Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The lights of the QE2 powered out almost like a small town.

Queen Elizabeth 2 (<span class=QE2)" style="border: medium none ; display: block;" width="240" height="109">Image by Michael McDonough via Flickr

The Queen Elizabeth the second was launched in September 1967 and in November of the following year it sailed into the Firth of Clyde to carry out its sea trials, and, as we were working off the Arran coast, I took my camera with me in case she came close enough to get a clear photo of her with my Kodak Instamatic. On the first week of her trials she steamed down into the Irish sea but most nights she would return to Greenock to carry out any adjustments to the small problems that arose, hence the reason for the trials. We heard reports of her every move through the media, but a clear, close up sight of her eluded us for the first week as she always seemed to slip down past us in the distance during the dark winter mornings of November, and the only sign we could see of her was her lights illuminated against the grey outline of the Arran shore. Although large tankers moved up and down the Clyde the mass of lights the QE2 powered out, almost like a small town made her unmistakable, and as I watched her glide south I longed to see her in daylight to admire with my own eyes the beautiful structure I had seen on the television news broadcasts.
My wishes came true the following week when she started her speed trials on the measured mile off Arran's northeast shore. As we began shooting our gear on a Monday morning, we spied her sailing out of the mouth of the River Clyde, and as she neared, the impact of this 70,327 tons of sheer beauty with its black hull, white superstructure and the distinctive red funnel of The Cunard Line, struck us all with awe, so much so that we almost forgot what WE were about until my uncle drew our attention to the fact the net was about to go over the side. As we continued fishing that day, our direction took us further away from the measured mile but we could still see her in the distance going at full steam ahead, first north then south as they timed her over the famous mile that so many, of the ships from John Browns yard had confirmed their speed, such as the Queens, Mary and Elizabeth before her.
I had managed to take some photos of her from a distance but even with its immense size I thought it was still too far away to see it in all its glory but undeterred after two weeks, and a spool used up between the QE2 and other fishing boats I took the camera ashore to get the film developed, but forgot to bring the camera with me when we went back to sea.
Sure enough "SOD'S LAW" in the afternoon on our first day back the Queen Elizabeth 2 came close enough for us to see the men on the bridge and the workmen still caring out some finishing touches around the decking areas, and even in through its portholes where we could see more workmen scurrying about, perfecting the inside to the standard fit for the millionaires that were to grace its plush amenities. My heart thumped as I watched her steam slowly past us, giving me time to study all her wondrous features at close range and thought to myself how lucky I was to be able to say that The Queen Elizabeth passed close by us on that November afternoon.
We got plenty more sightings of her near, and far before she eventually completed her trials and left for her maiden voyage.
I never did get a good photo of her and when I got the pictures back from the developers even the distant ones were so far away, that all that was visible was an indistinguishable dot on the horizon.
The photos, had they transpired, would have been to show other people proof of my close encounter with the most beautiful ship to sail the seas, but the vision of her and the memories of that time will always be embedded in my mind.
I was sad when I heard she was being decommissioned to end her life as a floating hotel in Dubai but glad in the fact that at least she was still around for people to appreciate the great craftsmanship of the Clyde shipbuilders.
About five years ago I crossed the forth road bridge when the new Queen Mary was docked just below and stopped to get some pictures of her but grand as she might be she cannot hold a candle to her predecessor "The Queen Elizabeth 2."
Sentimental I might be, but anyone who was lucky enough to compare them would agree with me because as the saying goes "THEY DON'T BUILD THEM LIKE THAT ANY MORE."

The top picture is of beacons on the measured mile that can clearly be seen from the sea.
The other two speak for themselves.

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Wednesday, 20 May 2009

A bright yellow object surfaced ahead.

