Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Could this be my first trip to the fishing grounds?

A geocoded location could be added to this ima...Image via Wikipedia

In the past months I have been relaying adventures of my life at sea, and have gathered a few, but valuable friends who enjoy sharing with me the recollections of a life some would envy, while others would dread, but a life I set my heart on as soon as I saw, and understood the occupation carried down through generations on my mothers side of the family.
Memories of my grandfather bringing home fresh fish, and filleting them at the kitchen sink, then burying the heads and bones at the top of the garden where, early in my life, "Snowy" the cat had been interred after his death, and my grandfather saying, "Snowy would like that as he was always after the fish."
When he brought home crabs he would let them crawl about the floor, before he put them into a pot of boiling water, and the women in the house would scream if they moved in their direction.
Most of all was my journeys to the harbour where I could feast my eyes on the boats as they rocked gently at their moorings, ropes straining with the weight of them, as they slowly surged one way then another by the slight swell,charged by a moderate breeze blowing up river.
The sights and smells around the harbour, and the fresh salt tang of the sea, seemed so familiar to me, as if I had been through it all before, and it was calling me back.
All these experiences at a young age must have ingrained the salt in my blood, giving me the inspiration, and yearning to follow in the footsteps of my forefathers.
It should have been no surprise to my family, when, at the age of eleven, during the summer break from school, while playing with a friend, I suggested to him that we should take a walk down to the harbour, and I could show him the family fishing boat I always talked about.
We did tell our parents that we were off "exploring" as we called it when we intended to wander further from our houses, so they never gave it much thought when we disappeared.
On reaching the harbour (a half hour walk from home) the "Olive Tree" was already lying beside the quay with nothing much happening, so we climbed down two or three rungs of the ladders inserted into the harbour wall, and boarded the boat, only to be confronted by Frank (mentioned in earlier posts)who recognised me from my visits with my grandfather. (my grandfather being retired by this time and the boat skippered by my uncle Alex) He looked at us in a suspicious manner and asked what we were doing down here without an adult looking after us. Thinking I would put his mind at ease, I told him everything was OK, as our mothers knew where we were, then he told us they were going out to sea in a short while as the repairs they were in for were almost complete.
As it turned out they had a spot of engine trouble which was almost fixed, my uncle was in the engine room along with the rest of the crew and they were going out for ONE short tow to test everything was working OK.
GREAT! I thought to myself, this is the chance I had been waiting for, a trip out to the fishing grounds, and observe first hand what my future held in store, so I told Frank we were going out with them. Frank new better though, and told us we should go ashore, just as the engine sprang into life, and the crew appeared from below deck.
What has it got to do with him I thought indignantly, its our family boat, and he is just one of the crew, so I took my friend and stood at the far side of the wheelhouse where I thought we would not be seen, and watched the crew throw the mooring ropes off, setting the boat free to take me on my first adventure.
As my uncle put the boat astern we edged away from the harbour wall, and the excitement welled up inside me, but it was short lived as Frank spied us and shouted to my uncle that we were still on board. Peering out the wheelhouse window, and shaking his head, my uncle gave the boat a kick ahead to bring us back alongside the pier, where the tide was by now high enough to lift his two stowaways ashore, which he promptly did, telling me that I was too young just now but when I was older !!!!
My heart sank, and the rest of the words he tried to console me with did not penetrate my brain as my feet landed on dry land, having only moved a couple of yards away from where I now stood.
As the boat edged away again, its bow facing down the river I watched it gently dip into the slight swell as it headed out to sea, and with tears rolling down my face I turned away from my friend, trying to hide the hurt I felt inside, having let him down, but most of all the fact that they had sailed without ME!
So strong was my yearning to get to sea, that on the Sunday when we went to my grandparent's for dinner, I sat on my grandfather's knee, sobbing, when I told him, uncle Alex would not let me go out on the boat, an asked if he could arrange it for me.
In a sympathetic voice he told me that uncle Alex was the skipper now, and the decision was not his to make, but he assured me that when I was older, uncle Alex would take me out then.
It was little consolation to me at that time, but as you all know the story had a happy ending, and knowing what I know now, my uncle Alex was quite right not letting two innocent young boys go to sea with them, for more reasons than safety.
The fishing is a dangerous place to be, its rough, tough and things are said and done that little boys should never see or hear.................................. that would all come soon enough, when the boys became men.

