Tuesday, 17 November 2009
My journeys home were becoming less frequent, as the best opportunity to get there was hitching a lift on one of the Ayrshire herring boats that would be working in the same area as us, heading home at the weekend,and returning to the same area on the Monday evening.
As the herring fishing spanned almost all of the firth of Clyde, the chance of these lifts were few and far between, but one night, after dodging about looking for the elusive herring, we found ourselves over nearer the Ayrshire coast, and as daylight was almost upon us we thought it was going to be a fruitless venture with not one net having been shot all night,and no herring being spied by our modern equipment.
We were just about to head for Campbeltown when the skipper of the Alliance called us over the radio to come alongside.
We had been separated by a couple of miles in our search for the herring, trying to cover as much ground as possible, and with still nothing to be seen we headed over to find out what he wanted to say that could not be said over the radio.
The skipper of the Alliance was due to retire, and hand the running of the boat over to his three sons who had followed in his footsteps, but he had come up through the ranks in the days before sonars, and fish sounders, and knew how the fishermen of old found spots of herring.
When we drew alongside he shouted to us that he was going to shoot here as there was plenty herring beneath us, and the reason he did not tell us over the radio was to keep other boats in the area from converging in on us, and getting in among them before us.
The fish did not show up on the sonar, (which scanned a vast area,) perhaps because they were too deep or where they were lying, maybe next to rough ground, but they were now showing up on our sounders that only showed what was directly beneath the boats.
It was a beautiful calm moonlight night when the Alliance shot his gear, and once we had towed through the spot twice we lifted our nets to find we had been successful in our quest for the silver darlings.
Another reason why they are called silver darlings is because when at night if the shoals come close to the surface, they disturb the phosphorous in the water, making the water glow white, which was one of the signs the crews looked for in the days before sounders, plus the herring gulls diving in among them, attracted by the same glow, some of the signs the skipper of the Alliance would have been brought up to look for.
There was enough herring to fill the hold of the Alliance, and this time when they came aboard I managed to keep my feet on the rubber matting we had lain down after my last escapade.
Once the hold was full, and the net stacked, daylight had broken, so it was decided, as the fish were on the small side, that the Alliance would head to Ayr with the catch to try and fetch a better price, and the Girl Margaret would head back to Campbeltown, meeting up with us at night again.
They all looked at me and said almost in one voice "Aye and Donald can get a wee spell at home with his wife."
I thought I would have to wait and land the catch before I would be allowed home for a couple of hours, but no, as soon as the ropes were tied to the quay, they told me to head off and make the most of my time in Ayr, which I did.
My wife was very surprised when I arrived home unexpectedly, as there was no mobile phones in these days, but she prepared a meal while I steeped in a hot bath of pine radox crystals, which was very relaxing having been deprived of the luxuries of home for a couple of weeks.
Bath and meal over we retired to bed, not just to sleep because with my son being at school it gave us a little time to ourselves before he came home.
I did get a quick nap before he came home, and just a little time to spend with him before it was time to head away again.
On the way back across to meet up with the girl Margaret, I felt an itch over my body, and thinking it was the heat in the fo'c's'le, I took off the clean woolen polo neck jumper I was wearing, but the itch only got worse.
By the time we met up with the Girl Margaret my body was all red blotches, but I had no time to bother much about it when I jumped aboard because we had spotted a shoal of herring right away.
The gear was shot from the Girl Margaret, and after towing through the shoal three or four times we lifted to find enough herring to fill the Girl Margaret, and half fill the Alliance.
It was a cold night and I had to put on my jumper again, but once we filled the hold of the girl Margaret I jumped aboard the Alliance to give them a hand to spread the catch evenly across their hold, doing my job of opening the cod end first.
We headed back to Cambeltown this time and as I worked up a sweat the itch returned with a vengeance, making me shed clothes, until I was stripped to the waist, which covered my body in herring scales, but at least they cooled it down a bit.
I was still itching after we landed,and after spending the most uncomfortable night I ever had at sea, I decided the best thing to do was to head to the nearest pharmacy to see if they could help me as I was not registered with the local doctor.
After asking me a load of questions, of my allergies, any drugs I might be on (prescribed drugs I'll emphasize in case you get the wrong idea) he was still puzzled until I remembered and mentioned the "pine radox bath" I had the afternoon before.