It was interesting to hear that all the British submarines are going to be based in Scotland as it brought back quite an amusing memory.
The navy practise their maneuvers in the deep waters off the Arran coast and quite often when submarines are involved they use any fishing boats in the area as targets.
This is not as strange as it may seem at first as it is only dummy torpedoes that they use and although we were the target, the torpedoes always surfaced a safe distance away from us..............well nearly always. It was only once or twice a year that this would occur and we were given warning of the maneuvers and how long they were going to last for, so as to prepare us for the intrusion of our fishing grounds and the inconvenience it could cause. On calm days the frigates and destroyers would pass close by and their wash would cause us to roll and tumble making some of the few calm days we had as rough as a strong breeze.
On this particular day the sea was as calm as you could wish for with the sun shining bright and good catches of fish coming aboard which meant that all the crew were in such a light hearted mood that even the navy could not dampen it.
It was about mid afternoon when we were in the process of shooting our gear that my uncle Alex (the skipper) drew our attention to green dye on the water not very far ahead of us, so we stopped working with the fish to go and investigate. As I looked over the starboard shoulder of the boat a bright yellow object was surfacing not too far ahead of us, and as soon as it broke the surface a green dye began to spew out of it, then another appeared making us slow down as they were getting closer. Four torpedoes in all surfaced just ahead of us, all spewing out this green dye which, was to make it easier for the torpedo recovery boat to spot them and retrieve them as quickly as possible before any boats in the vicinity struck them which could cause some damage. We could see the recovery boat already heading towards their goal but we just carried on shooting the gear, making sure we gave the torpedoes a wide berth and signaled laughingly to the crew as it neared us that it had been a bit too close for comfort.

I think we should move (IMG_7226)
Image by JohnED76 via Flickr

Excitement over, we thought as we picked up our dan and began towing for our next haul until my uncle spotted the periscope of the offending submarine moving through the water on our port side heading south. As it was fairly close my uncle stuck two fingers up in the direction of it more in jest than anger, thinking his gesture would go unnoticed but the submarine surfaced about a mile away from us and headed back in our direction. As it approached we could see clearly the men on the conning tower looking at us through binoculars but they were not needed as it closed in as near as they dared to return the two fingered salute my uncle had given them. We all, on deck were totally amazed that they had taken the time out to play a prank like that, so we waved and cheered as the submarine passed close enough that we could see the laughter of the officers on the conning tower, waving back at us. We were all sailors after all and no harm was done. In fact if anything had gone wrong due to their carelessness or, ours, for that matter they would have been first on hand to assist us. Nearing the end of their exercises some days after, we were fishing quite a distance away from them when we passed a torpedo floating on the surface with the torpedo recovery boat frantically searching for it a few miles away. Instead of informing the recovery vessel of its position, once our gear was back on board we headed over to it and struggled for about an hour to strap it to the side of our boat as it was almost half the size of us but eventually we managed, losing valuable fishing time in the process but we knew it was worth it because the navy paid hundreds of pounds for the recovery of stray torpedoes. We landed it at the nearest port and informed the navy of our catch and where they could collect it. A few weeks later, the spoils from it was split among the free, so I suppose you could say it was some consolation for the submarine firing too close for comfort that bright calm day off Arran but it also showed that having the navy on your doorstep is no bad thing...............occasionally!
A few years later the navy lost a torpedo with new experimental specialized equipment on it worth a quarter of a million pounds in the deep waters north of Arran.........never to be found again. NOW! If only we had come across that one.

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Wednesday, 13 May 2009

We got the call that they had caught a MINE!

Polish wz. 08/39 contact mine. The protuberanc...

