Thursday, 23 December 2010

Gentle summer breezes.



In contrast to last months post I thought with the severe winter weather we are experiencing in Scotland I would warm the keyboard of my computer recalling the unusual days at sea when the surface of the ocean was flat clam shimmering like glass on a wind free sunny summers day.

The summer days are long in Scotland with the sun rising between three and four in the morning and setting around eleven at night with hardly any darkness in-between.

We would leave port at midnight on the Sunday night when darkness had just fallen, but if the moon was at a point in its cycle where it shone large and bright in the sky, it appeared as if it was still daylight and you could see for miles over the silvery sea.

When I was on watch on mornings like these I used to soak up in amazement the beauty and variations of colour mother nature could conjure up to create the fantastic sea scape that lay before me as we sliced our pathway across the sea of glass to the fishing grounds west of Pladda lighthouse at the southern tip of Arran.

It was the fishing grounds there, that Hake were caught in the warm summer months when they came into the shallower waters to spawn, providing us with rich pickings as they were one of the most expensive fish we landed, being savoured by the Spaniards who travelled all the way to Scotland to buy them in bulk and ship them back home.

The crew were rallied when we reached the fishing grounds just before daylight appeared in the eastern sky and the dhan would be thrown over the side where two miles of rope were shot out, then the net, as we turned and shot out two more miles of rope on our return to pick up the dhan and begin our first haul of the day.
It took two hours to complete the tow and once the net approached the stern of the boat we would stop the winch, tow it along the surface to assist the cod end that held the fish to float on top of the water before we started hauling it aboard.
It was when we came astern to haul the net aboard that the cod end would reveal its contents by floating a silvery blanket of bloated hake bellies along the bag and as we pulled it towards us they would rumble down into the cod end, then be lifted aboard by the derrick, spilling into the pound where we would quickly box them ready to gut.
In the case of the large Hake we would gut them straight from the pound once the gear was shot again as the majority of them were usually longer than the boxes and with their girth it did not take many to fill a box.

We would still be working with the fish as the next haul was in progress, and the mud from the ropes coming in would splash all over us and the deck, covering all in its vicinity with a thick layer of brown clay as it dried in the now rising sun which became warmer with every passing hour.

As early as 9am it would get so warm that I used to cut down an old oilskin and make an apron out of it, tie it around my waist to keep the lower half of my body as dry as possible while I stripped to the waist and let the sun beat down on my pale skin, hidden from the elements all winter beneath layers of clothes during the cold stormy days that was more normal to us than the balmy weather arising from the few hot summers days we might be blessed with.
All day I would work like that only donning my full oilskins whilst hauling the net to protect myself from the scaulders that fell on our heads from the net as it was drawn through the power block (scaulders are red jellyfish that appeared during the hot weather and had a sting like vinegar or salt hitting an open cut)the term scaulders coming from the burning feeling they gave you when they landed on sensitive pieces of skin around the eyes or open cuts.
(SCAULD meaning to burn in Scots lingo)


By the end of the day when the sun set below the horizon my back was as red as the scaulders, and also would sting in a similar way, having had too much sun at one go, and even though this happened every year I still never learned from it, always desperate to grab some sun while the chance was there and willing to suffer for it, as after a couple of hours sleep at night it seemed to cool down enough to start the process all over again if we were lucky enough to have sunshine two days on the trot.

The job was so much easier and less tiring on calm seas, no rolling and pitching about or holding on to boxes of fish as the boat was thrown violently in all directions, and calm seas also allowed us to stand without having to think about where to place our feet or correct our balance as we did in storms during every lurch our vessel took.

As the sun rose in the east it would paint a different picture of colour every morning depending on the atmospheric conditions or slight cloud formations that might feather the pale blue sky. At night when it sank like a giant red ball of flame beneath the west horizon into a flat calm sea you almost expected it to sizzle and steam when it appeared to touch the surface as it flickered shades of pinks and lilacs that danced among the few ripples stirred up by the tide and evening breezes, cooling the night air slightly, giving us a short respite from the heat that would soon burst upon us again come morning.
As the day wore on I would drench myself with the cold salt water pumped from the sea through the hose that led to the deck just to cool down a bit, and come the end of a trip my hair was like wire when I went to wash it,having to use handfuls of shampoo before I could work up enough lather to cleanse the salt from it.

