Never having had a holiday before, or at least not since I had been to the Boys Brigade camps when I was fourteen or so, I took myself off to the Big Smoke for a couple of weekends on twenty five shilling tickets, feeling very sophisticated indeed. Then I reported back for duty and hung around the office for several days with nothing to do. One afternoon, there was a telephone call from Hull with instructions that I was to proceed there forthwith, and join a ship that very evening. Somehow or other I managed to make my way to St. Andrews Dock in the dark, and found my new ship, the Goth. Fortunately, the deck was pretty straightforward, unlike the complicated ones at Grimsby, so I had little trouble. Bill Furniss, the operator from whom I was to take over was there waiting, and showed me some very strange but powerful apparatus, including a direction finder that was in a locker on the bridge. He said that the owners, Hellyer Brothers, were very wireless conscious and provided each operator with a pair of clean sheets for his bunk, but you had to get hold of them early before the Skipper decided that they were his. In any case, this particular one was a bit of a bully if he could get away with it, and he had to be stood up to or else life would be difficult. As we were sailing at dawn, I slept on the cabin locker until the crew started to arrive. And I got my sheets!
I had heard that St Andrews Dock was very narrow, and as ships could not easily turn round in it they entered stern first, so as to be ready to steam out in the normal manner. Or perhaps it was the other way round. I didn't know for sure, and as it was dark when I arrived, I had not been able to see the lock gates. So I asked the Mate which way we went, waving my arms grandly in both directions. He gave me rather a hard look and pointed to the bow. But on the second day out, he commented that I must have been to sea before as I seemed familiar with everything. Asked the purpose of the remark, he explained that when I asked him which way we went, he thought that I was asking which way the ship moved, and maybe did not know the sharp end from the blunt end. The Goth was a trawler proper, and being somewhat newer and larger then the St Keverney, had better crew arrangements. Down aft, the ladder led to a small mess deck, off which was my wireless cabin and which also opened to the usual horseshoe stern. The fo'c'sle gang ate in the mess deck, while the after passengers slept and lived in the main cabin. For the first time I had a proper bunk, in the cabin on the starboard side. Another major difference was that from the galley top to the stern there was a boat deck on which the lifeboat rested in its cradle. Sleeping now in a normal trawler bunk, I found things quite different to my locker of yore. There, I could somehow wedge myself against the legs of the chart table, but was frequently thrown off on to the deck and all the while, I was open to the Skipper's activities and movements. But now I was in this narrow cupboard with two half-doors that could be slid across, but not so that they met. If that had been possible and the ship had given a bad lurch, say by collision or stranding, the occupant would have been trapped. So there was also a small curtain to provide a modicum of privacy while asleep. For a pillow, it was usual to use your seabag, which if it was not covered, being made of oiled canvas, was very cold. The most uncomfortable thing about it was that even in a gentle seaway, you simply rolled from side to side and woke up feeling extremely stiff.
There were also one or two new facts I had to digest. The rank below the mate was the bo'sun, and not the third hand, this character being the next one down the line, and was a sort of senior deckhand in charge of a watch. I found that a box of fish was no longer a box but a kit, and ten stones rather than seven. Another curious thing was the meaning of the dialect words used. Having heard conversations as the crew assembled and during the first watch or two, I came to the conclusion that these Yorkies were an immoral lot, for they all seemed to have been doing things with Oor Lass. It was much later that I realised that Oor Lass was Hull for My Wife and not, as at home, for My Sister.
To say that there was rivalry between the two Humber fishing ports was just some tale thought up by the local press in Hull. For as everyone knew, Grimsby (GY) was the Largest Fishing Port In The World, ie had the greatest number of ships; long distance ones, medium range ones that went to the Faero Islands, short voyage North Sea trawlers, and seine-netters. We also handled a great variety of foreign ships as well; Danish seine-netters, Icelandic trawlers and carriers, and in the herring season, Scottish drifters. The total value of sales was also the highest. Admittedly, Hull landed a greater quantity of fish, but it was all brought by long-distance vessels and mainly poor cod stuff. It was most likely that real prime fish would not be recognised when, if ever, it was seen! For Hull had really given up North Sea fishing, although they still operated a couple of fleets, individual vessels that stayed out for some weeks, transferring their catch each day to a carrier that left for Billingsgate in London. All this was compounded by the fact that Yorkies were an uncouth lot who spoke in a curious dialect. Foreigners almost. And it is a curious fact that from home, one could see right across the Humber to the Yorkshire coast, five miles or so, but there was no connection or contact. It really could be a foreign country and I have yet to meet anyone who actually lived in that particular area. Perhaps none do! So here was I, a foreigner on a Hull vessel. Not that I kept quiet the fact that I was a Grimmie. Not only that, I had been a Codman. Unfortunately, no one knew what that was. But we still got on well together, as we did in the several years I spent at the port. Naturally, we both had a quiet scorn of the Fleetwood boys, who were not much wore than inshore fishermen, and a positive dislike of anyone from Yarmouth. Why I do not know. They were always referred to as Yarboys and considered to be somewhat bible punchers who tended to live in the seamen's mission. But perhaps this was due to the fact that their families were still in Yarmouth.
