Wednesday, 6 May 2009

A large black structure loomed out of the fog.

When relaying some of my sea adventures to you I have mentioned the rough seas, which seems to have captured the imaginations as being a terrifying experience and the worst thing that could happen if you went on a boat trip, but there are worse things than storms that can endanger the lives of seamen.
Fog can be treacherous too, especially if the proper navigational equipment and knowledge of seamanship is lacking.
It is not so long ago when skippers had only charts and instinct to go by and even into my early days at sea, new aids like radar and Decca navigators were just beginning to be installed on the smaller crafts like the Puffers and fishing boats I write about. You might think that anyone who is in charge of these vessels should have the necessary knowledge, before they are allowed to take command of them but in the case of the Puffer skippers and other unscrupulous characters who took command this was not the case, because once they had acquired some knowledge by having been at the fishing or some other means, they could bluff their way into these positions of responsibility as certificates of competence were only needed above a certain tonnage and sometimes proof was never asked for even although needed in the case of Puffers.
Not long after I started work on the "Olive Tree" (my uncles boat) I had my first experience of fog but as I had to start as cook and work my way up it was my uncles concern to steer us through this thick "pea souper" as it was referred to and find our way to the fishing grounds.
We had no radar but we did have a Decca navigator that could pinpoint our position, and the fishing boats had them installed not solely for navigation but for marking out the bottom of the sea where wrecks, rough ground and snags of various kinds could rip our nets. It was the forerunner of the satellite systems they have now and the signals were sent from masts,the same way as TV signals were sent out but instead of a screen it was a box with four clocks on it, one master clock where the other three clocks (a red a green and a purple) were set up from and a chart with red, green and purple lines which was referred to and where the readings met was where you were. (I hope I have explained that OK.)
That took care of our position but we had the worry of a collision with one of the many Merchant and Royal Navy vessels and ferries that passed us regularly so, the foghorn and ships bell were other valuable pieces of equipment to have on a day such as this.
We reached the fishing grounds safely thanks to the skill of my uncle and when we began fishing other annoyances came to light, like trying to find our dhan (marker bouy used when we shot our seine net gear) in the fog, that merged with the calm sea that usually accompanied it. The mile and a half of ropes were tied to this bhoy and we steamed away to shoot our gear and had to peer through the thick fog on our return, looking for it as my uncle tried to predict how far and which way the tide would have carried it. Standing peering through this stuff, with the misty water running down our face blurring our eyes was eerie as every time a seagull appeared, it give the impression that it was as large as a ship, bringing our hearts up into our mouths until eventually someone would spot the dhan and shout, pointing quickly so we could retrieve it before it disappeared into the murk again.
As the day went on the fog lingered putting an extra strain on all of us as we had to be even more aware than usual while working and listening for other ships fog horns and try to judge the speed and direction they were approaching. There were different blasts to warn when we were fishing or steaming between hauls, and we had to trust the seamanship of the other crews in the vicinity to distinguish what we were up to and where we were, also to know the foghorns of any lighthouses that might be in the mix of the various horns around, while listening above the sound of noisy engines or winches that was used to haul the gear back.
You can imagine the fright we got when this giant black structure loomed out of the fog heading straight for us appearing like one of the massive oil tankers that we could see on clear days and that took three miles to stop!
Roars went up from all the crew to prepare for a collision, and with a certain swim at the very least ahead of us we watched and braced for impact, until we noticed it was going very slowly and was not as large as it had first appeared.
It was one of the Clyde Puffers,(not much bigger than us) and as it's skipper edged it alongside us as close as he dare I spotted, standing on the deck, an old familiar weather beaten face from the past.
YES it WAS Smithy, asking where they were and wanting us to point them in the direction of the Mull of Kintyre, just as if they were passing through some strange town or other. They had no radar or Decca navigator and sadly lacked the knowledge to get them from A to B in these conditions but undeterred, on recognition of me Smithy gave me a big wave and shouted "well I see you made it then" and laughingly I shouted back "AYE and its thanks to you that I know how to scrub pots." They were close enough for us to throw them some fresh fish for their supper and after my uncle pointed them in the right direction they disappeared into the fog again like some ghostly apparition from a horror movie(or comedy would be more like it.)
They must have reached their destination though as we never heard of any Puffers going missing around that time but I never seen or heard of Smithy after that, so I just took it for granted that he survived to enjoy a few years of retirement, probably spinning a few yarns to anyone who would listen while he sat on a box at the harbour dreaming and telling of how it used to be.
I doubt though if he would ever tell of the embarrassing time when he had to ask directions in thick fog on passage to The Mull of Kintyre.
We too made it safely back to port with a good catch in the hold and a good pay packet to pick up for all our troubles that by this time become just a memory but one I could recall without any embarrassment in the future.
Soon after that most fishing boats had radar installed making life at sea that bit easier but none less scary in fog.

The picture (above on the left) is a Decca navigator and you can see the clocks mentioned with the master clock at the top and all the other clocks and buttons used in the complicated way that these systems had to be set up before you sailed.

The method see in the video (above right) is purse seining which is vastly different to the method we used as it takes in everything in the miles of net used, compared to the ropes used in our method, allowing certain fish to escape. A much more environmentally friendly way to farm the sea.

Bottom: (at the end of the story) is the method we used although in my early days it was open decks with the nets being hauled by hand and the ropes were manually stowed on the side deck rather than on the reels shown on the film.

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1 comment:

  1. Good day Donald..
    Yet another story that left me with goosebumps tingling.
    I wonder if you even realize how much life you actually experienced back then.(5 years at best :P)

    Just in reading your memoirs..I can only awe at how exciting a life you really had.

    Thank you for sharing Donald's life at sea!

    Have a very creative day!