And nothing was provided; everything had to be bought out of wages. At the best of times, work under these conditions was arduous, but when the frost set in it was slavery. Then I saw why no one shaved, for the stubble did help to keep the face a little warmer, or perhaps less cold. But when the real frost did set in, the spray would freeze on the stubble and eyebrows so that it was almost impossible to distinguish any recognisable features. And apart from the outer layer, you slept in these garments as well. Always.
Another hazard began to appear - ice on the superstructure from the frozen high flung spray. The rigging, the whaleback, the bridge and even the wireless aerial would look like an iced cake; pretty to see, but dangerous. For ships had been known to turn turtle from the weight of ice on their superstructures. There was only one way to clear it, apart from going south to warmer climes, and that was to chop it away with axes. But care had to be taken not to cut through rigging or halliards, or try and chop an iron rail in half under the impression that it was piled ice. Bad for the axe - and the arms. The whaleback was the place requiring most care, for it could be just too easy to slide and vanish over the side. Once or twice even I went up there, but was usually shooed away as being too young.
Sometime towards the end of November we were fairly well down the Straits and had dropped the buoy for the night's lay-to. Although there was a fairly strong wind blowing at the time, the sea was surprisingly not too rough, although conditions were not improved by driving snow that cut into the face like needles. This meant, of course, that the ship bad to be brought close up to the buoy all the time in order to keep it in sight. Within a couple of hours Dave, the Skipper's son who was in charge of the watch, reported that he had lost the buoy. 'It was there one minute and gone the next.' Fritz being what he was took it quite calmly, ordered a fresh one to be got ready and steamed an hour or so down wind before dropping it. Naturally, the rest of the crew, who had to be called out for all this and had to work under the most appalling conditions, muttered that if it had been anyone else but Dave there would have been hell to play. But I don't think that this was really fair, as I had been in and out of the wheelhouse and knew what it was like. The flesh-cutting snow almost made it impossible to look ahead out of the window. But within another hour, Cockney Alf, who had taken over the watch called out 'It's bleeding well gone again.' We were so near, he went on, that he could almost see the flag, let alone the light. 'The sea went calm, the light seemed to rise high in the air and then went out.' By this time Fritz had given rapid orders and we were going full speed to the south. The truth of the matter was that the Great Ice Barrier was driving down on us with the wind and if we had gone ahead to try and find the buoy we should have ran straight into it. And that would have been the end of the St. Keverne. Us as well! The forward advance of the ice must have been at least eight knots, seeing that it caught up with us so quickly, and the driving snow was mainly ice crystals blown off the barrier. Although in subsequent years I encountered colder conditions, in terms of temperature, I feel that this night was perhaps the worst for sheer unpleasantness.
Paid holidays were not a general norm in those days, and I recall going on a demonstration in London as late at 1938 when one of the slogans was 'Eight hours a day, holidays with pay'. Fortunately the Marconi Company gave me two weeks paid holiday each year, but the rest of the crew would have to have an unpaid trip off if they wanted a break. In this event, one had to be sure that the Skipper would take you back. Skippers had to be even more careful. For trawler owners could be very hard hearted indeed, especially if your stand-in did well. If one of the paid hands had been actually sacked, he could draw the dole, but there was none for a voluntary absence, and even if you were on the dole you had to take any job offered or lose benefit. But Skippers and mates, being technically part owners, did not qualify for the dole at all. With Christmas now coming up, the Skipper and some of the crew decided to have it at home. In anticipation of this, the general comment was that we would get a 'Christmas crew', a lot of whifflers was the description - a wiffle being an unauthorised and hopefully unnoticed rest. So a whiffler was one who was already tired, in other words, one who would only be taken on as crew if there was no one else. And so it proved.
