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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  1. Not a pleasant subject for sure, but a well told tale nevertheless.

  2. OMG.. I was dead serious reading from the first paragraph and I swear, the first time I got back into my wits again was when I read the lines: "the false teeth that had been smiling up at us when he landed on the deck.." I wonder if you smiled back..^^

    The story was great, I think it would be a great movie. Perhaps a better version of "Jaws" though there would really be some scenes that won't please those with sensitive guts.

    That was quite an experience for you! A rare catch for sure! I would just like to share an experience of my brother when he went to a trip on the beach. He and his friends were swimming when one of his buddies felt a painful bite on his leg. His buddy quickly swam towards the shore and then ran while shouting "There's a piranha!!!!" Then everybody else were in panic and got out of the water. A marine zoologist explained that it was just a territorial fish and there are no piranhas in that place. They all laughed and went back to the sea to enjoy the waves.

    Thanks for sharing your story.. And for the found body, I hope he's resting in peace.

  3. This one is such a well written story Donald. And I was able to smell the stench and all. It was so nice of you guys to bring back the poor fellow home. And regarding euthanasia I do agree with you, but it will remain a very controversial topic all around the world I am afraid.

  4. How dreadful for you all, but how wonderful the widow got her husband back. You did a grand job.

  5. What a life you've led, Donald! I couldn't have imagined such an experience before reading this. You've shared it in such a meaningful and compelling way -I hope to see all of your stories in book form some day.

  6. Another wonderful story, written with emotion, your writing leaves me wanting more.


  7. What a story!! How very sad... I wish all people could sense the Love of God and choose to live rather than to take their lives.. I know of a few that have and left so much sorrow behind. Their loved ones asking "WHY"!. If only....

    Bless you and those who went through that ordeal and toughed it out, in order to bring some closure to those he left behind.

    Rev Deb

  8. Once again another great story.
    All the best