The weather conditions were not the only thing to create the adventurous situations we found ourselves in at sea and if we got too many calm days on the trot we became bored but something else would always crop up to ensure we were not bored for long. There were never two days alike at the fishing, between the weather, other ships or fishing boats near at hand to distract us, a big haul of fish or something more deadly, but exciting none the less.
Debris from the war is scattered all over the oceans (planes, bombs, vessels of various kinds to name but a few) and are a hazard to fishing boats by the fact that they can damage our gear, or if it sticks hard enough (the term we use is "coming fast")we could lose thousands of pounds worth of gear. Worse still, boats like the big side trawlers of the fifties and sixties have been known to capsize with loss of life because of the sudden stop while towing at speed.
Once Decca navigators were installed in fishing boats these objects (fasteners) were marked down on a chart and we could avoid them in the future but before we knew where they were we had to come fast on them first which caused a lot of damage and expense in the early years. Before Decca navigators my grandfathers generation used land marks to pin point them but if it was foggy or the land marks, like telegraph poles he used at one of the fishing grounds were taken away they had to rethink and find new ones. (The way land marks worked was, you steamed until the marks lined up with a certain other mark on the land which gave you the position of the fastener. When you came fast you had to chose these marks for future reference, and each skipper had his own marks.)
One fine day with good hauls coming aboard, we were fishing in the vicinity of the "EXCELSIOR" a fishing boat, skippered by my uncles brother-in-law, when we noticed that he was spending longer than necessary getting his net aboard but thinking it was just a big haul of fish we carried on working until we got the call over the radio that he had caught a MINE!
As our boat was bigger with heavier lifting equipment we steamed over to assist, thinking nothing of it as mines were nothing new to us and when caught were either returned back to the spot they came from "hurriedly", or sometimes by bursting through the net, or the other option was to tow them near shore and dump them, taking the readings of where they were and the Navy would come and blow them up (if still live.) The problem was that we did not know whether they were live or not and once we got alongside the EXCELSIOR we noticed, this one did not have any prongs which was just as well because with the rising swell it was banging dangerously against the side of the boat as it hung inside the net.
We took the weight of it on our lifting equipment with the intention of making it easier for the crew of the EXCELSIOR to cut it free or bind it to the side of their boat and tow it nearer shore, but they had other ideas. As soon as we had the weight they released the net on to us and steamed away to a safe distance to watch as WE struggled with this old rusty explosive remnant of the war.
Once we managed to strap it to the side of our boat, we headed slowly in towards the shore with the EXCELSIOR following at a safe distance astern of us while my uncle contacted the naval divers to warn them of our predicament. After two LONG hours we were close enough and in shallow enough water to drop the mine to the bottom where we then steamed away as quick as possible in case it exploded on impact with the bottom.
We survived without any thanks to the crew of the EXCELSIOR and when we spoke to them ashore they (half jokingly and whole serious)told us that they kept a safe distance so if anything happened to US they would be on hand to report it or pick up the pieces IF ANY, "after all there was no point in us both being blown up." Speaking to the Navy later, they informed us that it WAS live but it was a magnetic mine so it was lucky we were in wooden boats. PHEW! Another day another dollar, another adventure, another lesson learned but one we could have well done without. On saying that fishermen always help each other as most times they are the quickest and nearest option on hand when far out at sea, having to contend with difficult situations, like breakdowns, mines or reporting the consequences when a mine blows up. (AHEM!)Ha Ha.
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Friday, 8 May 2009

My first real taste of the sea.