"That could be it" he said, "have you ever used the pine crystals before?" he asked.
"No that was my first time" I said, so he gave me a cream and a green liquid to cover my body with, to see if that would cool me down a bit. (Well it was cleaner than herring scales)
It turned out that I was, and still am allergic to these pine crystals, and most probably any other pine mixture on the market, so from then on I stayed well clear of anything with the hint of pine in it never wanting to go through that experience again.
The fishing is bad enough when you are feeling fine, but its the worst place to be when something is ailing you as you are so far away from land, comfort and cure.
It was only an itch I had that time, but I did endure toothache once, when I was still on the Olive Tree, which was a thousand times worse, and resulted in cutting the trip short to get the offending tooth, plus the abscess removed along with it, with a dentist standing by, arranged ship to shore, through the Seamans Mission.
All so dramatic, but most welcome when you have had to endure the severe throbbing in your mouth for hours on end with no respite, and the thumping of the boat into the seas adding to the agony as it thumped in rhythm with the throbbing of my tooth.
If only I had been a landlubber I would have had this out by now, was my only thoughts as we punched our way through heavy seas, until finally land was spied, the harbour reached, and the dentists chair a welcome sight, even the needle held no fear as all I wanted was the pain to go away.
It was all over in no time, the dentist showing me the tooth with the abscess attached, telling me he pulled both out together which was unusual as they liked to get rid of the poison first, rather than attempting the dual extraction, but it had gone well, and I strolled into the nearest pub on the way back to down a whiskey. (purely as an antiseptic of course. Ahem!)
I swilled it around the gaping hole left behind, another two for luck, and it was back to the boat and away to sea again, the pain of the toothache gone, but another hard trip ahead of me.
There is more to consider than the dangers of a storm, or the other dangers the fishing holds for those who dare go down to the sea in ships, but it is comforting to know that there is the backing ashore, between the lifeboat crews, and coastguards, to the Seamens Mission pastors who are on hand to assist us when ever they are needed.
Needed they are, all to often, as the sea is one of the most dangerous places to be, be it calm or stormy weather, and no amount of praise is high enough for those in all the rescue services who risk their lives for us.
Tuesday, 10 November 2009
The white fish was getting scarce, so with the Girl Margaret, being rigged for trawling as well as seine netting, we decided it was time to change over to the mid water pair trawling for herring, and as the fishing trawler "Alliance" from Campbeltown was a suitable neighbour for us with a similar sized engine, the pair team of Girl Margaret and Alliance was born.
I had never been to the pair trawling, or herring fishing before, so this was a completely new experience for me, but as all trawling methods have the same technique it was going to be easier for me to pick up the job than it was for the Campbeltown crew to learn the seine net, so I did not see any problems there, it was only the fact that we would be working as a pair team that worried me.
The nets used have a much bigger mesh than the bottom trawls, as you can see in at the start of the video above, of mid water trawls being hauled, and the herring catch coming aboard, the video also features clips of some disasters at sea, and "purse seine" fishing boats mentioned in earlier posts, entering port laden with fish.
The other parts of the gear were the same idea other than the tons of chain hanging from the foot rope of the net that aided the wing of the deep net to stretch fully when being towed at speed through the water at the required depth.
The other boat had had the same setup and therefore when one net was shot out (shot by the first boat to come across a spot of herring) the other boat came along side and took a wing, then both boats separated to a distance that kept the mouth of the net open, and run enough wires out to meet the required depth of the spot of herring that had been sighted.
The net was towed between the two boats,while the skippers watched in their net monitors, at the spot of herring being towed straight into the gaping net about to engulf them.
Job done and the gear was hauled back, but once the net broke the surface the two boats had to come together and pass the wing of the net back on to the boat that shot the net, so all the herring would go down the bag and safely into the cod end. (Not an easy task in rough weather as men had to jump back and forth to assist with hauling the net and boxing the herring.)
The boat that shot the net would take the all herring aboard unless there was too much for one boat to handle, therefore more jumping back and forth would take place and the remaining herring landed onto the deck of the other boat, to be boxed in their hold.
