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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  1. This is a superb posting and the painting it one that is simply breathless.

  2. Gosh he is a grumpy looking fisherman LOL
    What a shame you never went ahead with the inventions, you might be rich. I understand the calling of a pint is too strong though :)