A trawler leaving the port of Ullapool, north-...Image via Wikipedia

As I am delving into my sea adventures I had better go back a bit to how it all came about.
I have explained why there is salt water flowing through my veins and told about the first time I went to see how the fishing worked on the SUSTAIN, but I haven't said much about my first experiences on the OLIVE TREE.
Long before I left school I knew I was going to be a fisherman but with the SUSTAIN being sold and the OLIVE TREE having a full crew, I walked through the school gates in 1964 for the last time with some trepidation, wondering what was going to kick start my career but thinking I had the whole of the school summer holidays to contemplate it. I could not legally start work for another four weeks yet anyway as my fifteenth birthday always fell mid summer break so I thought I would have to wait until then at least, before I started to look for a berth on any of the local boats.
One week after leaving school, having settled down to relaxing with more of the same, my mother broke my illusion by telling me that a berth was coming up in a fortnight "and guess what boat it is" she gleamed. Thinking it was too good to be true, that it could be the family boat, I started to name some of the other boats I would have liked it to be but before I could reel out too many her enthusiasm got the better of her and she blurted out "NO! Its the OLIVE TREE."
I might have given you the impression that I took to the sea like a duck to water (or a seagull more like) but this was not the case as I was about to find out.
I decided to go to sea with them the following week and learn as much about the job as possible before I had to do it in earnest, so it was at 2am on a Monday morning with the wind howling from the south west that I left Ayr harbour to experience my first real taste of the sea.
The boat lurched and heaved tossing this way and that as we punched our way to the fishing grounds, not straying too far from our home port due to the unseasonable bad weather and with my stomach being totally unused to this pounding, I sat at the galley door to try and get accustomed to it as I gulped intakes of fresh, sea air between lumps of ocean crashing down around me. This continued for about an hour and a half until we finally slowed down to start fishing and as I moved away from the door to let the crew out on deck I had to hang on for dear life as the boat pitched and rolled even more because we were just lying with the engine idling until we began to shoot the gear. I took my position at the galley door again as the crew went about there business on deck, walking forward as the boat dived into the large seas that were roaring towards us and just ducked their heads as the sea crashed and sprayed all over them making me wonder how they could even keep their feet without being washed overboard, never mind walk and work without holding on.
Once the gear was in the water and the winch started, to begin the seine net process of fishing, the boat, towing through the wind, with the ropes at the stern slowly being dragged in, we steadied enough to allow me to stand without holding on, and, on seeing this my uncle (the skipper) asked if I knew how to make a pot of tea.
Keen to prove my worth, I took a step inside the galley and reached for the teapot he was holding out but as soon as the fumes from the engine, combined with all the other nauseating smells hit me, my stomach reacted immediately, sending me scurrying out to the rail of the boat where I brought up the contents of my guts and spewed them into the sea, continually wrenching until there was nothing left to come out.
Anyone who has ever been seasick will know that it did not end there, because my brain obviously did not know my stomach was empty and kept trying to get me to bring up stuff that just wasn't there, making it feel as if my guts were turning inside out. I lay, half kneeling and half standing, depending on the way the boat was heaving, and between the wrenches of my stomach I gazed with hatred at the seagulls bobbing quite happily up and down in the water without a care in the world,spreading their wings and gliding over the breaking crests with ease, looking at me with scorn as I wrenched again, bring nothing up that they could pounce on and eat.
When the net came up and the small amount of fish landed on the deck, the process for the next haul began again, and took the same course as the first, with me lying a green wreck on the side deck absolutely no use to man nor beast, but when the net came up again my uncle decided that it was too rough to be fishing for so little and announced (much to my delight) that we would head back to shore. We were running before the sea which made the passage slightly less violent so I thought I would attempt the galley once again and this time I managed to make it to the wheelhouse without any need to rush for the open deck again but my stomach never recovered for about twenty four hours after that. My uncle thought it was quite funny and told me he had to suffer that for six months before he stopped being sick. SIX MONTHS! I thought, will I ever be able to survive that? I jumped ashore to tie the mooring ropes and felt the pier move with a gentle sway, before it dawned on me that my brain was still playing tricks with me and the pier was NOT moving, it was my equilibrium trying to adjust to the Terra Firma beneath my feet again.
I went home that night and wondered if the fishing WAS going to be my choice of work and fell into a deep sleep with the thoughts of the day running through my dreams but with the salt STILL in my blood when I awoke, rested and refreshed ready to go through it all again. Thankfully that was the only time I was seasick and I went from strength to strength working my way up through the ranks rapidly, having earned my first two weeks wages before I was legally registered to work, giving me at least two weeks wages tax free.
Before I end this post I will try and explain the nauseating fumes I experienced in the galley that contributed to my seasickness.
The galley as you all should know is where the food is cooked on a boat and this one was just off the deck attached to the same casing as the wheelhouse, which is situated above the engine room. The red hot exhaust from the engine runs up through the galley right beside the cooker and out through the roof of the galley where on a stormy day salt water pours down evaporating on the exhaust which mingles with the diesel fumes coming up from the engine room, mingling with the smell of old fish, food and stale cigarette smoke that lingers behind when the crew go on deck.
My uncle new what was going to happen when he handed me the teapot that stormy day and it was his way of putting me to the test to see if I was going to be up to the job. He knew how dangerous the job was, and would rather I had chosen something safer, but the sea was in my blood and I eventually proved my worth. He successfully put his own son off, of making the fishing a career years later, by similar methods and HE went ashore never to return again but carved out a good career ashore.
Sometimes when I was being battered by seas far off shore, I would wonder who had done the right thing, my cousin or me, but deep down I knew no mater what the sea threw at me, the thrill and adventure it gave me could not be found on shore, and so, I continued, to gather up the stories that hopefully you will enjoy in future blogs.

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Wednesday, 6 May 2009

A large black structure loomed out of the fog.