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Wednesday, 22 July 2009

I saw the tail of a shark flail within the codend.

Head of a basking shark.Image via Wikipedia

While writing about basking sharks last time, another incident concerning them sprang to mind, so I thought I would share it with you, and try to install some humour to the post this time in contrast to the sad story previous.

We were on the last haul of our two day trip, with a good catch in the hold, and everything, including the weather had been perfect all the way through, so our spirits were high when the net came up for the last time, as we knew we were heading home with a good pay coming, and the opportunity to grab a couple of hours in our cosy beds at home before we had to set off again.

When we towed the net up ready to haul it aboard the cod end burst to the surface again, although there didn't seem to be as much fish in it as the previous hauls.
Not giving it much thought we continued heaving the wings of the net until we reached the bag leading to the cod end, and on seeing a large black area further down my heart sank as I thought we had torn the net, which would have meant me having to spend most of the time mending it on our way ashore.
As we carried on the suspected hole in the net seemed to be moving down instead of coming out of the water, until we saw the tail of a large shark flail madly as it tried one last desperate attempt to escape.
At first I was relieved that the net was OK, and then I realised that this shark must be over fifteen feet long, and was going to cause us plenty trouble before we could release it from the net.
When the cod end came alongside the tail of the creature reached far above the safe lifting rings we used to judge, and lift our catch aboard, so we had the problem of whether to attach a rope around the cod end and let it slip down far enough to bring up the end, allowing us to reach the cod line, which we then could open, and let the shark AND all our fish away, or heave everything aboard from both ends using our two derricks, saving our valuable catch but having the problem of what to do with the shark.
My uncle decided on the latter, and after a tremendous struggle we finally managed to heave everything aboard, releasing our catch on the deck, and the shark, which covered most of our side deck.
It was practically lifeless, so we worked around it getting the catch cleared up, tidied, and scrubbed the boat in preparation for landing, then set about the problem of the shark.
At one time shark fishing was a profitable industry, so my uncle decided we would land it to see how much it was worth now, and as was usual, when something untoward happened in a fishing port, a large crown had gathered on the pier.
My uncle had called ashore to alert the buyers and salesman of our uncommon addition to the evening sales, and of course the word spread like wildfire, creating this crowd, who, normally got in the way of any task we were carrying out, but this time they were going to come in handy for once.
We tied up alongside the pier on our starboard side, with the shark lying along the deck on the port side, in full view of all the spectators, and as we landed our fish it was quite amusing to hear the remarks of some, as they tried to guess the size and weight of it and others, discussing the ferocity of these creatures, (basking sharks being harmless with no teeth) but little did some of them know that they would have a better chance to guess it's weight and ferocity when we came to land it.
By this time the local newspaper "THE AYRSHIRE POST" had arrived on the scene with a photographer in tow who immediately began to snap away, getting some good pictures of our basking shark. while the reporter attempted to interview us while we weighed our catch, and ran back and forth into the market, breathless, carrying seven stone boxes at a time, in preparation for for the sales.
We turned the boat around, putting the port side to the pier to make the discharging of this monster easier, and with a rope around it's tail, engaged the winch and began to heave it up towards the harbour wall, but our landing derrick wasn't high enough to clear the wall so the shark had to be lowered again until we figured out another way to deal with it.
One rope round it's head where it would grip, then lead it down to it's tail and tie it round there, then attach the hook to the middle of the rope, would solve the problem and with the crew pulling it ashore it would land on the pier no bother...........we thought.
Success, it lifted and cleared the wall no problem, but we didn't bargain for the shear weight of it as we tried to pull it towards us. We managed to pull it about two feet before it swung back, nearly pulling me and the other two crew into the water, so as it swung, suspended at the top of the derrick we utilized some of the the men from the crowd, adding another then another until there was enough helping hands (about ten) to finally land this beast.
The struggle over, and the salesman ready, the potential buyers rallied round to view this object that was on offer, but much to our disgust no one even bothered to put a bid in, and just wandered round it nonchalantly to get a closer look, then strolled off again. It was then that we knew our next task would be to dispose of it on our way back out in the morning.
We did get our picture on the front page of the local newspaper that weekend with our tale of woe to go along with it, but the reporter never got to know about the last twist of the tale, ( no pun intended)
We had an old Polish man aboard (Frank) who had been with us for years and had even sailed with my grandfather, settling in Scotland after the war, but he wasn't the brightest button in the box, and when it came time to tow the shark back to sea to dump safely where it would not be caught again, he supplied the last amusing part of the story.
The rope was still around the shark, so it was just a case of tying the end of it to the boat, pulling it gently off the pier until it was safely in the water, and setting off.
I jumped ashore and let our mooring ropes go, then threw the rope attached to the shark aboard, where it was caught by Frank, then I jumped back aboard and began to coil the forward mooring rope when I heard Frank shout to my uncle "OK Alex, away ahead." Its a good job my uncle looked out of the wheelhouse window before he did so, because Frank was standing with the other end of the rope wrapped around his hands, instead of tying it to the boat.
Not realising that he was about to be pulled overboard with the weight of the shark holding fast to the pier and the forward surge of the boat, he thought it was just a case of holding the rope in his hands and letting go when we reached the place it was to be dumped.
Ah! If only the newspaper new the full story, I thought as we headed safely out to sea with the shark securely tied to the boat and Frank safely down below out of the way.
We would know the next time we caught a shark to let it go, as it would have been better to release it along with the other fish saving us a lot of hassle, even though it's carcass might have caused a problem for some other poor fishermen.
The only consolation for our trouble was making front page news in the local paper, which brought us neither fame nor fortune, but would have made a bigger splash if Frank had got his way. (pun intended)