The new Skipper's name was Tich. I forget his surname and naturally be was a short man, suffering from Ducks' Disease, to quote his own description. If I recall correctly, he was with us for two trips until Harry Thompson came back as the regular Skipper, Fritz in the meantime having decided to retire. Tich had been a Commissioned Skipper in the war, in charge of a trawler minesweeper out at the Dardanelles. He told me a rather amusing story of his trip across the Mediterranean as a supernumerary on a cruiser. He said that he was not made to feel really welcome on the ship, probably following the apocryphal story of the times that the RNR (merchant seamen), were Officers but not Gentlemen; RNVR (volunteers), Gentlemen but not Officers, while the RN (the Navy proper), were both Officers and Gentlemen - Officer in this context also implying seamanship-like qualities. But not only was Tich an RNR, he was a Common Fisherman - insult to injury in the Ward Room. There being no room for passengers on a cruiser, he was given duties as an additional Watchkeeping Officer. One day whilst on the bridge and being bored with his lookout task, he lit a cigarette, only to be rather abruptly and rudely slapped down by the Officer of the Watch and reported to the Captain. So the next day when summoned to the Captain's cabin for a wigging, he said 'But Sir, I am used to being in the same position as yourself.' 'What do you mean by that?' 'In command of my own ship!' 'Ah yes ... er ... er well then, Skipper,' was the riposte in a somewhat changed voice 'Perhaps you will try and fall in with our ways', and after that attitudes changed, even in the wardroom.
From the beginning, this Christmas trip did not go right. Up the North Sea the weather was bad and it took two and a half days to get to the Firth, and then we had to stay in Scrabster for three days. Nothing satisfied the new inhabitants of the fo'c'sle, they grumbled about everything. One of them, a close cropped white haired gentleman, never stopped complaining about the food, not only to his mates, but directly to the cook himself. As someone remarked, 'He's seen more dinnertimes than dinners. You should see bow he lives at home', adding with due modesty. 'It's worse than mine!'. As we all knew where he lived, that was really some condemnation! When we finally got away, gales continued and we seemed to spend as much time dodging into wind as on passage.
During the next week, things deteriorated to provide the worst conditions of my then limited experience. While the wind screeched and howled continuously, so that it was almost impossible to be heard above it, the grey sky met the grey sea in all directions as we climbed the watery mountains and then slid into the depths of the valleys almost on our side. With each roll, one rail from bow to stern would disappear beneath the water that surged up over the easing, only to shake clear as the opposite rail went under. Each swell would be topped by a massive wall of spume, twenty or so feet high, as the sea curled and broke at the crest to hurl itself at our cockleshell ship. Sometimes there would be nothing between the galley and the bridge, and the bridge and the whaleback, with the foremast sticking up like a pylon in a river. It has been said that these trawlers, uncomfortable as they may be, were safer in extreme conditions than many a larger ship. They had no wide hatches to break open, no cargo to shift, and only two small half-doors where water could get below decks.
But there was a limit to everything. Just before I went to sea, one Grimsby ship was found drifting as a veritable hulk. It had lost the lifeboat, the mizzen mast, the galley top, the foremast, the wooden upper structure of the bridge, and the two men in it. With only one sea! Just as if everything been sliced off horizontally, with a gigantic knife. Lying in the roadstead off Grimsby, where I saw it myself, it looked little more than a barge. Worse still, some years later was the tragedy of the Cape Delgado, a Hull ship lost with all hands. She was running southwards down the North Sea to catch a market in really bad conditions, when most other ships were hove-to. The Skipper, talking on the radio telephone, apparently said that he wasn't going to stop, he was 'going to catch that market.' Then suddenly he called out 'Something's happened, we're going over' and from that moment, never another sign was heard or seen of the Cape Delgado and her crew.
As we reached the region of Cape Farewell, a combination of course and wind change brought the seas dead astern, a most uncomfortable and even dangerous situation, as a following sea can easily smash a ship right down. Looking aft, one would see a great comber coming with the speed of an express train towards our stern sunk low in the water, the spume towering high in the air above us, ready to crash down with its with its weight of tons on to the after deck. In these conditions, I have seen many an experienced mariner go white with apprehension. What I looked like I dread to think. But we always did lift in the nick of time, and then one wondered if the bow wouldn't go right under like a harpoon.