When relaying some of my sea adventures to you I have mentioned the rough seas, which seems to have captured the imaginations as being a terrifying experience and the worst thing that could happen if you went on a boat trip, but there are worse things than storms that can endanger the lives of seamen.
Fog can be treacherous too, especially if the proper navigational equipment and knowledge of seamanship is lacking.
It is not so long ago when skippers had only charts and instinct to go by and even into my early days at sea, new aids like radar and Decca navigators were just beginning to be installed on the smaller crafts like the Puffers and fishing boats I write about. You might think that anyone who is in charge of these vessels should have the necessary knowledge, before they are allowed to take command of them but in the case of the Puffer skippers and other unscrupulous characters who took command this was not the case, because once they had acquired some knowledge by having been at the fishing or some other means, they could bluff their way into these positions of responsibility as certificates of competence were only needed above a certain tonnage and sometimes proof was never asked for even although needed in the case of Puffers.
Not long after I started work on the "Olive Tree" (my uncles boat) I had my first experience of fog but as I had to start as cook and work my way up it was my uncles concern to steer us through this thick "pea souper" as it was referred to and find our way to the fishing grounds.
We had no radar but we did have a Decca navigator that could pinpoint our position, and the fishing boats had them installed not solely for navigation but for marking out the bottom of the sea where wrecks, rough ground and snags of various kinds could rip our nets. It was the forerunner of the satellite systems they have now and the signals were sent from masts,the same way as TV signals were sent out but instead of a screen it was a box with four clocks on it, one master clock where the other three clocks (a red a green and a purple) were set up from and a chart with red, green and purple lines which was referred to and where the readings met was where you were. (I hope I have explained that OK.)
That took care of our position but we had the worry of a collision with one of the many Merchant and Royal Navy vessels and ferries that passed us regularly so, the foghorn and ships bell were other valuable pieces of equipment to have on a day such as this.
We reached the fishing grounds safely thanks to the skill of my uncle and when we began fishing other annoyances came to light, like trying to find our dhan (marker bouy used when we shot our seine net gear) in the fog, that merged with the calm sea that usually accompanied it. The mile and a half of ropes were tied to this bhoy and we steamed away to shoot our gear and had to peer through the thick fog on our return, looking for it as my uncle tried to predict how far and which way the tide would have carried it. Standing peering through this stuff, with the misty water running down our face blurring our eyes was eerie as every time a seagull appeared, it give the impression that it was as large as a ship, bringing our hearts up into our mouths until eventually someone would spot the dhan and shout, pointing quickly so we could retrieve it before it disappeared into the murk again.
As the day went on the fog lingered putting an extra strain on all of us as we had to be even more aware than usual while working and listening for other ships fog horns and try to judge the speed and direction they were approaching. There were different blasts to warn when we were fishing or steaming between hauls, and we had to trust the seamanship of the other crews in the vicinity to distinguish what we were up to and where we were, also to know the foghorns of any lighthouses that might be in the mix of the various horns around, while listening above the sound of noisy engines or winches that was used to haul the gear back.
You can imagine the fright we got when this giant black structure loomed out of the fog heading straight for us appearing like one of the massive oil tankers that we could see on clear days and that took three miles to stop!
Roars went up from all the crew to prepare for a collision, and with a certain swim at the very least ahead of us we watched and braced for impact, until we noticed it was going very slowly and was not as large as it had first appeared.
It was one of the Clyde Puffers,(not much bigger than us) and as it's skipper edged it alongside us as close as he dare I spotted, standing on the deck, an old familiar weather beaten face from the past.
YES it WAS Smithy, asking where they were and wanting us to point them in the direction of the Mull of Kintyre, just as if they were passing through some strange town or other. They had no radar or Decca navigator and sadly lacked the knowledge to get them from A to B in these conditions but undeterred, on recognition of me Smithy gave me a big wave and shouted "well I see you made it then" and laughingly I shouted back "AYE and its thanks to you that I know how to scrub pots." They were close enough for us to throw them some fresh fish for their supper and after my uncle pointed them in the right direction they disappeared into the fog again like some ghostly apparition from a horror movie(or comedy would be more like it.)
They must have reached their destination though as we never heard of any Puffers going missing around that time but I never seen or heard of Smithy after that, so I just took it for granted that he survived to enjoy a few years of retirement, probably spinning a few yarns to anyone who would listen while he sat on a box at the harbour dreaming and telling of how it used to be.
I doubt though if he would ever tell of the embarrassing time when he had to ask directions in thick fog on passage to The Mull of Kintyre.
We too made it safely back to port with a good catch in the hold and a good pay packet to pick up for all our troubles that by this time become just a memory but one I could recall without any embarrassment in the future.
Soon after that most fishing boats had radar installed making life at sea that bit easier but none less scary in fog.