The passage to Iceland was fairly short, about five days, during which I was beginning to learn a new way of life and a new set of place names. The Horns, the Whaleback, The Hoof, Snowy (Jokull) plus a whole host ending in 'fewer'. This I subsequently learned was Humber vernacular for the Nordic word fjord. Just south of the mainland of Iceland is Vestrmanaeyjar, the Westerman Islands, and we had to pass clear of them before rounding the headland of Reykjanes. There are three passages through this group of islands, and these were known to us as the Front Door, the Middle Door and the Back Door. Having crossed Faxa Bay with the capital Reykavik away to the east, we proceeded up the west coast until the Skipper decided where we should start fishing. It was also along this coast that I first put my foot on foreign soil, as a day or so later, for some reason we put into Dyrafjord, and I went ashore for an hour.
My new ship differed from a codman in one important respect. Both fore and aft on both sides were the gallows, the arch-shaped gantries that rose some six feet above the bulwarks, each with a large pulley, a block, suspended from the top to carry one of the trawl towing ropes. Stowed on the deck beside each gallows was a five by ten foot heavy ironbound wooden door, sometimes called an Otter Board, and stretched along the scuppers was a thick wire warp threaded through a series of large cylindrical iron bobbins. This was the footrope, and all was part of the trawl gear. So the deck was not clutter-free, but the bobbins often had to serve a useful purpose, as they could provide a little foot leverage for an upwards jump, to avoid a rush of water along the deck should you be foolish enough not to be wearing your seaboots.
A trawl is essentially a long funnel of net dragged along the sea bottom. The mouth, about eighty feet wide, is formed at the bottom by the footrope, the warp with the bobbins which roll along the sea bed with the foreword movement and at the top by a headline that is held up by aluminium floats. Next comes the belly, while the narrow far end where the fish are finally trapped is the cod-end, a not inappropriate name, closed by the cod-line tied into a special knot and protected from tearing on the sea bottom by cow hides. A contraption called the Dan Leno connects the headline and footrope to the towing gear. The only reason I can think of for the odd name is that it has two short arms that spray out like the feet of the well known Edwardian music hall comedian. A short swivelled bridle joins the Dan Leno to a door which in turn is shackled to one of the main warps. In forward motion, each door tends to fly outwards, keeping the trawl mouth open to the full width while the floats hold it up. Into this cavernous opening the fish swim, or at least that is the hope. Sometimes there are very few that fall into the trap.
In the last hours before fishing begins, the deck crew get the gear ready; doors are slung up in the gallows on the starboard side, warps connected, nets checked. As soon as the Skipper had made up his mind that he was in the right position and depth of water, we were off. The loose net was manhandled overboard, the footrope hoisted up and over by a gilson on the fore derrick, the engines set to Slow Ahead, the doors released from their holding shackles, and the warp paid out from the main winch. As soon as bottom was reached, the ship was brought round so that the two warps came together at the stern where they were scoured by the Bo'sun into an extremely rugged iron clip, the towing block. This enabled the ship to be manoeuvred while towing along, and the trawl shooting operation was finished. Then all hands went for a pot of tea. All, that is, except the bridge watch. A tow it seemed could last for three hours, or it could be as short as a half. It all depends, the Skipper told me, on the sort of living one was after and the particular ground over which you were towing. If after plaice, another flat bottom fish and which is not too plentiful, then the tow could be long. But when going for middle water fish such as haddock and cod, the most usual objective, then the tow would be shorter. It was during this shooting and towing operation that the steam steering gear came into its own. The pressure to pull around to the trawl side is tremendous, and can really only be counteracted by the power of the steam gear.