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Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The stench was a hundred time worse than any shark.

Basking Shark.Image via Wikipedia

I have written about some of the strange things we caught in our nets while fishing, and I have pondered over whether I should write this episode or not as it might be too gruesome, or disrespectful, but as it happened, I will go ahead.

Basking sharks were a common sight in the Firth of Clyde up until the eighties, when they strangely disappeared almost completely, and although heavily fished for in the early part of the century they had recovered enough to make their presence felt again by the time I started the sea in the mid sixties. ( the cause for their disappearance in the eighties is being investigated still, but more have been spotted recently, giving hope of their return)
It was a common sight on a calm day to spot the fins of these harmless sharks as they played on the surface, and if we spotted some when we were steaming ashore to land our catch we would alter course and manoeuvre as near to them as we could to get a close look at this magnificent spectacle as they glided with ease through the water, with their large bodies moving one way then another, and then, all of a sudden, with a few strong flicks of their tail they would swim close by as if to examine our boat before taking off into the blue yonder, with their fins slicing through the water, the only sign that they were there.
They have to die too, and once in a while we would catch the carcass of one of these creatures that had been lying on the sea bed rotting, for dear knows how long, but long enough to release one of the most revolting smells you could ever want to encounter.
As we hauled our net, with the wind coming from the direction we had to face,we knew before we could see it, that it was in the net, and as we hauled it closer the stronger the smell became, and even though we tried to cover our noses there was no way to keep it out of our nostrils.
It was as quick as we could get it in and over the side again, taking the decca readings of where we dropped it, so as not to catch it again, while informing the other boats where it lay, preventing them having to go through the same ordeal as us
The time taken to accomplish this task could take some time depending on the size of it, and as we had to get ropes around it to do this, meant closer contact with it for some poor soul, normally the cook, as he was the youngest and most gullible, who would boak and vomit while carrying out the job, as the rest of us waited down wind until we could hoist it overboard.
The smell would linger on the net for days as pieces of flesh stuck between the meshes, would not shift, regardless of how long it had been towed through the water.

