Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Hard graft on the Christmas Rose

Heading out to fishImage by itsbooyer via Flickr

Referring to the three mile limit in my last post reminded me of the time when I crewed on the "Christmas Rose" for a week while the Olive Tree was undergoing engine repairs.
The Christmas Rose was only forty feet in length and could seine net inside the three mile limit, with the only rules to bother about being, "the dhan must never be shot before sunrise or after sundown" and correct mesh sizes, which gave the skipper "Jimmy Napier" plenty scope to utilise the rich fishing grounds inside the line.
Jimmy was one of the characters of the fishing fleet, but a true gentleman also, and when he asked me to fill in for a week on his boat I did not hesitate, as being just newly married with a wife and son to take care of, I knew the money would come in handy.
As I said the Olive Tree was tied up for a week and as we were classed as self-employed, whenever the boats were tied up for repairs or an overhaul we were not paid, so Jimmy's knock on the door turned out to be, not only prosperous but it also gave me a fascinating insight into fishing inside the limit LEGALLY.
As it was Autumn, the signs and aromas of summer were disappearing fast, and with the days shortening, a cold sharp feel was creeping into to the early morning atmosphere, that drew clean fresh sea air into your lungs every time you inhaled. (as long as you were clear of the engine exhaust and the smoke billowing from the chimney, that lead down through the deck to the coal fire in the foc's'le.) "Theres a smell of winter in the air" Jimmy remarked as we sailed north towards Irvine bay, hoping for some good hauls of codling that were sometimes to be found there at this time of year, but as the fishing had been poor lately we would have to wait until the first haul came on board before we could be sure it was going to be worth our while.
Jimmy new the fishing was poor but he had promised me twenty pounds at the end of the week, whether we had caught enough fish to warrant that as a wage or not, such was his gratitude to me for filling in for him being short crewed. (Twenty pounds was a good living wage then)
We seemed to steam in very close to the land when Jimmy shouted to throw the dan away, and as the eight coil of ropes on the first side were being shot we travelled farther inshore, until we turned to shoot the net. "If you jumped over the side just now ma' loon, you widna' be over your head" said Jimmy as I threw the cod end over the side. (LOON is the east coast way of saying son) and as we headed back to our dan I could still see the floats on the headline of our net on top of the water as it wasn't even deep enough to sink all of our net, and it was only when we began towing off into slightly deeper water did the net become fully submerged, but only just.
All this was a new adventure to me, and when the cod end came aboard an hour later there was enough fish in it to keep us there for the rest of the day, giving me new experiences of being able to watch people ashore as they walked their dogs along the beach.
Being forty feet the Christmas Rose had not the capacity to hold big catches of fish or have very good facilities, cooking wise and sleeping wise so it was fortunate that we were never far from home, and we would return to Ayr every night to land our catch and have a wee dram in the Marine bar before going home to a cosy bed.
The next day brought a glorious morning and rather than head north to where we had good fishing, Jimmy decided to head south to Culzean bay and try our luck there.
I had complete faith in Jimmy's judgement, and sure enough when the first haul came aboard, it was a good haul of plaice, sole and a selection of other good quality fish, that landed on the deck when I opened the cod end.
As the day went on into the afternoon the sun became quite warm for the time of year and being so close to the shore we could see folk arriving in their cars at Croy shore to enjoy, what could be one of the last nice days of the year, It was a great experience for me to be able to watch all this going on while I was working, as it was only on rare occasions that we could see the land never mind everything that was going on ashore. The sweat was pouring out of us and all we had to drink was warm water from the freshwater tank in the engine room, hot tea/ coffee from a kettle of water boiled on the coal stove, or the last few dregs in a bottle of lemonade that was placed on top of the mooring rope with the cold sea water from the hose running on it to give us something cool to drink.
Imagine how I felt when an ice-cream van arrived on the beach, and although only about half a mile away from it, I could not hear the music it played, but I could see the queue gathering to get the refreshments of their choice, that I would have dearly paid well over the odds for.
So there was disadvantages to fishing inshore after all I thought as my dry mouth longed to be in the queue that was so near yet so far.
We moved farther south to Turnberry lighthouse where the ice-cream van, and it's goodies were out of sight, but not out of mind.
We were so close to the rocks when I threw the cod end away this time, that I was afraid to throw it too hard in case it landed on the rocks.
That week brought a whole new meaning to fishing inside the limit to me, compared to our efforts on the Olive Tree as each day we ventured to new grounds with the same astounding closeness to rocks or beach, and although the Christmas Rose was only forty feet, with a shallow draft, some of the places Jimmy took us made me wonder just how much clearance there was between our keel and the rocks.
I got through the week without any mishaps of course as Jimmy knew what he was doing, and when he handed me my pay packet on the Friday the Marine bar, there was more than the twenty pounds he had promised me, and on handing it over said "there ye' go ma' loon I promised you twenty pounds and there is a bit more, NOW if you would like to stay with me I will guarantee you a wage every week , plus I will cover your rent every week on top of that."
It was a hard offer to refuse, but when I weighed up the comparisons between the Olive Tree and the Christmas Rose, I chose the Olive Tree it being the family boat, also it was hard graft on the Christmas Rose, with it being small and compact, and with a lot less comforts than the Olive Tree, but I never forgot my experience of working inside legally, and came away with even more respect for Jimmy than I had before, and going by his offer I think he held me in the same high esteem.
Jimmy had brought his wife and family (two daughters) from Whitehills on the north east coast of Scotland to settle in Ayr where he thought there was better prospects for his daughters to grow up in, and having fished on the west coast on a regular basis it would save him travelling back and forth every week, hence the poor attempt at me trying to convey his accent in my writing.
He fished with the Christmas Rose until it became outdated, and found it harder to compete alongside the modern vessels that were being built, also with the new rules and regulations coming in from the EU he decided to sell up. He found a job working with one of the fish merchants, weighing the prawns that the fleet were now bringing in, and many a good chinwag I had with him in the Marine bar when I came back from a trip, but his heart was always at sea, as is mine, and of course our stories were all about the "good old days" and having passed away a few years ago, and being the gentleman that he was, makes him well worth a mention, when I am recalling "the good old days."

