Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Seas can be treacherous no matter where you are.

Harbour in GirvanImage via Wikipedia

Sometimes I wonder what I will write about in my next post,and if can I come up with another story that will interest my readers, then sure enough I will recall an adventure relative to the last posting."And so I continue."

Seas can be treacherous no matter how near or far off the land you are, no matter how deep or shallow a water you are in, if the wind is coming from the wrong direction, or both wind and tide combine to create perilous conditions, boats, and lives can be lost, that's where the skills, knowledge and common sense of the experienced skippers and crews come in.

It was 3am on a Tuesday morning in late spring when the crews of the Faithful (the old boat)and the Olive Tree were preparing to set off on another fishing trip, and as always we tuned into shipping forecast before setting off. It was already blowing quite hard by this time, although not enough to prevent us from sailing, but as we listened to each area of the forecast it seemed that conditions were going to get worse, and sure enough when it came to our patch, south westerly 8-9 was predicted, but to strengthen to gale force ten, later in the day.
We had never intended to go far that day anyway, as the Faithful was booked to go on Girvan slip the next day, also we knew there was good fishing to be had only a couple of hours steam from Ayr, our home port.

Thinking we could manage a few hauls before the wind became too strong, we let go and sailed into the stormy Firth of Clyde, punching our way through heavy seas until we reached the fishing ground, and sure enough after three substantial hauls, working in very difficult conditions, the wind and seas began to increase, making fishing almost impossible, so about midday the decision was taken to settle for what we had, and hightail it back to Ayr, where we would then land the reasonable catch we both had on board, the day not being a complete failure.

Safe in the shelter of the harbour we unloaded our catches, and when finished, with the tide on the make, the skipper of the Faithful decided he would take the boat to Girvan, rather than steam down the next day when it might be just as rough.
Although Girvan has water in the harbour all the time it is a tidal harbour with a shallow bar to cross near its mouth, which can only be crossed at half tide at the very least. (by boats like ours with a fairly deep draft)

With nothing to do for the rest of the day I decided I would sail with them, and even though it was too rough to fish, it just meant we would have an uncomfortable passage down, dodging all the way down shoulder on to the heavy sea that had by now increased quite substantially.
It was still within reason though as we were only steaming, with no gear trailing astern to worry about, surging off the bottom with every rise and lurch the boat took,scaring the fish rather than catch them, which was the only reason we stopped fishing.

We punched our way down past the Heads of Ayr, water slooshing about the deck with every sea that washed over us, hanging on when a larger lump loomed, and crashed its way across the deck, and over the wheelhouse, sending water gushing down through the chimney of the coal stove in the galley,and the engine exhaust, sizzling and evaporating as it hit the red hot metal, leaving a nauseating smell hanging in the air.
Some of the crew were down below in the cabin, but Robbie and I stayed in the wheelhouse with Frank (the skipper) enjoying every lump of sea that smashed into us, as it was part of the thrill and adventure that inspired us to go to sea in the first place, but as we crossed, a mile off Turnberry Light, the wind and sea had kicked up into a frenzy, putting doubt in Frank's mind as to whether we should turn back or not, wondering if we could cross the shallow bar at Girvan with such a sea running.
Just at that, a giant lump of sea hit us, crashing down on top of us, blanking everything from view with water surging deep over the deck, covering the windows, and throwing the boat on its port side by the sheer force of it, sending plates, dishes, tins of food flying out of the lockers, and the cover of the coal stove flying across the galley floor, red hot coals following it, sizzling in the sea water that had entered the galley.

Once the freak wave had passed over us the boat slowly rose back on to a more even keel, dipping back to starboard into the next trough, that signaled another lump of sea, but the windows had cleared enough to let us see that the net had been washed over the side, lifted up in one go by the sheer volume of water that had cascaded down on us.