The jumping from boat to boat was more to share the workload between the crews, as the profits made from our spoils were shared equally, so it was only fair that the work should be shared.
Our pair of boats were varnished rather than the normal paint jobs you see today, a throwback from the early days of the ring netting boats which were tied up for the lean months, and scraped back to the wood, then had several coats of varnish lovingly brushed onto them by their crews who took great pride in seeing the finished article sailing from port at the beginning of the new season shining like a new pin.
The decks were varnished too which made them quite slippy at the best of times, but when the herring was coming aboard, and their scales, slime and spawn were mixed with the salt water running down the decks, you could barely keep your feet.
The first tow went according to plan, and it was the Alliance who spotted the shoal, so it was their net that went into the water, so when it was time to haul, and the boats came together, I was the first to jump aboard eager to observe my first sighting of herring coming out of the water.
The herring fishing is carried out during the night,and when we hauled the net through the power block (as seen in video) the deck lights were shining all around the sea beside the boat and the Girl Margaret was standing off at a safe distance watching the proceedings, and trying to spot the cod end though the glow to see if the shoal was as big as we had surmised from the sonar soundings.
As the net neared the boat you could see the sea sparkle silver with the scales being threshed through the mesh by the bulk of herring running down the bag, and as it entered the radius of the deck lights, the sea around the boat shimmered silvery from the bag solid with fish.(hence the name "silver darlings" when refering to the herring)
The next job was to get them aboard and into the hold, which meant on the Alliance, landing them on deck above the manhole that leads into the lockers where some of the crew would be standing by to spread them evenly throughout the hold, while we on deck would keep filling the cod end and emptying it constantly until all the fish were aboard.
On man at the winch heaving the cod end aboard, and ME standing forward ready to pull the gun, (a metal catch rather than just a knot) that secured the opening of the cod end once it had swung aboard above the manhole, other men standing aft, held up boxes at the side of the boat, taking care that none of the fish splashed back over the low gunnel's of the boat, designed more in the style of the old ring netters.
The first lift swung over the rail, and once it stopped swinging about and settled I bent down and pulled the gun, "SWOOSH" tons of herring spilled onto the deck taking the feet from me, as my boots failed to grip the deck that had become slippier than an ice rink, sending me flying along the deck on a sea of fish, scales, and water running up inside my oilskins, and only a couple of feet of gunnel to stop me being washed over the side.
I managed to grab hold of the stay that helped secured the foremast, just as the sea of herring thinned enough to let me feel the deck beneath my body again, giving me some control over my destiny.
Gathering myself together I slithered back to my position, soaked to the skin, to hammer the gun shut and throw the cod end back for another fill.
Up she came again, and by this time I could hardly keep my feet to get near the gun, so owing to the fact, that I was already covered from head to foot in scales, water and muck of all sorts I took my boots and socks off and carried on for the rest of the procedure in my bare feet, and each time the cod end opened the herring would swoosh around my feet and up around the legs of my jeans, covering everything in thick scales, but at least I stood firm on the deck with every lift, until the net was empty, and the hold full to the hatches with good quality herring.
We had filled one boat, so we headed off to Tarbert at the north end of the Kintyre Peninsula, on the north side of the Kilbrannan sound where we had been fishing, allowing me an hour and a half to get cleaned up before we started to land.
We all had a good laugh at the nights events, happy in the knowledge that for one nights fishing we already had a decent weeks wages secured, and the problem of the slippy varnished deck would be solved by placing a long rubber mat across the deck where men would be standing.
The Girl Margaret had no such problem as the varnish on her decks had been well and truly rubbed clean with all the work at the seine net, and her gunnel's were twice the height of the Alliance's, so when it was our turn to take the herring aboard the following night the job was much easier.
We had the boat laid out in a way that when the herring came aboard they ran through the manhole onto a chute directed at a table where the crew would be standing with boxes at the ready to be filled, and stacked in the hold,(see video)which made it easier to land the herring, also it kept them in a better condition, as there was not the pressure put on them as they lay pack together the way they were in the Alliance's hold.
