Sunday, 26 April 2009
As you all know by now it was my mothers side of family that supplied the salt water in my veins, guiding me to a career at the fishing, but on my fathers side I had a cousin about ten years older than me who worked in the coal mines for a while and between us we worked in the two most dangerous jobs in the world.
Occasionally when on holiday he would come out to sea with us knowing beforehand that the trip was only to last a couple of days and we would not be venturing too far. Although you do not need to be too far off shore to experience the wrath of the sea he thought there was less chance of rough seas making his time with us safer and more pleasurable, but on one occasion his ideas were to be proved wrong.
It was two o'clock on a cold dark dismal winter morning with the rain and wind swirling around us when the ropes were cast off and as we approached the harbour mouth the boat was already dipping its head into the waves but as soon as we cleared the harbour we immediately got a taste of what was ahead of us as a wall of water towered above us making us brace for the impact even though the boats engine was only half speed. On a sea like that the boat's head rises swiftly throwing everything and everyone not tied down or prepared for impact, all over the place then when the crest is reached you have the sudden drop back down the other side with another smaller but no less solid wave waiting for you to ram into making the boat come to a sudden halt for a couple of seconds while everything shudders and rattles until, slowly the boat recovers and climbs the next wave which usually, and hopefully is a normal sized one.............well normal size for these conditions.
It was what is classed as a freak wave and accumulates with seas and tide building up or pushing the heavy swell into one enormous lump of water that normally occurs further out but as the wind was blowing onto the shore we were leaving from, it just so happened that it caught us unaware being so close to the harbour mouth. After checking everything and everyone was O.K. we steadied and carried on giving my cousin something to think about as we punched through the storm on our way to the fishing grounds. The freak waves normally do not have white water breaking on their crest until they reach shallower water which allows the boat to ride them without too much damage being done, its just the drop and the sudden stop at the other side that causes concern, while the waves with breaking crests causes spray and water to get everywhere and if large enough can be the cause of sinkings. (Thankfully this one decided not to break over us and we were able to continue.)
Once we started fishing my cousin, though not seasick stayed behind the wheelhouse peeking round between the spraying waves crashing over us to see what was going on until he got brave enough to venture forward to give us a hand with the fish already caught.
In his own words he told me "I thought, after all it was only water that was coming towards me in the spray but when I got my first face full of the water, it hit me like chipping stones and between hanging on for dear life and this icy cold hard water battering my face I wished I was back down the pit again." "The few trips before were fun when the sea was moderately calm, but freezing cold, wet, being constantly tossed around and having to hang on all the time is far from fun and I was exhausted without doing any work."
He did come back out with us a few times after that but only when the weather was guaranteed to be fine and only in the summer months if we were not venturing too far but not now, because he thought it was safer, but because a couple of days was enough for him.
A few years later he got his chance of revenge when the boat was tied up for its annual overhaul and I went to spend a week with him and his wife.
He had arranged a day at the pit for me which I was looking forward to as it always had intrigued me as to what mining was all about so, not unduly worried though slightly wary, we entered the building where the proper attire was to be donned before our descent underground.
I was handed a boiler suit and a helmet with a torch and a heavy battery pack attached to it but when I went to put the boiler suit on over my clothes my cousin laughed and told me to take the clothes off as the suit would be enough. Hummm I thought, its going to be cold down there with just this on but undeterred as my cousin was dressed the same we headed for the cage which was to take us below ground.
I do not know how deep the mine was but I could see why the conveyance down to the bottom was called a cage and not a lift as it consisted of a very basic platform with steel bars around it and a shutter that pulled across to keep us in but not obstructing our view of the hole in the ground we were plummeting down as it shook and shuddered its way to the bottom.
On exiting the cage into the gloom of a tunnel I knew at once as the heat hit us why I had nothing on under my boiler suit and as we began walking towards a small diesel driven train that was waiting to take us to the coalface the sweat began to run down my brow. I was astounded at how warm it was and in complete contrast to the cold blast I was expecting to funnel along the maze of tunnels the mine was made up of. It seemed in the narrow tunnel that the train was doing a hundred miles an hour as it whizzed along the track but in reality it was only doing about twenty and it wasn't that long before we came to a halt where we dismounted with a further walk ahead of us through a narrower tunnel with a roof so low we had to stoop as we walked. Along the way we met the odd miner with his own job to do,one being to hit the roof bringing down loose stones and rubble from among the pit props and staging that supported the tons of earth above our heads and watching it fall around us made me even more wary than I was before although I wonder to this day if it was only staged to frighten me and get some revenge for my cousins scary adventures at sea.
We eventually reached the coalface where all the real work was being carried out by miners lying on their backs under a cramped three feet ceiling of coal shovelling it onto a conveyor belt as the cutting machine dropped it close to them.
"We should be in time to see them blasting more coal soon" said my cousin, thinking that it would be another aspect of his job that I could witness but by this time it was beginning to dawn on me just how deep underground we were and how dangerous this job really was so I was not relishing the thought of being in this position when the walls were going to be deliberately crumbled by DYNAMITE, of all things.
You can imagine my relief when it was postponed due to a snag in the system and we headed back out along the tunnel where by this time a miner was sitting on the ground in a small inlet, his coal blackened face barely viable in the murk eating his sandwich.
My cousin introduced me and casually told him that it was my first excursion down the pit so, knowing that he had one of the most dangerous jobs in the world he laughingly said to me " I'll swap you jobs pal.............. what do you do?" When I told him that I was a fisherman he laughed even louder and said "Nah never mind, you keep you job and I'll keep mine."
As we travelled back up in the cage and I thought to myself of how important his statement was and of how, though we all might think OUR jobs are bad, there is always someone worse off than us, also that we are each cut out for our chosen occupations and the work we take pride in.
Back on the surface we headed for the showers and as I peeled the boiler suit off my moist body the sweat was mingled with layers of coal dust even though I was only walking and observing the proceedings, and as I washed it off I could feel it course on my skin but not as course as the spray that hit the face of my cousin when we were at sea and I did wonder just how much of the dust was devoured along with the sandwich the miner had eaten .
I had enjoyed my experience of the coal mine but knew it was not for me just as the miner knew the fishing was not for him. Aye, each to our own I thought as we left the pit and headed for the nearest pub where I could wash the remaining coal dust from my throat with a cold pint of beer and look forward to my next sea adventure where I knew I would feel more relaxed and at home in my own environment and maybe, just maybe, have a bit more sympathy for my cousin on his next trip with us.
I realized the immense contrast in our jobs and that each had its own elements of danger in their own way, but no less tragic for each close knit community that these special men were honed from with the large losses of life that occur every year no matter how careful they are.
Most, if not all of the deep mines in Britain are now closed given way to open cast mining but still in many countries deep mining occurs where lives are always at risk and of course, "men will always go down to the sea in boats."