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Wednesday, 17 June 2009

A boarding party was dispatched.

Trawl net with fishImage via Wikipedia

Fishery protection vessels were there to patrol the British waters to prevent foreign fishing boats entering what is now a twelve mile limit for them, and also to make sure our own boats kept to the rules, of which there were many.
Foreign fishing boats were allowed to work up to the three mile limit when I started the sea in 1964 but as their rules of minimum sizes for all species of fish and mesh sizes for nets did not comply with our laws, they were cleaning up our fishing grounds and denying access of the rich fishing grounds to our own fleet.
French, Spanish and Danish trawlers would invade our waters when the fishing was at its best and they would tow in formation in a large square to prevent our boats getting in among the shoals of hake that were prize catches for these countries.
The Scottish white fish fleet were seine netters which is much kinder to the seabed as the nets just skim the bottom, whereas trawling digs in and churns up the bottom disturbing the feeding and fish spawn, which in turn diminishes the fish stocks of the future.
That was another reason for extending the three mile limit as trawling was banned too, to give the stocks of fish a chance to build up.
After many conflicts between the fishermen a new twelve mile limit was brought out, which was far enough off shore to prevent them cleaning up our rich fishing stocks the way they did their own.
With the trawling banned and the foreign boats moved on it wasn't long before the local boats began to cash in on the big shoals around our coasts, but there were still rules and regulations for them to follow also.
You could fish inside the three mile limit if your boat was forty feet or under but anything over forty feet meant you had to stay outside that limit and as most of the fleet was over forty feet it gave the few smaller boats peace to fish for the sole, place and codling that were to be found in the shallower waters inshore.
Under certain weather conditions, when the wind was howling off the land for instance, and it was too rough off shore, or if there was good fishing inside the line in comparison to the deeper water, we would sometimes break the rules by shooting our gear in towards the land, and by the time we circled and got back to our dan we were just on the three mile line, so when we began towing we moved father off with every turn of the propeller.
On one such occasion, when the fishing was good inside and the sea was calm, four of the fleet, one under forty feet (Excelsior) and the other three (Terra Nova) ( Faithful) and us (Olive Tree) being over forty feet, decided to cash in on the good catches to be had. The skipper of the Excelsior did not mind us intruding on his patch, as he knew we all had to make a living, and on that day plenty fish was there to be had for all.
The only problem with shooting the gear inside and towing off was, if your gear came fast (stuck) on the bottom it meant you had to go back on it to clear it, which took you inside the limit again.
We knew the "Rhona" was in the area, but as stated in the last post it could be spotted in plenty of time, and as we were only inside the line when shooting our gear everything would be fine............unless of course we came fast on the bottom.
Although we knew the grounds well, we would shoot close to rocks or other obstacles,like wrecks and things, which were on our charts, but was where the biggest shoals would be, although sometimes we got too ambitious by going too near, and the tide would carry our gear onto these obstacles.
With the three boats towing peacefully just outside the limit and the Excelsior towing quite happily inside the line, the smoke of the Rhona was spotted heading our way, but undeterred we carried on knowing that although our nets were inside the limit, the boats were outside the line and the Rhona had no cause to bother us.
As luck would have it the Terra Nova became fast, but as we knew how slow the Rhona was he thought he had enough time to go back on his gear before the Rhona came close enough to nab him.
The fastener where his net was snagged was just under a mile inside, but if he got to it and retrieved his gear he would be fine, as you had to be caught with your nets in the water before the skipper of the Rhona could take any action against you. (with the limits.)
Alas the fastener proved more difficult than anticipated, and before he could free his gear, the Rhona was beside him, hailing him to stand by for boarding.
My uncle was relaying all the events to us as we worked among the fish, clearing them away before the next haul came on board, and although there was a great comradeship among the fishermen, there was also great rivalry too, so once our nets were safely back on board he decided to go over and take a closer look at what was going on, and have a little friendly smirk.