Wonderful sights of mother nature to behold during the long days of summer in Scotland, but as the calm days dragged on with steam rising from the decks and the fish too as they lay in wait to be gutted, by the heat of the sun beating down, mingled with the build up of heat on the deck from the engine room, meant we had to be quick attending to them and get them in ice before the heat affected the freshness of them, losing us money come landing time.

We had a good crew in those days so the problem of rotting fish never arose and we always got top money for our fish no matter what the weather threw at us, but once the calm days turned into weeks the novelty began to wear off and we would wish for a stiff breeze at least to liven things up again.

When the calm days became tedious I used to think that it must have been the same for sailors of old who, when lying becalmed would have been bored as they waited to move forward having had to rely on wind and sail power to drive them onward to their destination. Whereas they would be willing the wind to blow for that reason, we began to wish for wind to relieve the boredom the calm seas and the heat caused us as we toiled under the burning sun all day.

Then one morning you would sense a change working in the weather, as the sun rose with an angry looking sky, and the gentle cool summer breeze getting colder instead of warmer with each foot the sun rose above the now grey horizon, whipping up the once calm sea into the turmoil we were more used to.

The boredom had passed, the long oilskins were donned for the day and the now tanned skin on my back was once again hidden from the elements leaving only my hands and weather beaten face uncovered, where the spray from the rising waves would leave its mark as it hammered across the deck with each dive we took into the deepening troughs.

The long summer days were over, the fishing had its good points, and the beautiful visions of mother nature I witnessed during these special sunsets and rises will never leave my mind, a wonder to behold indeed.

The days would get shorter as the sun rose later and set earlier, displaying a different kind of beauty through cold angry winter skies, but as our vision was impaired by lumps of sea crashing around us and our concentration focused on the dangerous task in hand of casting our nets, clearing the decks and keeping our balance, making sure we were not thrown overboard, we could not take the time to appreciate them so much, but then again that was what we expected and looked forward to when we signed up, a bit of excitement and adventure that helped to keep our wits about us,preserving our lives as we unwittingly collected stories along the way that might come in handy to tell our grandchildren some cold snowy December night gathered around the glow of a warm log fire before we watch them snuggle down to sleep to dream of the gifts Santa might be bringing them through the storm.

I have retired now as my regular readers will know and although I have no grandchildren of my own to relay my stories to, I do have my followers, and I am sure some of them might just be reading this before they fall asleep to dream of the gifts Santa will be bringing them regardless of their age, so I hope when you awake your dreams have come true.
If they don't you must have been naughty ha ha.

MERRY CHRISTMAS AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR.

I wish to thank all my readers and followers for their loyalty, and for their fantastic comments during the past year.
I wish you all great time on Christmas day and all the very best for the year ahead.
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Tuesday, 9 November 2010

White horses.


Gulf stream mapImage via WikipediaThe past couple of days have seen cold easterly gales blowing across Britain which brought back memories to me of numb hands, spray from the salt water, freezing as it landed on the deck, stinging my face as it battered into me while fishing off the west coast of Scotland.

It was mostly south westerly winds that we had to contend with which blew from the open Atlantic Ocean causing huge waves to build up as they journeyed across that vast expanse of water making our job all the more difficult and dangerous than it already was, so you would think that when the wind blew from the east it would make life more bearable for us,.................. not so.

Southwest winds reach us on the Gulf Stream, coming from the region of the Caribbean Sea and although they bring plenty rain and storms they are quite warm in comparison to easterlies, as the easterlies come from the frozen Baltic climates mostly in winter bringing snow and ice.

It shows that there are hazards to fishermen regardless of which way the wind blows, as while some shelter can be gained with the wind blowing off the land creating smaller waves, these waves have what we called "white horses" at their crest which break constantly over our bows and across the deck when steaming and carrying out our tasks on deck, so much so, that we spend the day soaked to the skin with freezing water running through us even though we have oilskins and sea boots on.

The day begins in the early hours of the morning when we are about to sail, hauling in mooring ropes that are thick with ice and cannot be coiled, so we have to manage them as best as we can until we leave the fresh water of the river Ayr and reach the salt water of the sea where the ice slowly melts enough to allow us to coil and stow them safely.

