Thursday, 31 December 2009

Cold, hard winters.

This being the last day of 2009, and with Scotland going through one of the coldest spells of weather for some years, my mind started wandering back to the first winters of my working life as a commercial fisherman.

I had started work during the warm summer months, long days working almost round the clock with only a couple of hours of darkness in our part of the world, a couple of hours to grab some sleep before it all began again, the hard slog of catching fish for a living.

If I thought the long hours of summer was to be the worst part of the year, then I had another think coming when the harsh winter of 1964 set in.

It began with hard frost in early December, with no let up all that month, getting colder each day, with ice forming on the river during the night, being broken up every morning when the fleet set sail, but also getting thicker, and more difficult to break as each morning brought temperatures well below zero, with little thaw during the day.

This being my first winter, and my sixth month at sea, my hands were still in the process of hardening up, so each time I was out on deck gutting my hands became so numb that all feeling left them, but as we had to keep on working, every deed was almost automatic, and no thought was given to how cold we really were.

It was only when we stopped for a break, a cup of tea or a quick bite to eat did the feelings return to my hands, with very painful consequences.

Firstly, as the blood began to flow to my fingertips the pain was equivalent to placing your hand into a furnace, burning and tingling with the hot blood rushing back to my extremities, making me double up with pain, and wondering how I could stop this agony, but there was nothing I COULD do but grimace and bear it every time we had a chance to heat up.

Once the blood began to flow freely again it showed up all the places where I had cut myself during gutting, my hands being so cold that I never felt my knife slice into my thumbs, or the sand from the fish wear away the skin between my fingers.
(The sand coming from inside the stomachs of haddocks from the shells they ate)

All my years at sea I had permanent cuts on my thumbs where the knife had left its mark, but as the years went on my hands were like leather so I never felt any pain.

That first year, at the end of the day when my hands dried out, they became hard, with the salt water drying into them, but in the morning they were tight and very sore to the touch until they got soaked again, so when we were hauling in the mooring ropes I could barely touch them, using my arms from the wrist up instead.

I would stand with my hands in a basin of water on the way to the fishing grounds to try and soften them, thinking it was better than the method used by the old sea dogs, which was urinating on their hands every time they went to the toilet, the toilet being whatever sea we were on at the time.
If only we had the sense to be less manly, and use hand lotion that done the job properly, and was used by the younger generations years after, who thought nothing of it.

The drying out of the hands was just like tanning cow hides, and by the end of the winter I could stub a cigarette out on the palm of my hand without leaving a mark, and the cold having no effect on them whatsoever, but that didn't stop me slicing my thumb.

It was well into the new year before the ice began to thaw, with thick flows of ice coming down the river being our next problem, as it cut into the wooden hulls of our boats, so we had to take great care when we sailed down the river, with the crews standing around the deck with poles trying to shove the ice clear as we edged slowly out to sea.

Sometimes even the mooring ropes were so iced up we could not coil them until we ran sea water over them, and on some of the coldest days even the salt water froze on deck with the spray from the waves turning to ice as soon as it hit the deck.

The fjords in Norway used to freeze during these winters, so whether it's down to global warming or not, that we don't get so many harsh winters I don't really know, I only know that the modern world seems to find them harder to contend with than we did, even though they are not so harsh, regardless of all its new technology.
Then again perhaps it because they rely too much on the new technology that they can't cope.

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Saturday, 19 December 2009

My return to Ayr.

ObanImage via Wikipedia

We managed to scrape a wage in the three remaining days, but as expected we changed back to the seine net that weekend, and as one of the crew had packed up the skipper sent me to Ayr in the boats van to try to recruit a good seine net fisherman thinking it would speed thinks up on deck, especially if we found ourselves among the expected big hauls of whiting that was being had up the west coast of Scotland.

It takes about five hours by road from Campbeltown to Ayr when you are driving your own transport(an hour less if you drive a fast car)but the journey has some beautiful scenery, which helps to make it more pleasant, making the trip seem to pass quicker.

On my arrival in Ayr I headed straight for the harbour to catch up on the news, only to be told that the Olive Tree had been sold suddenly, with the crew being given no notice whatsoever.
My uncle, rather than spend money on the boat had been made an offer from an Irish fisherman, and realizing that I had no intention of coming back, decided to accept.
The deal was completed in no time at all, and the Olive Tree had already sailed for its new port by the time I arrived giving me no time for a last look, and the next time I was to set eyes on her was in Peel, on the Isle of Man about ten years later.

She looked completely different with her new tripod replacing the thick foremast, giving ample room on deck for the trawl winch and gallows I had suggested, plus a few other small improvements around the deck, and a new, more powerful engine.
Her name had been changed too (to what I can't remember)but there was no mistaking the lines of her hull, and the wheelhouse that had taken me through so many adventures, and introduced me to the life I had chosen as my occupation.

It was a lucky break for me in the fact that I new one good man I could rely on who had been made redundant by my uncles unexpected move, and so after contacting "Davy," and spending a night at home, the two of us journeyed back the route I had just came over the day before.