By this time the Terra Nova had her gear back on board and after being duly cautioned, and the said gear confiscated, the Rhona was in the process of casting off, quite chuffed that they had caught someone at last, but, not satisfied with one arrest for the day he set his sights on us, and shouted through the loudhailer "Olive Tree come alongside."
We may have been legal as we did not have our net in the water, but the net we did have on, had a cod end with under size mesh on it, and in the hold we had a spare net that had under size mesh too,so not to be out done my uncle started to steam away, off, to the three mile limit, to give us time to take action.
As we steamed away he told me to cut the cod end off and replace it with a legal one, which I did , hiding the illegal one in the engine room, and telling the crew to soak the legal one with the hose to make it look like it had been used. All the time the crew of the Rhona were watching our every move and the skipper kept hailing us to come alongside. As we reached the three mile limit, and in a last desperate measure my uncle told me to throw the dhan over the side to begin shooting our gear. With two coil of rope strung out from our stern and another eight to go the Rhona caught up with us and it's skipper demanded that we tie alongside him. Protesting that we were shooting our gear my uncle tried for one last time to avoid the inevitable, but to no avail the skipper of the Rhona was not to be outdone, and we soon found our self tied to them while a boarding party was dispatched to search for the offending cod end that they had witnessed me changing.
I had it too well hidden though, so they then asked if we had anymore nets aboard, to which my uncle replied "aye we have one in the hold," "do you just want the end of it up to measure?"
"Thats fine" replied the second in command of the Rhona, as my uncle opened the hatch and jumped down to pass up the cod end of the spare net that he thought was legal, but on reaching it discovered that it was the wings of the net that was legal and the cod end, illegal.
Not to be deterred again, he started throwing boxes and tyres aft, pretending he had to uncover the net, so he beckoned me down to carry out that job while he cut off the offending cod end.
I threw whatever came to hand, aft under the hatch, to let the officer think we were having trouble uncovering the net, but only succeeded in building a platform for him to step down and catch my uncle red handed, knife in hand, cutting the cod end off.
"Aye just pass it up like that" the officer said as he stepped back on deck, and of course as soon as his measure went in it was obvious that it was under size. He then handed the measure to my uncle and told HIM to try, just to prove that there was no doubt of it being illegal, and determined though he was to try and stretch the mesh to size, as he pushed the triangular measure in, he only succeeded in breaking the mesh. "Proof enough?" Asked the officer addressing my disgruntled uncle as he proceeded to caution him.
They maybe never found the cod end that I cut off and hid in the engine room, but that was the only piece of net we were left with once they confiscated the rest of our nets.
As we went aft to pass the nets aboard the Rhona we found the rest of our crew drinking tea, passed through the porthole to the galley of the Rhona by their cook who was busy chatting to our crew while we were being charged.
On passing the net up to the Rhona's deckhands they told us to cut off the heavy leaded rope and anything else, that made their life difficult to take it aboard, so by the time we were finished, all we had left on board was the foot rope of our net plus a few floats and the ten coil of ropes each side, we used to shoot our gear.
The nets, what was left of them were landed on Campbeltown pier the following day, and were to be left there until our case went to the magistrates court, where we were fined three hundred pounds, with the gear being returned for another fifty pounds.
The rest of our day had been lost as we had to go back to port for new nets, and even the good catch we had on board did not compensate for deserved punishment we received for breaking the law and being too nosy.
A bad day for us, but one of the few good days for the crew of the Rhona, who, frustrated most days by the elusive fishing fleet, thanks to her thick black smoke and old steam engines, finally got their revenge.
The fine of three hundred pounds was quite a hefty sum in these days but the fifty pounds to recover our nets was only a fraction of their cost, and under the circumstances, suited us fine. (If you will excuse the pun.)