The first command for the hauling operation was one that I was to become very familiar with during the next few years. The Bo'sun holding a large sledgehammer took up position right aft, and waited for a cry from the bridge of 'Knock out'. At this he gave a sharp clout with the hammer to the towing block, which flew open to hit the ship's side with a crash that could be heard all over the ship. Then the winch started a thump, thump, thump as the warp was wound in, until with even louder thuds and bangs, the doors came up the side. The Mate for'ard and the Bo'sun aft then clambered up the gallows and secured the doors so that the short bridle could be wound in. By this time the cod-end was floating on the surface, brought up by the expanded fish. Then the belly netting was dragged in by deckies, using short iron hooks until the cod-end was alongside. A becket, a rope with a loop at each end, was around the neck of the cod-end, and this was hooked by the gilson and hauled high in the air and swung over the deck pound like an enormous bag. The Mate then pulled on the cod-line and all the unfortunate cod and haddock cascaded down on to the deck. If there had been more fish still in the belly, the cod-line would have been tied up again, the cod-end swung overboard to be filled by the floating fish, and hauled in again. This of course was a double-bag and sometimes on a good living it could be a triple. On this occasion it was a single, and so the whole shooting procedure was repeated and the gutting, washing and packing away of the fish commenced.
This then was the style of my life for the next few years. One of the first things I learned was that a three inch warp was somewhat stronger than a one inch tarred line. It didn't break so easily, even taking into account the much harder work it had to perform. In other words, fishing could continue in much harder weather. And day and night. Without a break. Twenty four hours at a stretch ' longer sometimes. Thirty six was not unknown, and on one or two occasions I saw almost forty eight. In these conditions men would be haggard and grey with fatigue, and I have seen them drop off to sleep at mealtimes with their face slamming down on the plate. It was not always like that of course, but one could expect spells of hard work; it depended upon the conditions. If the living was good, tows short and most of the catch was cod and haddock, then by the time one lot had been stowed away it would be hauling time again. Reasonably good Skippers would go on for about twenty four hours and then lay-to at a buoy for a while so that the hands could get a nap. And in those circumstances, there was a saying that a nap was as good an a rest! But it was a catch-as-catch-can situation. The quicker you could fill the fishrooms the better. For after all, that was the way you earned your livelihood. But you had to sleep sometime, even if some bastard Skippers thought otherwise.
The work of course was just a little more than arduous ' it was downright exhausting. Constantly working awash in water, bare hands in freezing conditions, pulling and heaving heavy nets, having to repair tears in them and all the time on a bucking and heaving deck. One of the most dangerous tasks was the shackling and unshackling of the quarter ton wooden doors that could swing around like a flag in the wind. This does not take account of the hours of backaching work, bending down and gutting the fish in these conditions. At the sight of all this, I gave up any ambition I may have had to be an all-round crew man ' seaman yes, but emphatically not a fisherman, although it was not unknown for me to give a gentle hand with the pulling in of the net. In fine weather of course! After experiencing a few of these trawling operations, I understood the origin of an often heard comment. If the Skipper was in a bad mood; not necessarily angry, but more of a grumpy, resentful bad tempered one, be 'had his door down'. When shooting, the main net and bobbins went over the side with a great clatter, followed by the short warp. There was a short pause as the doors were shackled on, and then they dropped down with a dull thud. That was it. Ugh ... ... the dropping and the clamped jaw of a bad mood.
After ten days or so. we set off back to Hull, arriving there after a three week absence. Two tides in dock, a quick visit home and away again, this time to the White Sea.