You can imagine our horror one day when an even worse smell hit our nostrils while hauling, and thinking it was a shark again, we pulled our oilskins over our noses to try and kill the stink a bit until, looking down the bag for the source of the smell I saw what looked like a badly decomposed body.
This put a different slant on things, one that we had never experienced before, and one we never wanted to experience again.
The stench was a hundred times worse than any shark, and the fact that it was one of our own, made all of us go into a stunned silence, creating a mixture of strange thoughts to run through our minds.
With the body in the cod end we hoisted it aboard, and pulled the cod line open, where it landed on deck among about ten boxes of fish.
A bare skull with a set of false teeth in the mouth stared up at us, and we could see that the only flesh left, after the fish and crabs had fed on it, was from the neck to the hips, (the torso) which was badly bloated and decomposed, while releasing the most foul stench I have ever come across.
It crossed my mind at the time of how badly a human body could smell in comparison to the dead sharks we had caught in the past, and wondered why, quickly coming to the conclusion that once we are dead it stands to reason that we are going to end up similar to this regardless of the way we die, then got on with the job on hand.
He had a tie around his neck and at the end of the bone on one of his legs was one foot inside a sock, and when my uncle picked up the other sock that was detached from the rest of the skeleton, his other foot was inside it.
We decided to take the body ashore, and let the police deal with the matter as his death could have been caused by anything, so after moving if forward of the wheelhouse and wrapping it in the only flag we had, (a white ensign) we proceeded to clear the deck of the fish caught along with it.
The stink was rife as pieces of flesh were sticking to the net in the same way they did with the sharks, but every aspect of this case was so much more intense and thought provoking, as this was a human beings body this time, "one of our own."
The net was laid on and tidied up, and to try and rid us of the smell we had to pick pieces of flesh off the net and throw them overboard, a task that still does not bear thinking about, but worse was to come when we came to gut the fish, as every one we opened had rotting flesh inside their stomachs.
We had called ashore on the radio to have the police standing by when we arrived, and a small crowd had gathered, wondering why the police were there, but they quickly dispersed once the vile smell of the decomposed body carried onto the pier.
A plain blue van stood on the pier, and on our approach two police officers removed a steel stretcher from the back of it, and waited patiently until we were tied up before they boarded to remove the body.
When the smell hit them and they saw how decomposed it was, one of them remarked ( between boaks) that these kind should be put back, but proceeded to lift the delicate remains onto the stretcher, and eventually placed it into the back of the van.
What an end to a life I thought as I watch them drive away.
Once we landed our catch, we adjourned to the pub to down a few whiskys, trying to get the lingering stench out of our nostrils, where we met up with one of the crowd that had gathered on the pier when we came in, and he explained to us the reason for his quick exit. " The smell hit me like a ton of bricks, and it was so vile that my false teeth started to rattle" he said. "You can imagine how we all felt," I replied, before knocking back another dram.
The policeman's remark had annoyed me though, and even more so when we received a very nice letter from the dead mans widow several weeks later, explaining of how he had a terminal illness and had went out for a walk one evening and never returned, leaving her in a state of limbo until we recovered his body.
She could now settle in the knowledge that he had a christian burial, and could visit a grave where he now lay at rest, plus the fact that any insurance claims could be settled also.
A check was enclosed along with her thanks, which we later found was the standard practise in these circumstances. I am sure she would have done it anyway, and it was nice to know that we had done the right thing in bringing the body ashore, rather than put it back as suggested by the policeman.
They had managed to trace him through the false teeth that had been smiling up at us when he landed on the deck, and I am quite sure that he would not have given it much thought when he decided to take his own life, and certainly never considered the stress it would cause to the people he left behind, or to the people who had to deal with the aftermath of his deed.

When I read of people nowadays wanting to end their lives legally, I am all in favour of it as it could prevent the ordeals of others having to go through what we went through that day, and would have prevented his widow having to spend the nine months he was missing, grieving and wondering what had happened to him.
So if anybody out there is considering suicide, think of the havoc you will leave behind, before you do so, as it is the ones who are left behind that are left to bear the brunt of your actions, and if the politicians happen to read this, then consider this story when judging whether euthanasia should be legalised or not, as there is more to it than meets the eye.

The fish we caught along with the body should have been dumped, as we later found out , but as they were small hake, and valuable, I doubt if we would have done so anyway, and I am sure no one came to any harm, although I would not have eaten them.
That particular catch was exported to Spain, and would have been consumed by some unsuspecting Spaniard, but it is another aspect to consider for anyone suicidal or of political influence on euthanasia.
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Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The more fish, the more time spent on deck.