All hands turned out on deck, throwing their oilskins and boots on as quickly as they could to try and retrieve the expensive net bobbing just under the surface on our port side, and me with no oilskins or boots followed them onto the deck, water still slooshing everywhere, crashing round my knees, soaking me to the skin, but helped as they threw a grapple to try and grab the slowly sinking net.
Frank tried to maneuver the Faithful closer but with heavy seas still crashing round about us, and trying to hang on each time the boat took a lunge, the net sunk deeper and deeper until it disappeared from sight before we could do anything about it.
Under these conditions we were lucky it was thrown clear of our propeller, or we would have come a cropper on the rocks in no time at all, but we HAD been lucky, so when Frank decided that was enough for one day and we would head back to Ayr, we all gave a sigh of relief.
The story did not end there though, because by the time we tumbled and rolled our way back, the tide at Ayr was fully in, and the harbour closed to shipping, owing to the fact that the breakwater was being breached by huge seas breaking over the lighthouse at the pier point, and running the length of the harbour defences, making the entrance almost impossible to negotiate.
Although the harbour was officially closed, it was more for the larger coasters who could ride out the storm by dodging into the seas until it abated enough to enter, but us being so small had two options, both of which would put our lives in danger once more.
We could either TRY to ride out the storm at sea, and hope we would survive the battering from the ever increasing seas that were, after all, forecast in the morning, or TRY to negotiate the violent maelstrom taking place at the harbour entrance.
We knew that if we could cross the harbour mouth, and withstand the surge of water between the two piers, safety lay minutes away, but if we tried to ride the storm anything could happen, so we tried the latter.

Engines slowed down to a crawl we rolled and tossed our way ever closer, being driven by the power of the sea running on our quarter, and as each lump of sea surged us nearer and nearer the task seem even more impossible, spindrift from the breaking crests now blinding our view, as sheer guts, determination, foolishness, and skill, took us over the harbour entrance, Frank fighting the wheel with every lurch and surge the boat took, and the crew on deck prepared to jump over the side if we were dashed against the very wall we sought shelter behind.
No one could stand on the pier to help us as the sea was covering it, and all the coastguard could do was watch and pray along with us, until finally after what seemed like an eternity, the boat steadied in the calmer waters of the channel leading to the safety of the quay, and it was then, only then we knew we had made it.
Salt crusted our faces and the steam rose from our saturated clothes as we scurried about preparing the mooring ropes that had been lashed down to prevent them being washed overboard, and only after we were securely tied against the quay did we have time to take stock of how dangerous our short trip to Girvan had turned out.

We did have forewarning of the coming storm, but we never realised just how ferocious it was to become, and it was only the skill of Frank, AND the grace of God that we survived to tell the tale, other boats and crew being lost in lesser storms.

Two weeks later having made Girvan slip, and with all jobs completed, the Faithful returned to the area where the net was washed overboard, and successfully crept for, and retrieved the expensive piece of equipment that was last seen disappearing beneath the waves.
Everything turned out fine, but it could have so easily been the boat and crew that was lost along with it, becoming another statistic among the many tragedies that occur in one of the most dangerous occupations in the world.

Lost nets are retrieved by a creeper, A long steel pole with spikes sticking out at all angles, trailed behind the boat at the end of a rope in the area where you think your net might be, not always successful.

Robbie was around the same age as me and sailed with his uncle(Frank)on the Faithful, him and I being close friends from school days.

The bigger picture is of Girvan with the boatyard on the right and the beginning of slipway to the fore, and on the left almost hidden is the harbour area.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

It was a freezing cold December morning.

Although I have many tales to tell of my seafaring days, I wonder just how many I can relay to you before you get bored, as what might seem interesting to me, might have the opposite effect on my faithful readers.
NOW! "Faithful" That brings memories of a newly built boat arriving at Ayr three days before Christmas, and our last three days fishing of 1968. Ah There is nothing like a good Christmas story in the middle of the year, and your right, this is nothing like a good Christmas story. Ha Ha.