The picture (above on the left) is a Decca navigator and you can see the clocks mentioned with the master clock at the top and all the other clocks and buttons used in the complicated way that these systems had to be set up before you sailed.

The method see in the video (above right) is purse seining which is vastly different to the method we used as it takes in everything in the miles of net used, compared to the ropes used in our method, allowing certain fish to escape. A much more environmentally friendly way to farm the sea.

Bottom: (at the end of the story) is the method we used although in my early days it was open decks with the nets being hauled by hand and the ropes were manually stowed on the side deck rather than on the reels shown on the film.

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Monday, 4 May 2009

Smithy was a wily old sea dog.

Years before I left school I had already made up my mind that the fishing was going to be my next step in life and follow the traditions of my mothers family. My last year at school could not go past quickly enough and every spare minute was spent at the harbour in Ayr where two of my uncles worked their boats from. The "Sustain" belonged to an uncle through marriage and I was promised a berth with him when I left school so I thought I had no worries on that scale but as it turned out he sold the boat and went as crew on my other uncles boat before I got the chance to take up his offer, but not before my first sea trip and my first gullible lesson in life.
One Saturday evening, the Sustain was lying at the pier so I went aboard to have a chat with "Smithy," a wily old sea dog who came from the east coast but was spending his last years fishing out of Ayr, going home every two weeks or so. The smell in the fo'c'sle (forecastle or accommodation at the front of the boat rather than a cabin aft) was heavy with fish, diesel, sweaty socks and stale food and in the enclosed space with the swaying of the boat made me feel quite nauseous. Smithy got on to the chat and asked me if I was still keen to go to the fishing and with eagerness extruding from my very soul I assured him how keen I was to leave school and start as crew on this very boat. With a glint in his eyes that, at the time did not register with me he told me that I would have to begin as cook, and work my way up to deckhand, and some of my tasks would be to clean the fo'c'sle and wash dishes, nodding to some dirty pots and plates that was lying beside the sink. "Aye I know" I said, "well" said Smithy "let me see how good you are going to be by practising on that lot." Keen to impress I rolled my sleeves up and proceeded to wash all the plates and scrubbed the blackened pots Smithy had used for his meals over the weekend until they sparkled, then swept the floor for good measure to impress even more.
Smithy examined my work when I finished and praised me on how good a job I had done as he put the pots and dishes away in their lockers saying "AYE that's a good start, you'll do fine as a fisherman."
It was when I was on my way home on my bike feeling pleased with myself, that I realised that I had been duped into cleaning the fo'c'sle and washing Smithy's weekend dishes to save him the bother. I felt foolish to begin with, but laughed out loud with admiration when I realised just how wily he was, and thought to myself, that I would have to be more wary when I started the sea, and try not to get caught out like that again. It was a lesson learned and one of many, that this young schoolboy would have to go through before he became a successful fisherman.
My first trip to fish, was on the Sustain one evening after school when they were going out for a late tow at the prawns which only lasted about four hours but gave me an insight into what was around the corner for me. There was a swell rather than rough seas and although I wasn't seasick I felt very green but tried not to show it and kept away from the nauseating smells that came from the engine room and the fo'c'sle, by standing at the front of the wheelhouse drawing in the fresh sea air. After a couple of hours, once the gear was back on board with the prawns and fish to take my attention I was fine and as we made our way back to port I was even more keen to leave school and get to sea, but by the time I DID leave school as I said, the boat had been sold and Smithy went to the puffers (Small coasters that served the islands of Scotland) to work out the rest of his life before pension age. That was not the last of him though and the next time I saw him will be in my next story and is well worth waiting for.

Top Ayr harbour with the type of boat I started on. Right. A Puffer beached to unload its catch on an island. Note the flat keel for this purpose.
Left.A Puffer at the locks in the canal.

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