Although notionally we were proceeding to the White Sea, the White Sea was not our destination at all, for I do not think that any British ship has ever fished there. Why the term was used I do not know, for it referred to a whole sector of the Barents Sea, stretching from North Cape, Norway, to the Russian coast in the region of Murmansk, and ending vaguely in the area opposite to the narrow entrance of the White Sea proper. There was also another much fished area of the Barents Sea around the small rocky Bear Island, a hundred and fifty miles or so south of Spitzbergen, and much farther north than we were going. Ships for both areas made a two or three day crossing of the North Sea to the coast of Norway, north of Bergen at a point named Stadtland. Those going to Bear Island then headed on to a more northerly course than those bound for the White Sea, who more or less followed the coastline, eventually becoming more and more sheltered by the Lofoten Islands as they entered the broad waters of Vestfjord, and arrived at the pilot station of Lodingen. There they picked up a pilot for the thirty six hour steam through sheltered waters to the North Cape. Apart from a couple of sectors of an hour each, this route was entirely through landlocked fjords. Arising from the fact that this passage started in Vestfjord, it was always known as the Westfewers. There was also a route southwards along the whole of the coast, almost as far as the Skagerrak, naturally called by us the Southfewers, that provided a thousand miles of calm waters and unsurpassed scenic beauty. This was the area favoured by the cruise liners, then very much the 'in-thing' for holidays. But the pilotage for this was expensive, too expensive for the ships' owners, and so the poor fishermen had to withstand the rigours of the open sea, winter and summer. We didn't lose out completely, for the passage through our own Westfewers was also outstanding for its beauty and interest. The route weaved constantly in and out and around numerous small islands and rocks, where one could see the homes and houses in close-up and sometimes even wave to the inhabitants. At one town, Tromso, you could tell the time by the church clock as the ship steamed past the port. At the end of the passage, the pilot was dropped at the small harbour of Honningsvog, one that I came to know quite well later, and then we headed eastwards along the northern coast of Norway into the open sea off the Russian coast. But as the Russians claimed and enforced a twelve mile territorial water limit, as opposed to the international three mile one, their coast was nothing more than a blur, even when viewed through binoculars.
It was on this first White Sea trip that I committed the most heinous of maritime crimes. I told the Captain of the Ship, who by Law was God's representative: 'What to do with himself and mind his own business'. This was over the direction finder, the d.f. As I mentioned, this set was on the bridge, enclosed in a teak cabinet screwed down with large brass wingnuts, and so I had to clamber up there every time a bearing was required. The procedure was simple. Tune-in to the radio beacon, turn a pointer around a graduated dial to a minimum signal which would show the bearing of the station in relation to the ship's head, and shout NOW. At this, someone else would take a simultaneous reading of the compass heading. Add the two together to obtain the bearing of the station from yourself in relation to north and lay it off on the chart. But ... the compass card was marked in the traditional points, half points and quarter points, while the relative scale was in degrees. As each whole point is eleven and a quarter degrees, it is obvious that much counting and multiplying was needed. Just try and work out how many whole points there are in a heading of NW by W1/2W, multiply and then add three quarters of a point or subtract a quarter, depending on how you worked out the whole ones. Do it two or three times to average out the motion of the ship. In the dark. In the cold. And then find out that someone had forgotten one of the readings.
But this is a digression from my tale of bravery. One fine day, the bo'sun told me that I ought to know that the Old Man had opened up the d.f. cabinet and was fiddling with the set. He had tried it with the last operator but hadn't got very far. So arming myself with some specious excuse, I made for the bridge and found the cabinet was indeed open, although the Skipper was down below. In loud and aggressive tones I demanded to know who had done it. From below came a shout I have as his head appeared over the hatchway. I forget my next words, but in no uncertain terms indeed, I pointed out that the set was my responsibility, almost my personal property, it was none of his business and to leave it alone in future. Any decent captain would have clapped me in irons or whatever the modern equivalent is, entered me in the ship's logbook as a mutinous seaman, and then proceeded to set about me with an invective quite beyond my own verbal powers of expression. But not this one! He just went below again to his cabin, much to the amusement of the deckhands on the bridge, one of whom then sped aft to recount the tale to the cook, and thence it was repeated to everyone else.
After ten days fishing we set off for home, picking up the pilot at Honningsvog. The islands of the fjords are usually the tips of steep-sided maritime mountains that stick up out of the sea, and in many places there is no shelving beach, only a precipitous plunge into deep water. A dangerous situation for any ship unlucky enough to run ashore, as a slide downwards could follow within a few minutes. In some places this danger is so acute, that in conditions of poor visibility, a pilot would insist that a kedge anchor be slung ready over the bow and held by a manilla rope, with a deckhand standing by holding a sharpened axe. Should a marker light not appear within a couple of minutes of its expected time, the rope would be chopped immediately and the ship brought to anchor. And I have seen this done! One result of this steaming between high hills and mountains was that wireless signals could be subject to screening or cutoff. One could be talking to another ship loud and clear, and within a few minutes everything would fade away. Sometimes you could visualise the ship turning around a head- land and disappearing out of sight. Conversely, you could be having difficulty in hearing what some other ship was saying as his signals were so weak, implying that he was some considerable distance away, a hundred miles it could seem, yet within twenty minutes or so the ship would pass you on an opposite course.