Although the Alliance was a fairly new boat she had been built in the style of the old ringers, with a fo'c's'le (which is forward) instead of a cabin (which is aft,) giving her a large hold, but with less headroom to carry out the task of direct boxing, the way we could on the Girl Margaret, having to settle for carrying them in bulk to port, and shovel them into boxes during landing, all leading up to a lot of unnecessary work, also there was the problem of the slippy decks, and very low gunnel's.
From then on if it was possible we carried the herring, which pleased William from the Alliance, who jumped at the chance to get aboard our boat especially nearing meal times as we had a great cook aboard, and you were always guaranteed a slap up feed after the herring was stowed away and we headed to the market.
One such night the cook shouted down the hold to us when we were under way and readying the boxes to land, (around five in the morning, as we worked during the night, as I said) asking what we would would like for breakfast,( herring, kippers, or bacon and eggs etc.)
Thinking on my usual time of heading to market at the seine net, late afternoons, I jokingly shouted back "a fish supper would be great", William laughing and agreeing with me, but expecting bacon and eggs to be waiting when we reached the galley an hour later.
When we sat down a large plate of fish and chips was placed before us, the white fish having come aboard among the herring, and the cook taking us at our word, had prepared a brilliant dinner for us to consume in the early hours of the morning.
I must say even at that hour it went down a treat, but the next time the cook asked us what we wanted for breakfast we made sure it was breakfast we ordered, as the fish supper lay heavy in our stomachs during landing, giving us both bad indigestion. Punishment maybe for trying to take the mickey out of our wily old cook.
Tuesday, 3 November 2009
During the few weeks of the hake fishing I managed to spend the weekends at home, returning to join the Girl Margaret by sailing from Ayr on the Alkaid on a Sunday night, and jumping aboard the Girl Margaret at sea when we met up on the Monday morning at the fishing grounds.
It was an easy enough task in calm weather but in rough seas you had to be extra careful to time your jump on the up surge of the boat, and pick your spot to land on the deck, because if you mistimed it, and jumped on the down surge, you would be more than likely to land in the water. It was tricky anyway you looked at it really, but I was lucky enough to judge my moments correctly, and always managed to find a firm deck beneath me every time.
By the end of August, the hake was beginning to move back to deeper waters, and the catches were getting smaller, while the weather was getting rougher.
The last week of the hake fishing we landed our midweek catch in Ayr, but as the wind was blowing strong from the west come Thursday night, the skipper decided it was wiser to land in Campbeltown, and not risk the rough seas we would have to entail if we headed across to Ayr.
The fish would be sent by road to Peterhead market as the market in Campbeltown was poor owing to the lack of buyers, and of course it meant me spending my first weekend, away from home for a long time.
I could have travelled home by road, but the very thought of the journey there and back filled me with dread, plus the fact that playing the family man was beginning to wear a bit thin, I am sorry to say, and the little break in Campbeltown seemed to come at the right time.
I had a good weekend ashore, and rather than being stuck on the boat as I expected, I was shown great hospitality in the home of one of the crew, where I could bath and have all the comforts of home before hitting the town on the Saturday night.
Money was sent home to keep my house and family, and a quick phone call seen everything else was fine, telling my wife I would be home the following weekend, but as it turned out this was not to be.
With the hake fishing almost finished, the skipper decided to leave early on the Monday morning and head round the Mull of Kintyre, to the sound of Gigha, where he had heard a good fishing of whiting was to be had.
Now this was one move I had been dreading, as this crew working among large fish was bad enough but trying to clear up boxes of small fish was going to be a tremendous struggle with the speed they gutted at,and if the reports were true we were in for big hauls.
The first haul that came aboard was a full lift, about twenty boxes, but it was a mixture of various small fish that had to be hand picked into boxes then gutted.(the undersized fish thrown back, along with the pout fish, a fish that fetched no money)
They were that slow getting the work done that most of them had still to be gutted by the time the next lot came aboard, which was about the same kind of bulk, and the crews I was used to would have had them all gutted and packed in ice and ready for the next lot to come aboard.
Seeing that this way of working was only going to cost us money I suggested to the skipper that we round the smaller fish (land them ungutted which meant less money but at least we had the chance of getting the deck clear) and just gut the larger ones.
He agreed, so the work went a bit faster, but instead of just small whitings coming down in the baskets rounded there was all sorts of fish among them including the pout which should have been thrown away.
