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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  1. You write beautifully Donald..the way you express yourself is just amazing

  2. Oh keep them coming Donald, so interesting and amusing!