The icy wind will be howling and the rigging rattling and shuddering as we plough our way through the sharp seas with spray and spindrift blinding our view at times, but with the reasonable shelter we get from the land, the seas are workable, so another day of hell begins.

Although you are not diving into deep troughs, the boat ploughs on into the sea like hitting brick walls, throwing the icy spray across the deck and when it hits your face it feels like nails being hammered into your skin, so you try to keep your head down as much as possible, but it is not so easy to do when you are among shoals of fish that need gutting and washed just like any other day.

Our hands, like our faces become leathery and hard, which is just as well, but that did not prevent the blood to stop reaching our fingertips or other extremities when it got extremely cold, leaving our fingers numb when standing gutting the fish, our feet, feeling as cold as the lumps of ice relentlessly thudding into us each way we turned, as if bullets from a machine gun were being fired at us from the constant freezing spray that showered over us and swirled around our feet.

When our hands are as cold as this you feel no pain, barely feeling the knife you are holding, so it is easy to cut you fingers which happens on a regular basis and the blood, if any, is mingled with that of the fish, so it is not until you wash your hands allowing the blood to flow freely again, once the decks are clear that you see blood pouring out of a wound that might need attention.
Our hands are always covered in cuts, the cuts are usually in the same places where the knife cuts the guts of the fish against our thumbs, or on the opposite thumb where we hold the fish by the gills slicing down its belly turning the knife back up to scoop out its innards after severing their stomachs,sometimes slicing our own fingers along with it.

Justice some might say, but as long as people want to eat fish, mankind will catch them.

Even with badly cut fingers the work goes on, and during the winter months when the easterlies blew, haddocks were the mainstay of our catch.
The haddocks fed on shellfish that lay on the seabed which meant that their stomachs were full of sharp pieces of shell still digesting in their bellies, and during gutting the shells would rub away the skin between our fingers until they too bled, and at the end of the day our hands were in a sorry state.

When your hands warmed up between hauls the blood would slowly come back to the tips of your fingers which brought pain of a different sort, not knowing whether to laugh or cry or where to put your hands to ease the agony somewhat, which was nigh impossible anyway. It was a pain that is hard to describe but if you have ever smacked an object hard with an open hand, or received six of the best with a strap from your teacher at school, multiply that pain a hundred times.
If you don't believe me and want to experience it, lift a block of concentrated ice,(not really advisable) and if it doesn't stick to your hand the blood will immediately rush to your fingers, to combat the sudden cold, creating a burning effect and as it surges to the tips it will give you the excruciating pain we went through every day when the easterly winds blew in winter.
(I was stupid enough to lift a block of concentrated ice when I was young, so I know what I am talking about.)

Gloves might have been a good idea, but they slowed us down too much when working with the fish, even so, your hands still got numb in them anyway, and as it turned out, our hands became tougher then any glove we tried.

When sailing time came again, we tumbled out of our cosy bunks straight into the icy blast of wind howling through the rigging, the corrugated iron roof of the fish market rumbling in the wind as it threatened to take flight. Our hands were stiff and sore as they had dried out overnight leaving them tender to the touch until they were saturated in water again, and when we let go the iced up mooring ropes we could hardly bear to touch them as we hauled them aboard, then out into the white horses where the torture would all begin again.

My party trick when I was ashore among landlubbers was to stub cigarettes out on my hand to show how leathery they were which always proved popular, and drew gasps from the ladies.
Yes I was proud to be a fisherman, following in the footsteps of my grandfather, and I knew I had to take the good with the bad, be it high seas with deep troughs or cold easterlies with their white horses, we consoled ourselves thinking of the warm summer days ahead, or the thought of downing a stiff whisky when we hit the pub.

I had to live and work in conditions that horrifies shore workers and in conditions that I would not be allowed to work in if the strict health and safety laws ashore applied, but then again if ever they were applied there would be no fishermen, because there is no way we can beat the elements regardless of human laws.
Most new boats have decks that are covered over in the working areas making the job much easier, but even shelter decks, though they might divert the freezing wind from your face, won't prevent the cold from penetrating your body when the easterly wind is screaming through the rigging.