The "FAITHFUL" was a boat, also based in Ayr, that worked the seine net alongside us through all kinds of weather, supporting us if need be, while we were close at hand for them if they ever got into difficulties, and needed assistance, which was more often than you might imagine.
The "OLIVE TREE" had been launched in the middle of 1959, and although 9 years old was considered fairly new, but the Faithful had seen better days, and had now been replaced with a new boat, also called "Faithful."
It was Monday, on a freezing cold December morning when both the Olive Tree, and the new Faithful set out on the day of its first fishing trip, and as there was big fishing of haddock off the Heads of Ayr, we left port late in the morning (6am) with only half an hours steaming ahead of us.
It was a lovely crisp morning with calm seas, when the sun rose above the hills, bright golden rays projecting through the low lying clouds that dispersed as the sun climbed above them, just as I threw the dhan over the side to begin our days fishing. What more could a man ask for, a perfect morning with the aroma of the bacon being fried in the galley, wafting past our nostrils, kindling up our appetites for the feed that would set us up for the day ahead.
Breakfast past, and the net up with our first haul of the day, bursting to the surface as the giant ball of fish in the cod end cut through the water creating a big bow wave as we towed it round, broadside to the tide, to begin hauling it aboard.
During hauling, the fish in the bag sank with the weight of them making it more difficult to heave, but after straining and pulling it came alongside with so much fish that it took two fills of the cod end before they were all aboard.
This continued for the rest of the day, the Faithful incurring teething troubles with his new ropes and nets having to break them in, and set them up to the specifications required for maximum efficiency, but managing to extract good hauls of fish from the large shoals beneath us.
We all worked with our bare hands then, and between the hard graft and the salt water our hands were like leather allowing us to feel no pain or discomfort while carrying out our chores, so when we cut our self when gutting the fish, we never knew about it until we washed our hands, noticing the blood flowing from the wounds once all the blood, guts and scales from the fish that covered our hands up to our elbows, was removed.

Hard graft all day, with two lifts coming aboard every haul, gutting constantly, only stopping to shoot, and haul another load aboard, until dusk began to fall signaling the end of the fishing part of the day, but not thee end of the day. The boat had boxes of fish on each side of the wheelhouse, and on the foredeck, still to gut as we entered the harbour, and after we tied up we spent hours gutting before we had everything cleared up ready for landing to the waiting fish buyers.
The Faithful's crew had long gone, having had a successful day, but not nearly as good as ours, but finally, tired and weary after landing, and taking on empty boxes for the day ahead we turned in for the night.

Now, haddock eat shellfish that lie on the bottom of the seabed, which are plentiful around these waters in winter, hence the large shoals of fish, but when it comes to gutting them, the food they have eaten has turned to a rough sandy mixture in their stomachs, chaffing between our fingers, wearing away the skin with the constant friction, but all this goes unnoticed by us until the morning.
Speaking from my point of view, when I woke up next morning my fingers were sticking together by the new skin trying to form between them, having been worn deep into the flesh, and the tips of my fingers were thin and red raw, but the palms of my hands were still leathery, although tight with salt dried, and ingrained into them.

Another day of the same lay ahead, so we all steeped our hands in salt water to take the tightness away, and free the forming skin between our fingers, before we let the mooring ropes go. Steaming into a strong breeze made the cold air cut into our faces, and as we crossed the harbour mouth we knew we were in for a tougher day than the last, as the sea began to break over the bow.
Sure enough a good fishing was to be had again, but between boxes sliding about with the heaving of the boat, having to jam and stow the full boxes we never got round to clearing before the next load came aboard, and the pain of the grinding sand between our raw fingers, the day grew more horrendous with each haul.
The Faithful was having better hauls owing to the fact that his gear was now set up correctly, and between us we landed over two hundred and fifty boxes of haddock that night, but we still had one more day to go before the ordeal was over.
The next morning was the same, sore hands, sore backs and still weary, not fully recovered from the last two days of heavy fishing, punching into a strong cold wind, rumbling about all day, gutting from first thing, until finally when I pulled the cod line for the last time, leaving me standing knee deep in haddocks, my uncle popped his head out the wheelhouse window with a wry smile on his face and said "I think we will call it a year."
Music to my ears, I thought, with relief spreading through me, happy that it would soon be all over, but overjoyed that a big pay packet would be waiting for us in time to buy some Christmas presents.

The new Faithful's first week, our last week of the year, another two hundred and fifty boxes landed between us, and a good Christmas and New Year during the break that lay ahead, giving our hands time to heal, and bodies time to recover, before it all began again.

Call it foolishness or love for the job, who cares, I miss the adventure, and would go through it all again if I could, but sadly my health won't allow it, and the best thing I can do is relive the moments, while sharing them with you.
Thanks for encouraging me to indulge in my never dying passion for the sea.