We had picked up the pilot somewhere about midday and threaded our way southwards through the navigational channels. Of course, darkness fell quite early but visibility was good and it was a cheery sight to see the lights of the houses as we passed by the islands. But soon, a few snow flurries appeared, although they did not appear to offer any serious problems. Sometime in the early evening, another Hull trawler called me for a chat. The operator told me that they were anchored off the nearby port of Hammerfest. Why I did not know. Perhaps the Skipper had a girlfriend there. We were just concluding our natter, the other chappie saying that he hoped to go ashore himself for an hour or so, and I was actually saying Goodnight when there was an enormous, crashing thud and we heeled over at an alarming angle, having obviously come to a sudden stop. At this, from the mess deck where some of the crew were playing cards, there was a great shout of Christ, we're ashore, followed by a mad scramble to get up the ladder to the deck. Hurriedly telling the other operator that something had happened I followed suit, for as every everyone knew and feared, we could already be sliding down into deep water. Indeed were ashore, but sat at only a slight angle on a low beach. Naturally, there was much shouting of Are we holed ?, Are we taking water ? and What's that bloody fool done now? As we did not seem to be in much immediate danger, with great self-control, always believing that dis- cretion is better than valour, I returned below and told the other ship what had occurred. The operator replied that he would get his Skipper back on board, and asked if we required any assistance. I then called up the bridge on the speaking tube and told our Skipper that I was already in contact with another ship who was offering assistance; he asked me to suggest that they came out to find us as we were only a half-hour's steam from Hammerfest. It wasn't until my experience was broadened, that I realised that it wasn't so much the rescue part that interested the other ship, it was the prospect of earning salvage money.
To say that there was panic on the Goth would really be an exaggeration, but it must be admitted that there was a certain amount of confusion. No one seemed to know what to do. Quite wisely, it was decided to launch the lifeboat ' just in case! But this was easier said than done. No one actually knew how to do it. Various theories were offered, various secure fastenings loosened, much shoving and pushing took place, but the boat would not move. And even then, there was still much argument as to which side it should be swung when it was hoisted up into the davits. So the main steam winch was brought into action. The ship grounded, maybe taking in vast quantities of water, and the winch having to be used to launch the boat ... ! Unfortunately the rope broke, leaving the boat canted at an angle on its cradle. Finally, after about half an hour's effort, the boat was over the side and was pulled round to north, where the bo'sun jumped in to see if it was watertight. He had hardly started to peer around when he was drenched by a sudden rush of water from the engine room outlet pipe. Dirty, smelly water, full of filth and muck. Yes, bilge water, for the engineers had at that very moment decided to blow them out and check. Needless to say, the bo'sun did not take kindly to this! Having determined that we were not indeed holed, it was decided to go to Hammerfest for examination. By this time, the other ship had appeared on the scene, demanding to know what assistance was required. Far from being pleased, our own Skipper became alarmed as be thought that he would be held responsible for calling it to a nonexistent emergency, for which compensation would be claimed. Whether it ever was I do not know.
At Hammerfest, the examination revealed nothing more serious than a bent stem and a few buckled plates that were soon patched up. We stayed in the port all that day, and our intrepid mariners were able to stretch their legs ashore, although there was nothing much to see except wooden houses, snow and ice. Even the pavements and roads were sheets of solid ice. One of my pleasant memories of the place was the sight of a venerable old gent, dressed in a well-cut tweed coat and wearing a bowler hat, skating down the middle of the road with a small sledge in front of him that looked like a summer garden seat with runners. And on the seat was a single large cod!
As the stranding had weakened the bow slightly, it was considered prudent to go the full length of the South Fewers, giving a much shorter open crossing, where stormy seas could be experienced that could open up the seams. So we had a three day trek through the sheltered waters, and what a wonderful experience that was. As someone pointed out, the wealthy Londoners paid good money to see it, while we were seeing it for free, in good clear weather at that. Some of the passages were narrow indeed, alarmingly so! At one, where it was necessary to pass between two headlands, each with a revolving light, a one way system was in force, and it was obligatory to give a warning toot on the whistle before entering the narrows. And we were so close to the land that the revolving mechanism of the light could be heard on both sides. At another place where we were literally steaming along a valley, the clip clop of a pony's hoofs could be heard as it trotted along drawing a small carriage on a hillside road.
After arrival back at Hull, the ship had to be dry docked and so we were paid-off. Whether the Skipper took all the blame