I have been retired for some years now, given up smoking and trying to impress women, but my memories of those cold stormy days are still vivid, and are rekindled when the easterlies blow. Sometimes even when my hands feel cold when working at the sink under the cold water tap, I begin to wonder why my face is still weather beaten and leathery whereas my hands have softened somewhat, but you still will never get me to wear gloves, especially the yellow marigolds that the women wear.
I might not be as tough as I used to be, but I have not gone completely soft. ha ha.
I would rather grin and bear it just like the old days, and although I don't cut myself so often, my hands still bear the scars from yesteryear, a reminder to be careful when using knives.

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Tuesday, 28 September 2010

For those in peril on the sea.

Lifeboat Day in Coverack.Image via WikipediaYou would think that the vast open sea could handle all the ships of the world and would be safer than a busy motorway, but the consequences of a collision at sea can have more serious results than a fender bender ashore, and in certain channels shipping gets quite congested at times.

In the busy shipping lanes of the world great care is taken by the coastguard and the captains of the ships to avoid any such event, but they do happen, normally in rough weather or fog, hence the need for our valuable rescue services like the lifeboat, coastguard and air sea rescue helicopter units.

In the quiet waters off the west coast of Scotland, the few ships that pass by are made up of coasters, ferries, the odd oil tanker heading up to Greenock, and on the very odd occasion a cruise liner will visit the beautiful area in and around the Firth of Clyde.

Gone are the days of John Browns shipyard turning out ships and them seen doing their trials along the measured mile where the great Queens, Mary, Elizabeth and Elizabeth 11 graced the waters of the Firth before heading off to travel the world providing luxury cruises to all who sailed in them.

There are still some navy ships being built at another shipyard on the Clyde, and they still do trials out there, also the Royal Navy does exercises in the suitable deep waters around Arran at times adding to the traffic, with some submarines to be had too, so all in all, as at anytime and anywhere at sea strict vigilance is required at all times.

Sadly even though we have many modern navigational aids the human element is still the most reliable but also the one that makes the most errors, and is the cause of most collisions or tragedies at sea.

Taking your eye off the ball even for a second, as on the roads, can mean life or death as you have to be wary off all around you,like weather conditions that can change at the drop of a hat, or shipping appearing from the horizon that has to be noted and its course, speed and direction observed as it could interfere with your plans before you realize it, especially if you are towing fishing nets astern of you which makes manoeuvrability almost impossible, so you have to anticipate the hours and minutes ahead not just the seconds that are needed on the roads.

On more than one occasion I was unfortunate enough to be at the mercy of the human element in command of a ship, or small coaster as was in these cases, but none the less scary than a tanker when it is bearing down on you on a collision course, us unable to take evasive action while fishing and able to see the man in command having a conversation with his shipmate unaware they were heading straight for us and contact only seconds away.
Shipping is supposed to give fishing boats a wide berth and every fishing boat has signals to show it is working and cannot manoeuvre, a rule of the sea, just as you still give way to a boat under sail.

Having sailed on fishing boats from forty foot up to over seventy, I always thought the boat was big, in comparison to what, I am not sure, but when you are aboard it seems that way, so you think that you are clearly visible to any passing traffic who should be keeping a look out, "WATCH" being the operative word as it is called a watch when its your turn at the wheel when steaming or towing whatever the case.

Obviously the man on watch in this case had never looked at his radar never mind looked out of the wheelhouse window as he was completely oblivious to us. It was the seconds before impact that you realize how small your boat really is, and it is also amazing how quickly your brain works when you are put in such a predicament.
My first thought was to jump on the anchor dangling from the bow of the coaster, it looked easy at the time, but with hindsight, foolish, everything seemed to go in slow motion the nearer the coaster came to impact us and it gave me time to run forward to the winch and release the brakes, letting our gear run out and giving us enough forward thrust to slip under the bow and into the wash of sea it was pushing in front of it.
As soon as the man on watch noticed our mast he took evasive action by turning the wheel hard to port and scrapped past our quarter with inches to spare, avoiding the collision that would have halved our boat in two.
Without even an acknowledgement he sailed on and over the horizon without a care in the world leaving us to recover our nerves, haul the gear back to where it should be and continue fishing, although it took a strong cup of tea and about ten cigarettes before my nerves settled.