Double work as I had to pass them back up to be sorted properly or we would never had got them sold.
By the end of the day we had fish on both sides of the boat lying in boxes with mud from the seine net ropes splashing onto them waiting to be gutted and although they were away from the heat of the engine they were beginning to get soft.
It was well after midnight by the time we got everything cleared, iced and boxed, and we were sailing in two hours again, to start all over.
I gave the crew a good lecture before we turned in for the little sleep we would catch, telling them if this continued it would be a waste of time catching any fish.
When you are used to good crews it is very hard to take, seeing the job being abused in this way, and the catch taken so light-heartedly, the fishing was no place for lack of commitment.
The next day the fishing was poor, and for once in my life I was glad, maybe I could knock them into shape when I had less work of my own to concentrate on, so I went through every stage with each and every one of them, showing them how it should be done, until finally they got the message, still not as good as the crews I was used to but a vast improvement.
We were all clear when we tied up at the same pier on Gigha as we had done the night before, but this time it was much earlier,and as I said the work was all done, so I was looking forward to a good nights sleep to ease my aches and pains.
The navigation, and deck lights were no sooner switched off when the noise of a car engine came roaring down the road that ran along the top of the small wooden jetty we were lying at, and stopped at an abrupt halt not far from the boat.
The crew of the Girl Margaret were well known by all of the small community on the island as they had lain there many a time during there prawn and herring days, and had given fish to most of the islanders at one time or other.
Today was a special day though, as we soon found out, when the young man who was driving the car jumped out and shouted, "come on ashore boys you are all invited to the wedding."
Before I knew it we were all hustled ashore, and although had managed a wash we were still in our sea boots, and working clothes (plus three days growth on my chin) and being driven back along the road the car had come from.
On the way a bottle of whisky was produced from under the drivers seat, by the driver while speeding along this narrow road, and passed around to get us in the party mood, as the wedding ceremony was passed, but the celebrations were about to begin.
No policemen were stationed on the island, and when they did pay a visit they had to come by ferry, which meant, before they reached the island everyone knew of there imminent arrival, giving the islanders plenty time to get their unlicensed cars off the road and conceal anything else they cared to hide from the law.
This gave our driver the freedom to drive on the roads in this drunken state without fear of being caught, and whisk us away to the reception we were all invited to.
Our first stop was the pub, which was the front room of someones house that had at one time been turned into a bar with all the bottles of spirits, and barrels, or bottled of beer you could wish for.
Everyone from the island was there it seemed, knocking back their choice of drink, and most of the women were shoving half bottles of spirits into their handbags, to drink later on at the village hall where the party was really getting going, band and all, but no bar.
We went with the crowd who were all dressed up in their wedding outfits, while we were in our fishing gear, sea boots and all to dance and drink the night away.
If we were seen to be standing without a drink, one was shoved in our hand, presumably coming from the handbag of one of the women, and if we were standing still too long we were hauled onto the floor by one of the same women to dance a jig up and down the floor, our rubber boots sticking on the polished wooden floor as we tottered our way through the dance laughing and joking in a real party mood, but it mattered not what we wore among them, in the terrific atmosphere created by these friendly islanders.
A good time was had by all as they say, and as daylight was breaking we were driven back to the boat by the same young man who fetched us the night before. He was much drunker, but so were we, and how we got back without going off the road I will never know, but make it we did, safely onto the boat and straight out to sea, where the gear was shot two hours after leaving the wedding reception.
This was another time I was glad that not much fish was to be had as it gave us time to sober up and recover from our night of celebrations with the islanders of Gigha, a friendlier folk you could ever wish to meet, but, as another saying goes "there is a time and a place for everything," and that certainly was the place, but the time? NO!
We only had a couple of hauls and headed back round the Mull to land our catch onto a lorry in Campbeltown, with our night of celebrations kept quiet from the wives of the crew, after all we were on a fishing trip, a fishing trip and an island community I will never forget as long as I live.
Aye the job, and being away from home had its good points after all. Not many but a few.
The top picture is the Island of Gigha off the west coast of Scotland, bought by the islanders not so long ago with the help of lottery money added to the millions raised by themselves.
next picture is the jetty we lay at that night, mainly used by the ferry when it visits,