Fisherman in weatherproof outfit - The O129.Am...Image via Wikipedia

By the time I started the sea until I left, I saw many changes, from deck machinery to sheltered decks. Short wave radios, decca navigators, radar, colour fish sounders, net monitors, CCTV monitors covering the decks, are to name but a few of the added instruments within the wheelhouse, with the designs of boats altering so much to accommodate them, but even in my beginnings the hardships of my grandfathers era was cast up to me as his generation had an even harder time than mine.
The principle was the same for every generation, and as a seine net fisherman I had to stand on open decks with the sea and spray clattering over me as I watched the ropes being shot over the side keeping an eye on them to make sure they went out clear without any knots, then as we turned on the broadside, rolling and pitching for a couple more coil of rope, I had to ensure the crew was clear of all gear as the net rattled over the side, then another two coil of rope before we turned to run before the sea, back to our dhan, when once picked up the boat steadied a bit as we towed the ten or twelve coil of rope behind us bringing it in all the time speeding up the winch as the ropes closed slowly until finally they touched where we would then bring the gear in as fast as the winch would go, trying to keep the fish we had caught within the net.
As the net surfaced, and the winch stopped, we would then tow it at speed to raise the cod end to the surface, where, if filled with fish it would burst into view, causing a large white foamy spray which brought a smile to our faces, but if there were few fish, it was just as evident, as all that we would see would be an empty cod end trailing at the end of the bag attached to the wings of our net.
While hauling the net, the boat was turned to lie on the broadside,with the propeller stopped, to let the drifting of the boat keep the net clear of the rudder and the said propeller, while we manually hauled the heavy net aboard.
Our strong arms were used to this task and on a fairly calm day the job was quite easy, but on a stormy day which was more than likely, the task became very difficult as we had to heave with the heavy motion of the sea, one man on the head rope of one wing, then a man on the foot rope of the same wing beside a man on the foot rope of the other wing, and on his right, a man on the head rope of that wing. Four men in all, with the skipper in the wheelhouse making sure we were safe while keeping the net clear of the boat, at what was our most vulnerable and dangerous time of all our tasks owing to the fact that we could only use the engine sparingly to manoeuvre, with the net trailing from our stern. As the boat dropped into a trough we gathered as much net as we could, jamming it with our knees as the boat lifted again, to prevent it being pulled back out from under us, possibly taking us with it, then as it dropped into another trough the sea would tumble in along with the net filling our deck and oilskins at the same time, gushing out of the scuppers ( but not our oilskins) as we surged upward with the power of the next wave, but we struggled on until the cod end was hauled round to the side where the derrick was attached bringing the catch above the pond where it would be emptied, landing on the deck with fish wriggling and splashing, flicking scaulders (red stinging jellyfish caught during summer months) and scales up onto our faces, making our skin burn with the stings the scaulders produced, then on to the next stage of boxing them, ready to gut, pack and ice during the next haul.

I used to wonder, when shooting the gear and getting soaked by every lump of sea, how it would be possible to cover the decks to prevent this happening, but before I was allowed to come up with the solution another lump of sea would bring me back to reality as it clattered down on me, forcing me to hang on, or be washed overboard, and as the water ran off my sou'wester down my back inside my oilskin, soaking my skin and clothes, I also took the time to wondered why they could not attach a hood to my oilskin to prevent this extra misery.
When the ropes were being brought back in they were coiled on the deck by a coiler, worked in sequence with the winch, then lifted and stowed on the side deck by the crew, who had to stow them carefully, trying not to leave any bights (loops) of rope facing forward that would catch and knot when shooting, while keeping their feet and clearing up the fish from the previous haul.
The more fish, the more time spent on deck, but we did not mind, as it also meant more money, and if it meant being on deck for twenty four hours or more then so be it as that was all part of the job.
When the ropes were being brought back in faster we had to have a man on each side stowing them (as opposed to one watching both sides when coming in slow,) and as I watched them land on the deck I used to picture a hole in the deck where they could coil unattended which would allow the men to get on with clearing the decks, but the bubble always burst on my brilliant ideas when the net surfaced again, depriving me of the chance of solving the problems that could make the job so much safer and easier, and if I ever relayed my ideas to any of the older crew, all you would get in return was "you think you have got it bad, you should have seen what I had to go through when I started."