That was the closest call I had, one other being an idiot in a small but larger coaster heading straight for us, aware of what he was doing, his way of giving us a fright, which worked, but I would like to have seen his face when the Board of Trade officials boarded them when they docked as we reported the incident, and it would have been taken very seriously, punishment also dished out to idiots and law breakers at sea, just as on land.

There were a few other times when we had to take evasive action with arrogant captains not wanting to stray from their course to avoid small fishing boats that would seem only an irritation to them but had we not anticipated their actions the consequences would have been severe, not only to the crew on the fishing boat who would have landed in the water, maybe even drowned, but for the irresponsible captain who would have lost his rank, which would have been more than irritating to both parties.

All my near misses happened in clear weather, but some of my colleagues were not so lucky, some lost their lives, which I would rather not go into, but will tell you of one particular boat with close friends of mine aboard who were run down and sank one foggy day.

It was a small coaster, the same one that gave me my closest call, obviously a lesson never learned, although fog is one of the worst things you can experience at sea even with all the modern equipment like radar.

My friends had been fishing at the west side of The Alisa Craig, a notorious place in fog where the island disappears and the haunting sound of the foghorn can be heard for miles around.
They had their gear aboard and were steaming between tows so both skippers were to blame, but nonetheless both skippers got a shock when the coaster appeared out of the fog ramming the "RANDOM HARVEST" amidships sending her to the bottom in minutes.

One of my friends was in the wheelhouse with the skipper and told me, "He appeared out of nowhere, never showing up on the radar nor his foghorn heard."
Strange, but fog does have a weird effect at sea and strange unexplainable things like that do happen.
Another friend of mine who was in the hold packing fish at the time, felt the impact and when he scrambled up the ladders to get to the deck, the boat was going down as fast as he was trying to get up.
Thankfully, after a short swim, all were rescued by the crew of the coaster, "THE SUNLIGHT" of all names, but I often wondered what would have happened to me had I been on the Random Harvest as I could not swim all the years I was at sea only learning some years later.

Storms were not the only factors to create danger at sea, fog and the human element were another two, the human element being the one that should never be in the equation but is most likely to be the worst offender when it comes to collisions.
Accidental the collision might be, but negligence is most likely to be at the root of it, and as on the roads, that split second can mean life or death even though there is a vast expanse of ocean.

"GOD BLESS HER AND ALL WHO SAIL IN HER"
Is the quotation used when a ship or boat is launched, and every sailor I know have needed God's blessing at sea at one time or other, be it through storms or stress, rough and ready we might be, we have all turned to him at some point, some luckier than others, some living to tell the tale, some not.

I have great respect for the sea, and after all the years spent on it, knowing what it can throw at you, I have every respect for all the men and women who still go down to the sea in ships, but more so for those of the rescue services who put their lives at risk to save us should we flounder in any way.

Although there is a vast expanse of ocean, with many open spaces, it still provides much more danger than any of our congested roads ever will.

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Thursday, 12 August 2010

Beautiful visions of nature


I have been reminded of the Perseid Meteor shower that the earth goes through every year, will be at its peak tonight, and that the Southwest of Scotland will be one of the best places to see it.
It just so happens that I am one of the lucky ones who live there and will be looking skyward from 11pm onward to witness once again the wonderful sight nature gifts us with when this event occurs.
It is not very often this part of Scotland has clear enough skies that allow us to witness the spectacular show, so I will be making the most of it.

The first time I witnessed this wonder of nature was when I was at the fishing, on the "Replenish," tailing prawns, well into the night, in the middle of The Irish Sea and it was by chance that I looked towards the heavens just as an array of shooting stars (dust particles as small as a grain of sand) flew through the darkened sky. I watch in amazement as each particle burned up producing tails of light across the sky, hitting our atmosphere at 135,000 miles an hour, although I never knew that at the time.

We were just in the right place, on the right night, away from light-polluted cities and towns that could clutter our vision, and reduce the spectacle of this marvelous sight.
Only us, the calm open sea and the stars above.

Stars above, shooting stars, that gave us the most brilliant display of astral fireworks I have ever seen, and it was from then on that I took more of an interest in the night sky, and what was really "out there" which led to my blog, "unfeatheredangels" now well on its way to being published as a book.