The Girl Margaret, and crew were lying alongside the quay ready to sail as soon as we arrived, and in no time at all we were sailing down Campbeltown Loch, round the Mull of Kintyre,and up the west coast to chase the whiting that had been reported by other seiners working among the islands on the rugged west coast of Scotland.

The first day proved pretty fruitless with big hauls coming aboard but most of the catch thrown back because they were well undersize, so we moved further north in the hope that we would come across the shoals that had been reported.

The skipper was one of these guys who thought he was better than he really was, having big ambitions above his station, and expected to compete with boats who's skippers were far more experienced than him.

There is no harm in being ambitious, but it was the arrogant way he went about it that I did not like, and a thing I had noticed about him during our spell at the herring, which had led to some of the crew packing up then, and being replaced by other Campbeltown men who thought the same as I did but were just glad of the job.

My temper had been held in place a few times, but when he asked me to pack the fish a different way in the hold which was not only unnecessary, but totally stupid, and would have made it almost impossible to land them in any sensible order, I gave him a piece of my mind.

I pointed out the flaws in his ridiculous idea, added a few other things that had been gnawing at me, and after a good clearing of the air, normal service was resumed on deck, and in the hold, but I was becoming very unhappy with the setup, and almost dreaded the thought of coming in among the big hauls of whiting that we were heading for.

Even though Davy was a great deckhand, it would take more than the two of us to handle catches like that, with the other two deckhands never going above their own slow pace, so as fate would have it, our winch packed in just as we had the last coil of rope to come.

This meant hand hauling both sides of rope until we reached the net, trying to keep them even, and as many fish in the net as possible.

All went well enough, but it meant us steaming to Oban (the nearest port)to get an engineer down to fix the problem as quickly as possible so we could continue with our trip.

We were told it would take a day, so as most fishermen do we headed for the pub where a good dram was had by all, but things got heated when I tried to explain what was needed from all the crew if we were to hit these big shoals.
It's the wrong thing to do when drinking as the brain never thinks in a logical way, so the Campbeltown men took offence at my suggestion that they speed things up a bit, and me telling them they had been at the job long enough to know the urgency of the work in hand.

It never came to fists but I could see that there was never going to be any harmony aboard this boat again whether drink was involved or not, and that the crew were never going to get any better.

The winch was fixed, or so we thought, because after only two hauls the next day the same thing happened again, so it was back in to Oban to find out what was causing the problem.

On the way ashore after boxing the fish we had caught, I decided I had, had enough, and went into the wheelhouse to tell the skipper that I was packing up, and would be taking the first train out of Oban when we berthed.

He knew my reason without me telling him, but with his arrogance he did not want to accept the fact that I was packing in during a trip, and threatened me by telling me he would see to it that I would never work at the fishing again.

How arrogant is that I thought, he really has got well above his station, so I left the heavy atmosphere behind me in the wheelhouse, and packed my gear ready for a quick departure on our arrival in Oban.

He had plenty time to replace me with another man from Campbeltown before the repairs were carried out, and Davy thought he would see the trip out, but packed up at the end of it, realizing how bad things had become on board without the experience needed for the job.

The Girl Margaret never made a success after that and was taken off the skipper who went back to the prawns with an old boat, plugging away at what he knew best, with a crew that worked their own way, at their pace, which was good enough for the prawn fishing.

Me, well I had a lovely train journey home, and could have kissed the ground I set foot on at Ayr railway station late that evening, arriving home unexpectedly to the family I had barely seen in the last months, and now I could be at home to share christmas with them, which was only a few weeks away.

I had no problem getting another berth on an Ayr boat which I am sure my ex-skipper knew at the time of his threat, and I went on to much better things that I will write about in future posts.

The picture above is Oban.

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Monday, 14 December 2009

A wild goose chase.

A satellite image of the Isle of Man.Image via Wikipedia

Although plentiful, the herring in the Clyde was of poor quality, and with the quota system being enforce we had to catch good sized fish to ensure a good wage at the end of the week, so when Monday afternoon came we headed down to the Isle of Man where large herring had been caught the previous week.

It is no certainty that the same shoals would linger, but after an eight hour steam we arrived at the fishing ground off Douglas amid a large fleet of boats made up of purse seiners and pair trawlers, who had already hauled their first nets of the night having been towing during our passage down.

As we steamed through the fleet looking for a spot to shoot we noticed that the boats were lying with their deck lights on dumping what looked like ice over the side, but we knew they couldn't all be doing this as ice was rarely carried by herring boats when they fished near a port where they could land every night.

Before we had time to discuss it or neighbour, the Alliance called us up telling us his net was being shot, and to come alongside and catch the other end, before the spot of herring moved too far.

It wasn't long before we were towing away through the large spot that was showing up on our sonar, but during the tow we were told of the real objects that were being thrown overboard by the fleet.