COD END ( the tail of the net where the fish gathers to be emptied out, as seen in photo above)
FAST (when the net gets stuck on the bottom)
FASTENER ( the object that causes the net to stick)

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Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The best laid plans.

Old drawing of trawling. Nets for trawling in ...Image via Wikipedia

I consider myself to be a law abiding citizen but once or twice I have fallen foul of the law although not in the way you might expect, and thankfully I can look back on them with a touch of merriment rather than guilt.
It was at sea of course, where my offences took place, and my crimes were collectively by my uncle the skipper, and the crew of the "OLIVE TREE" of which I was by this time, chief deckhand.
There were two fishery protection vessels, (the police of the sea) one called "RHONA" and the other was called "VIGILANT."
The Rhona was an old relic that looked like it had survived the first world war never mind the second and still had its steam engines which burned coal, billowing out thick black smoke from its funnel that could be seen in the horizon, long before the boat became visible. This gave the fishing boats plenty warning of its presence and gave them ample time to haul their fishing gear and scarper, if they were fishing inside the three mile limit or breaking any other rule.
The VIGILANT on the other hand was a new boat built to take the place of the RHONA but as they had a wide area to cover and an ever increasing fishing fleet to police they both worked together until the country could afford another modern vessel.
Being new, the VIGILANT had diesel engines and although it movements were tracked by the fleet it was so fast that it could sometimes catch you unaware especially if the fishing fleet was working close together, as would happen when large hauls were being caught in one small area.
At the time of our first offence we were trawling, alone, and at that time it was illegal to trawl anywhere in the Firth of Clyde, the main methods of fishing being, "RING NET" (for herrings) and "SEINE NET" for white fish, the latter of which was what the OLIVE TREE participated in, but both had their lean times when you could barely make a living.
Prawns were becoming popular, especially in the European countries like Spain and although plentiful in our waters they were despised by the fishermen as there was very little profit in them, and when we were working through the deck fulls of white fish they would jag our bare hands or grip our fingers as we tossed them back while clearing the decks. We got so little for them that it wasn't worth landing them, but we would keep some of the large ones for our self and have a feed of them if we were steaming any distance.
The price of them rapidly increased once the Spaniards came across and started bidding against the local buyers, so then, trawling for them became an alternative when the white fish and herrings took off and although illegal, we all eventually were forced to do it to make a living.
It was on one of these occasions that the Rhona's smoke was spied on the horizon and as we were not only trawling we were fishing inside the three mile limit, my uncle decided to drop the gear and head to Ardrossan harbour, about one mile away, where we could watch the movements of the Rhona, then once it took off we would go back, retrieve our gear and continue fishing.
WELL! As Rabbie Burns quoted " the best laid plans "o" mice and men."
We ran the gear till it came to the end and tied it to the smallest float we had, making the sighting of it almost impossible for the crew of the Rhona to spot and steamed away to observe the antics of the sea police as they tried to find our net, sweeps, trawl doors and two hundred and forty fathom of rope each side that was tied by a thin piece of twine to our small float.
They knew we were trawling AND fishing inside the line so if they could retrieve our gear, they would confiscate it for evidence, and on the case going to court we would receive a hefty fine, and if we wanted our gear back an additional sum would be agreed by the magistrate.
We were able to watch them through the binoculars from Ardrossan pier as they steamed up and down searching for the gear they knew we had dropped, and as the skipper of the Rhona was an old hand, and knew all the tricks the fishermen got up to, he would have also known that we were watching him from Ardrossan, as on his approach he would have observed all our movements, and seen where we went, but could do nothing about his slow speed or do anything about us, unless he could find our gear.
He was determined to make an example of someone because the trawling was becoming more and more rife, and if he could catch us then he would be seen by his superiors to be doing his job, but after about two hours, frustrated, he eventually gave up and steamed away.
Once his smoke disappeared over the horizon we knew it was safe to ventured out and retrieve our gear which was an easy task for us as we could sail directly to it with the Decca navigator guiding us to the exact spot we dropped it.
Sure enough there was the small silver float we had tied our gear to, so it was just a case of hauling it aboard and carrying on with our task of catching prawns..............or so we thought.
During the two hours we were laughing at the crew of the Rhona, the tide was twisting and spinning our ropes so much so that all our gear came back aboard in one big tangled mess and between the time it took us to struggle, just to get it on board, and the fact that we had to end our days fishing and head back to port to haul it onto the pier before we could untangle it, I think the Rhona's crew had the last laugh, although they did not know it.
We had been punished after all, but that did not stop us as the prawn fishing became an important and prosperous industry to Scotland, and it was not long before it was made legal.
There were other ways to break the laws of the sea and we were caught red handed too, in an amusing way, but that could be my next installment if there are any interested parties out there.