This particular meteor shower is caused by earth passing through the tail of the comet "SWIFT-TUTTLE" which leaves particles of dust and debris in its wake as it travels speedily ever onward in its orbit so far away from us, but will return next year to amaze us all again.

I was fortunate to witness many of natures wonderful sights when I was at sea, like fantastic, romantic sunsets where silver and amber beams shone through clouds of gold,above an island that appeared to rise out of the sea on the distant horizon.

(With no one to share them with, except a motley crew of men. Ahhhhh)

Beautiful sunrises, shining deep red behind pink fluffy clouds, reflecting varying shades of lilac on the slight ripples stirred on the sea by the warm breeze whispering across it on a summer morning.

The fishing had its good points, and even on stormy days or nights, mother nature could still dish up some extraordinary visions in the sky, although we might not have appreciated it then, our attention most likely being focused on survival at the time, battling against the more formidable side of mother nature and only realizing what we had seen afterwards.

I have these visions in my memory, to treasure all my life, and tonight when I watch the stars shooting across the sky, my thoughts will return to the night I first saw them whizzing overhead in the darkness high above The Irish Sea.

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Tuesday, 13 July 2010

In the footsteps of my grandfather.



For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a fisherman, following in the footsteps of my maternal grandfather and his father before him.
The sea was in my blood, enhanced by regular visits to the harbour during my summer school holidays to watch as the family boat came home from a trip loaded with fish and observe as my uncle and his crew went about the task of landing them.

My grandfather had by this time retired, and my uncle was now skipper of the "Olive Tree," a job I hoped to do in my later years, as I was the only member of the descendants that had any ambition to carry on the family tradition.

Other things that might have inspired me or drew me to such a dangerous occupation was watching my grandfather mend nets, cotton nets that had been torn during fishing, which was a regular thing in the early days with only land marks, early forms of echo sounders, and the experience of the skipper to keep the gear clear of sharp objects, wrecks or rocks that lay on the bottom of the sea.

I used to stand in amazement and watch as my grandfather would fill the needles with cotton twine then proceed to cut the torn pieces out of the net and join the remaining squares with the twine, bringing the net back to its original form.
The torn nets would be brought to his home for him to mend while the boat fished on using many nets in the process,and as they were made of cotton, he was never short of work, the newly mended ones being swapped for torn ones each time the boat docked.

He used to encourage me by giving me a piece of stick with a little twine hanging from it and place me beside another part of the net with a small hole, to pretend I was mending too and contributing to the finished article, then shout my grandmother out when he stopped for a cup of tea to show her my handiwork and compliment me on such a fine job.

I knew it was only pretend but we spent many a great day together like that, which might not have been as much fun for him, as it was hard work trying to piece together some of the badly torn nets, and as the summers came and went I eventually learned to fill the needles for him which was some help at least, and gave me a feeling of being of some real use at last.

My grandfather died before I left school and never got to see me working on the boat or mending nets myself, but I know he knew I would succeed at it one day, as the sparkle in his eyes, when he showed my grandmother my pretend work told a story of memories when his enthusiasm overflowed helping his own grandfather.

The day I was told I had a job on the Olive Tree, I immediately pictured myself in yellow oilskins, sou'wester and long white rubber sea boots just as my uncle and grandfather wore (the older fishermen would have had long leather boots) and it was that vision I wanted my own descendants to remember me by when the old photographs were handed around the family long after my departure from this earth.

The yellow colour was an aid to spotting and recovering any men who were unfortunate enough to fall, or be swept overboard, although, spotting and recovery in cold rough seas was very slim, with far to many good men being lost at sea, my great grandfather being one.

This never deterred me, and it was with great pride the day I walked into the ship chandlers and asked for a pair of boots, size nine, a long yellow oilskin, sou'wester, and a gutting knife, the uniform of my heroes.

You can imagine my disappointment when the man behind the counter told me the yellow oilskins were out of stock and as the new regulation oilskins were to be a "luminous pink," supposedly bright enough to see even better should I be swept overboard, he had plenty of them in my size.

I had no other option, I was sailing on Sunday at midnight, and this was Saturday morning, so I sauntered dejectedly down to the boat and hid my new gear under the other YELLOW oilskins belonging to the crew, where they would stay until the very last moment, when I had to wear them.