Over the weekend massive shoals of big white jellyfish had arrived, taking the place of the herring shoals of the previous week, and all too late we had towed right through one of them.
There was nothing else we could do but lift right away, and sure enough up she came full of jellyfish, with a small scattering of herring through them.

In desperation we took lift after lift aboard, landed them on deck to salvage any herring that was among them and with back breaking work threw tons and tons of these white menaces back into the sea.
After hours of unpaid work, daylight began to break, and we could see that all the water around us was thick with jellyfish, lazily drifting along on the tide, creating havoc among the fleet.
There was nothing else for it but to head for Douglas, land the few herring we salvaged, and hope the the masses of jellyfish would drift far enough away during the day.

It was my first time on the Isle of Man, and as it was a lovely sunny day my shipmate Kenny (the same Kenny who was at the house in Tarbert with me when we downed two bottles of whiskey) and me decided we would take a look at what Douglas had to offer.

Plenty of pubs and a casino lined the promenade, and the only problem we had was choosing which one to try first, but as we had to sail later we knew we would not have the time to enjoy too many of the hostelries, so we rushed round as many as we could gulping down a drink, then moving on to another to see if it was better than the last.

By the time we decided to head back to the boat, tipsy but not drunk, we were at the far end of the promenade, with about two miles to walk back to the harbour.

All along the way girls were strolling or siting enjoying the sun, more girls than we had ever seen in one place before, which prompted and amusing remark from Kenny who was renown for his love of the opposite sex, and I must admit I was too.
"Two miles of beautiful women and we have to go back to sea." Was his quip, and it still brings a smile to my face every time I think of him or my first time at the Island.

It did seem ironic to us but after a short sleep we were back out to try and make a wage, and much to our dismay the jellyfish were still thick in the water.
It was back up to the Clyde without casting a net, a quick glimpse of the two miles of women was all we were going to get, and between them, and the promise of large herring, my first trip to the Isle of Man had been tantalizing but ended in failure on both counts.

We only had three nights left to try to make a pay, and with the prospects looking grim, a change back to the seine net was most likely to be our next move.

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Friday, 4 December 2009

We are sailing again.

It might have been the fact that my happiest days at sea were on the Olive Tree, and that this short part of my life on the Girl Margaret, although holding some adventure, while bringing the modernization of the fishing that I desired within my grasp, was not the happy place I wanted to be, hence maybe the hesitancy of continuing with the blog, but with my readers support here goes.

The short periods of time I had at home were not the happiest either, and it was no hardship when I had to return to the sea, and leave my wife and son behind.
So many changes had been made in my life over the last couple of years as I was following my instincts to make a better life for myself, with not much thought of my family.
The sea was my life, and I was selfish when it came to the crunch, choosing the sea above all else.

The second last week at the herring aboard the Girl Margaret saw quotas coming in, meaning we were only allowed to land a certain amount of fish for each nights fishing, and if you were lucky enough to get your quota early in the night it meant you were back in port long before the market opened, where we would sell our catch to the highest bidder.

It happened to us on one such occasion, when we had our quota aboard before midnight, with so much herring that we passed some onto another pair of boats to help them, rather than throw the fish back into the sea dead.

We were only an hours steam from Tarbert, and by the time we moored up it was around 1am, so I thought I had a good nights sleep ahead of me until it came time to discharge our catch, but as usual the boat was spied coming in and two or three folk, even at that time of the morning had come down to see us.

The crew new the folk here as it is not all that far from their home port of Campbeltown, so true to form in these places, we were invited up to one of the men's house for a drink owing to the fact that the pubs were shut.

Only two of us accepted, me of course and another guy called Kenny, who enjoyed a dram even more than me.

When we entered the house I noticed it looked very plain, and it was clear that this man lived alone, (lacking a woman's touch was putting it mildly.)

A bottle of whiskey was produced from a cupboard, which between the three of us was downed rapidly during the conversation about the fishing, (what else) and on seeing the bottle was empty I stood up ready to head back.
No sooner was I on my feet when another half bottle appeared from under the seat cushion our host was sitting on, and when that was finished another was produced.

It was daylight when we set off back to the boat to land our catch very drunk but able to manage the work that lay ahead of us, and by the time the landing was over and the hold filled with boxes again the drink had almost worn off.

The cook had our dinner ready for us, and once it was scoffed, we had two hours sleep before setting off to try for our next nights quota, which did not come so easily this time.
Maybe it was punishment for the night before, but it took us all that night, into daylight hours, taking four tows, before we reached our quota.
No rest for the wicked, ran through my head as we finally set off for the market, with no intention of anymore drink that week.

Well my intentions were good at least.

There is no denying the hospitality of the people in these ports, which is second to none, but sometimes it is better to refuse, rather than be sociable type of person I am, or glutton for punishment as the case may be, because sleep is one thing you can never catch up on no matter what you may think.

After another poor nights fishing, and word of herring at the Isle of Man, another adventure loomed.........or so I thought.

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