Thursday, 31 December 2009
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.