When the time came to don this monstrosity I expected some teasing remarks from the older crew members but none was forthcoming, maybe because it meant nothing to them or that they were more intent on getting the job done rather than pay any attention to the rookie cook come deckhand, who they would have to teach the tricks of the trade to in the weeks and months to come.
Nonetheless I cringed then, and still do to this day when I think of that garment, the only one I can ever remember seeing, so much for it being the new regulation oilskin.
I think it was a one off, a trial for it and me, and we both failed, it on colour, me on having a face brave enough to wear it as it was off my back as soon as its use was over, and I was never seen wearing it in port no matter how heavy the rain was when we were landing.

To make matters worse, my other uncle, who was a chartered accountant, had decided to take some time off work and come to sea with us to live the dream he once thought he would be living, until his ambitions took another turn, and after years of study had his own successful business.

He brought with him a cine camera to record his trip, which I never thought much of until he started to film all of the crew going about their duties on deck, them in their yellow oilskins and ME in a luminous pink number that looked even brighter when I saw the replay of it in colour.

So much for my descendants seeing me dressed in the attire I hoped I would be wearing when I was first snapped for posterity, what kind of impression would this make a hundred years from now I thought, ME, IN A PINK OILSKIN!
We were supposed to be rough and tough, not running around in colours that were for women only, but then I was only about to turn fifteen and at that time the look was as important to me, as the adventurous job I had chosen.

I was so proud that at last I was on my way to becoming a real fisherman, and at the end of a trip I could be seen walking around the harbour in my flecked polo neck woolen jumper, barky, (canvas top worn over jumper that blocked the freezing cold winds from reaching our skin) long sea boots, rolled down, then turned up slightly, even though it was mid-summer, and the rest of the crew had long since gone home.
I was at last emulating my ancestors, and even they might have posed the way I was when they were young, though I doubt it.

The pink luminous oilskins never caught on, and when it wore out it was replaced by the traditional yellow, which pleased me more than I can tell.
The film of that embarrassing garment has been shown to many members of the family, but thankfully now I can laugh at it, as there are more photos of me in the attire my forefathers wore, the attire I always dreamed I would wear one day while following in their footsteps.

The dreams that little schoolboy had while helping his grandfather mend the torn nets had finally been fulfilled.



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Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Relics of the Scottish fishing industry

Map of Ayrshire, ScotlandImage via Wikipedia


Here as promised is the updated photo of the "Watchful" with "yours truly" standing beside it, two old relics of the Ayrshire fishing industry, still around to tell the tale.
I spoke to the guy who restored it, and he told me that for all the work he had done, there was still plenty rotting wood in her, mostly on her top rail,also in and around the deck area that is hidden from view to the public given the high position of her on the concrete cradle.
She looks good from a distance, proving that a lick of paint can cover a multitude of sins, just like the T-shirt I am wearing.
Hopefully she will stand proud there for many years to come and that the council will see fit to care for her in the delicate years of the life in front of her, a fitting memorial to a once thriving industry, and if they can find some compassion for the old bloke in the photo, perhaps they could take care of him in his old age too.
"Shiver me timbers" OoooArrrr! ha ha.



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Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The dreaded overhaul.




When I was taking my stroll along my usual haunt at Ayr beach, where I go on nice days, not only to get some exercise, but to look out to sea to find some inspiration for my next post, I passed the hull of the Watchful (mentioned and pictured in a past post)and was pleasantly surprised to see that she had been given a nice new coat of paint, paid for by the local council.
Having been standing, as a tribute to Ayr's once thriving fishing industry since her purchase by Ayr county council, on a concrete cradle where Ayr's old slipway once was, having been neglected and sore in need of some loving care and attention, I was glad to see her sitting more proudly than she had been for some time, looking more like her old self.

The site of her beaming in the sunlight, fresh paint glistening, and the smell of it's odour still hanging in the air brought back memories of the times we spent caring for the vessels we sailed in, slipping them at least once a year to overhaul the engines, repair any woodwork (or metal if that was the case) that had been damaged, worn or rotted through its working year, and get all the safety equipment, from life rafts to lifebelts and flairs checked to ensure as best as we could our safety in the coming year.