However, the Gods were with us all the time. That is, until the next morning! At breakfast time there was an enormous shudder that went right through the ship and everything loose shot forward, including me from my locker. Immediately the Skipper was shouting up to the wheelhouse as he struggled into his boots, the helmsman was desperately trying to keep a hold on the wheel, while the Mate was desperately searching for something, anything, that would show what our position was. Things settled down after a minute or two, and we all looked at each other with relief . Then the engine room voicepipe gave a shrill whistle, and we heard that water had poured down below; everyone was trapped and the lifeboat bad been forced forward and jammed in the galley doorway. Although the boat was damaged, it had not come completely off its chocks and was still strapped down to the deck. After calling the spare hands from the fo'c'sle, and with much heaving and pushing by all, the boat was moved away from the door and escape was possible. Still being somewhat romantic about life, I took it somewhat as a thrilling adventure, part of the ordinary way of a seafarer. Little did I know!
After the boat incident, we plunged on as best we could, in even worsening conditions, with the swell getting deeper and deeper and the wind rising still higher, although visibility seemed to improve slightly. Whether the Skipper should have hove-to again was not for me to say, but to be fair, he was a lonely man under pressure. Decisions had to be made by himself alone. He could not or would not consult the Mate. For one thing, it would have undermined his authority and our confidence in him, and if he didn't make a success of this trip, then he would be in trouble.
Time was dragging out and the Gaffers could be hard. Naturally, the new deckies were grumbling about it - we shouldn't do this or we shouldn't do that; the Skipper wasn't fit to be one; we've all got wives and families at home. In any case, the cook is no good. The food is awful. On the other hand, I knew that both the Skipper and the Mate wore more than worried about the deckies' capabilities, and with good reason as it turned out.
But although our situation was unpleasant and noisy, on the air all was normal. When darkness came, I could bear the faint voice of Reykjavik in the distance talking to ships around Iceland, although if I had tried, my weak voice would not have reached him. No other ships were in our waters, and as for the Greenland wireless stations, they were either too far away, or screened by the mountains. Simply a normal quiet evening for me, even if the water was squirting in around my cabin door. When my watch was over I turned in and despite the wild cavorting of the ship, went off to sleep quite quickly. But sometime later I was thrown violently off the locker, and landed under the table. Crawling clear, it was apparent that something was wrong. The ship seemed to rear right up by the head and then fall away with a sideways stagger, quite unlike a normal roll. In no time at all, we seemed to be almost on our beam ends and I had to crawl on hands and knees across the cabin deck to get to the ladder. Then it was a frantic clinging pull up so that I could get on to the bridge. In the dim light I could see a moaning deckhand heaped into a corner, and both the Mate and Skipper struggling with the wheel. Above the screech of the wind, I could bear 'Can't get her round, she's jammed' 'No it isn't, it's broken'. 'Are those effing engines stopped?' 'You get below Spark, this in no place for you.' As far as I could make out, the steering gear had broken and we had no control of the ship. Now it was plain that we were heeled over to starboard, helpless with terrific seas pounding against the port side. Half sliding down the ladder, I managed with some difficulty to get myself jammed into place on the locker, as I could not stand up without being thrown against the bulkhead. Then I become vividly aware of two things. A loud metallic clanging against the port side that seemed to reverberate throughout the ship, and in the midst of these frightening noises, a sort of uncanny silence. There was no vibration from the engines! It was at this moment that any idea of the Romance of the Sea left me. Permanently!
To say I was frightened is somewhat of an understatement. I was terrified! Lying jammed on the locker, all I could think of was the Grimsby Evening Telegraph (Special Edition). I could see it quite clearly - a great headline ANOTHER SHIP LOST WITH ALL HANDS - the two columns of small print followed in bold type by the crew list. And right at the end - Allen Finch (17) Wireless Operator. Yes, I had seen such things before. Somehow I felt that my Father wouldn't have approved. For had be not said 'Don't go to Greenland.' Eventually, plucking up courage because there was nothing else I could do, I managed to crawl up the ladder again and found that the attempt to turn the wheel had been abandoned, and we were broached-to with the starboard rail almost permanently under water. 'Sparks, you had better send an SOS' called out the Skipper, but I screamed back that no one would hear us and so it wouldn't be much use. I suppose going through my mind was the fact that we were not actually sinking, and no one could help us if we were. But he didn't pursue the matter and give me a direct order. He probably did not know our position in any case, and I doubt that my hand would have been steady enough to operate the morse key.