Above is a vague diagram of a trawl net on the bottom of the sea.
The two hundred fathom of ropes I mentioned was used by us as a temporary measure before wires and trawl winches, or dual purpose winches became the norm. (dual purpose being suitable for trawling and seine netting)
The ropes were attached to the trawl doors and the sweeps mentioned were warps that went from the doors to the net. The doors keeping the net open and the sweeps allowing the allocated height of the net and keeping them a safe distance from the said doors.
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Wednesday, 3 June 2009

HMY Britannia at pierhead on the River Mersey,...Image via Wikipedia

One beautiful day, the sea flat calm and the sun burning down on us a large motor yacht came shimmering out of the horizon and as it neared, we realised it was "THE ROYAL YACHT BRITANNIA" in all its glory, spotless, and sparkling in the sunshine like a new pin.
I was still cook at the time as I remember having a pot of chips on the cooker and between keeping my eyes on them and trying to take in the magnificence of this sight, that was a chance in a lifetime experience, I decided to switch off the cooker and take in as much of this as I could. (Well what would you have done?) It must have been 1964 as I was only cooking for a short time, learning my trade as quickly as I could to get me away from the galley sink, so to speak and on to the deck full time.
My uncle (our skipper) who was enjoying the experience too, noticed that there was no escort, meaning that no royalty was aboard her, but that meant nothing to us as we would never have seen them in the first place, and secondly, the yacht was of far more interest to us than any royalty. It steamed up past pretty close giving us a good look at the luxury and expense that had went into the building of it and as it disappeared it left us wondering just how much it was costing the taxpayer, with its 220 crew of deckhands, cooks, engineers etc and over twenty officers.
As luck would have it about five years later I had the chance to view this luxury yacht again but this time there were two Frigates, one on each side escorting her as she sail towards the River Clyde, with an Auxiliary vessel on hand (a tender that fueled the frigates and yacht on passage and carried other provisions cutting out the need to stop anywhere unscheduled that would put them in danger) and who knows what under the water or in the air for that matter.
It was obvious that the Queen or some other high up royal figure was on board and had decided to use the yacht to visit the River Clyde where they were most likely carrying out some duty like launching a ship at John Browns shipyard or something similar, then maybe heading for a cruising holiday after.
They never came very close this time but we could see them clearly as they continued on in their formation, the crews on the alert in case of any unforeseen incident that might put the flotilla and the royalty at risk.
We had thought of the expense the last time we saw the yacht steaming on its own, but NOW what was the cost to the taxpayer with three navy ships and full crew on the surface (and as I said who knows what was under the water and even in the air) plus the crew of the yacht, which carried an extra 26 men of the royal marine band, when royalty was aboard?
When the yacht was decommissioned, one of the reasons given was the cost of running her, which was reason enough to the taxpayer but they would only have taken into account the cost of running the Britannia and not the cost of the naval escorts needed every time royalty decided to go for a sail.
I was lucky enough to see her twice at sea and beautiful though she was, she was still a big burden on the taxpayer and an unnecessary luxury even for our royal family.
I was pleased though when I heard that instead of being scrapped she was to spend the rest of her days as a museum at Leith Docks just outside Edinburgh, where she could be admired by the public and respected for the magnificent example of top class yachts from a gone by era.
The rich are still building and sailing around in yachts even more luxurious than the Royal Yacht Britannia, but their beauty and history are no match for that grand old lady of the seas.

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