It wasn't meant to be me that solved the problems, but thankfully someone else found the time to do so and the came up with a better idea than a hole in the deck for the ropes, although they DID have what they called "rope bins" ( A hole in the deck where the ropes were fed into in the fore side of the hold,) but this took up valuable space, and the more logical "rope reels" were invented.
This led to the sheltered decks I used to long for when I was being plummeted by the seas while shooting the gear, as through the reel method it meant there was no chance of knots, and the ropes could be shot out, and over the shelter where the crew worked, drier and safer, needing to spend less time on the ropes and more time on the fish.
The hoods were attached to the long oilskins too which all came in time for me to appreciate although not invent, along with other improvements that fleetingly flashed through my head before I had the time to resolve them, like power blocks and net drums that hauled the net for you, but even with all the modern equipment making the job much easier, it is still the most dangerous occupation in the world, because no matter how many ideas we come up with we will never tame the sea.
In later years as the job got easier with less manual work, thanks to the modern equipment, I too had the opportunity to retort to younger members of the crew when they complained about their conditions in rough weather, "you think you have got it bad, you should have seen what I had to go through when I started"
I often wonder if I had taken more time and elaborated more on my ideas, if I would have invented some of the equipment that is now used, but the ideas disappeared along with the need for them when I reached the pub after landing the catch, where the only thing getting wet was my dry throat being quenched by a cold pint of beer, and who wants to solve the problems of the world when there are more important things on hand. The moment was there to be enjoyed and the trials and tribulations of the job would be there to resolve the next time a lump of sea crashed over me. Cheers!
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Thursday, 2 July 2009

Wooden boats and iron men.

Although the sea, and the fishing is in my blood, I don't go near the harbour very often when the boats are landing their catches, as the call of the sea is so strong sometimes, it leaves me with a strong urge to attempt going back even though I know I am not fit.
On Sunday afternoon, however I found myself at Troon harbour where the boats now berth between trips, as the fish market is now based there having been moved from Ayr a few years ago.
The fleet has been cut drastically too since I last sailed, due to the unnecessary rules brought out by the European Union, supposedly for the benefit of the fishermen, but has done more harm than good, which is not unusual of any ruling brought about by them.
The whole structure of the boats have changed since my day, utilizing every inch of deck space, while becoming broader and higher to accommodate a safer working environment and labour saving machinery, plus the fact that most of them are being built of steel now instead of wood.
While leaning on a railing that surrounded harbour, my mind went into another world as the familiar smells of my past began to invade my brain bringing back memories, good and bad, of my years spent at sea.
I studied each boat, and as my eyes lingered over the net drums, shelter decks and other modern equipment that made the job so much easier than it was in my day, a saying I heard one of the old sea dogs come away with when I was young sprang to mind, "In my day it was wooden boats and iron men, now its iron boats and wooden men" and even though in these days there were few steel boats his words ring true of every new generation that comes along, having the benefit of more modern inventions than the previous one.
When I was young the boats appeared to me to be big and capable of anything the weather threw at them, and we were fearless every time we ventured out on another trip regardless of the weather conditions, having full trust in our boat, crew and skipper, while still having respect for the mighty ocean that could eliminate us in one foul wave.
Standing looking at them that Sunday afternoon, I realised just how small and vulnerable they were when I knew what they went through in comparison to the peaceful setting of the safe haven there were in now, and I am sure that most of the holidaymakers standing gazing onto the same scene as me, thought that the fishing held romance and adventure without realising the true horrors a raging sea can hold.
I knew, because I had experienced it many times, and although I had relayed the saying (jokingly) of the old sea dog down to some of the young boys that I trained, I also knew that regardless of what the boat was made of, it still took men with strength, courage and hearts of steel to man them, because as another saying goes "as long as men go down to the sea in ships" lives will always be lost no matter how safe or big you think your boat is, as the sea is more powerful than any of them as many a sailor has learned to their cost.
No matter how modern or how large you vessel is you still have to give the sea the respect it deserves, because just one small mistake can mean life or death and no matter what kind of vessel you are on, or how many people are on it with you, if you are miles away in the middle of nowhere, you are on your own with little hope of rescue.
The Titanic was an example of how disastrous things can turn out when you get too confident of your abilities to conquer the sea, and its these sad lessons that we should always remember when we DO go down to the sea in ships.

By the time I left the sea, more and more boats were of this new design pictured above, built of wood or steel, with not much to see from the outside but with plenty changes under the sheltered decks.

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