Although every fisherman knew this work was essential, we would rather the shipyard workers carried out the maintenance, mainly to allow us a well earned holiday, but also to escape the work and smell of a shipyard that held no pleasant memories for us, as when these smells hit our nostrils all we could think of was scrapping keels, hulls, wheelhouses, and getting covered in all sorts of paint, more going on us at times than the boat, such was our incompetence and hatred of the job.
Arrrgh! The thought of it still haunts me, with the smell of wood, wood shavings, paint, putty, and hot metal, along with the sounds of electric wood saws cutting away, metal grinding and hammering by an army of men amid a flurry of organized chaos as soon as you entered the yard, and to think that these men do that every day of their working lives and think nothing of it.

There were times when we left the boat in the capable hands of the shipyard workers, but more often than not, to save the owners money, the crews would be left to do the jobs, which were done as quickly as possible so we could get back to sea and earn some real money, doing the job we loved, our holidays being staggered during the summer months with one crew member at a time on leave, being covered by a temporary crewman while the boat worked on.

We would go through the ritual of clearing the decks of all our working gear, sail to the nearest available yard, (Girvan mostly) which allowed us to travel home each night to sleep easy in our in our own cosy beds before carrying out the drudging depressing duties that although necessary were dreaded by all of us.

The scraping of the keel was one of the worst jobs then, with barnacles and green slime glued along every quarter, but that has been made more easy now with the help of power washers and new chemicals that take away the tiresome manual labour, although great care has to be taken not to remove any of the caulking between the planks on the wooden vessels when using the power washer,(no problem on the steel boats) a lesson learned when we first started using them.

As I said, it was as quick as we could get the job done and back to sea which did not always meet with the approval of the manager of the yard who took great pride in the work carried out by him and his workers, and was as proud as we were when we seen our boat take to the water again, shining like a new pin.

One day with only the deck to be painted, the launch due next day, the manager happened to walk past me as I was covering my part of the deck with the thick grey paint that provided us with some grip underfoot in storms thanks to a sandy element mixed in with it.
He noticed, to his disgust, that I had not brushed the deck before I started to paint, and was painting over a bundle of sawdust left from some woodwork carried out by his men, which brought out his remark, "who's this making porridge on the nice clean deck" to which I replied "ach it will help with the grip, anyway it will be worn off in a couple of weeks."
Not the words he was wanting to hear, as it was his intention to make me clean it up and give it a smooth clean coat of paint, living up to his standard of perfection, and was disappointed when this young fisherman just carried on covering everything in sight. If it was on the deck it was painted grey, and I knew the deck paint was the first thing to go once the hard graft of fishing began in earnest, and any other bits of the boat missed, like the parts that were covered by the ropes attached to the cradle we could not access at the time, and were supposed to be painted after we were off the slip would never be completed, but would tone in soon with the new paintwork as the sea and the elements took their toll in the weeks ahead.

The most important part of the overhaul was the engine and the safety checks, the paintwork, although helping to preserve the wood was only decoration to us, and the gloss would soon fade, not so the shipyard manager's memory though, as the following year he caught me doing exactly the same thing, and remarked, "still making porridge I see."

No chance of me getting a job here if ever I leave the sea I thought, as I carried on covering everything in sight.
He did not know that I too was a bit of a perfectionist, and think I still am, but there are limits to what even I would consider worthwhile, and paint that is going to disappear before long is not one of them, although my standards in other departments do not slip, and are still as strong, unlike the non-skid paint we were issued with.

The sight of the Watchful brought mixed emotions, but every time I pass a shipyard, the smells that enter my nasal passages stir memories of dreaded times spent away from my beloved sea doing unfamiliar jobs that are best left to others.

AH! "Give to me the life I love, the lonely sea and sky."

The small picture "top" is Girvan shipyard.
The large picture is the Watchful in need of a paint, I'll try and get a picture of her as she stands proudly now.





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Monday, 3 May 2010

Man the pumps.



The jobs on a fishing boat are not all about catching fish, we all have our designated jobs to do, to maintain the efficient running of the boat.
We have to know about the engine, and how to do repairs at sea, on all the machinery, keep the bilges dry by pumping them out on a regular basis,(normally a man is designated to look after the engine, which could mean any one from the skipper to the main deckhand, as long as he has enough knowledge of them, which most fishermen do anyway.)
Everything is kept clean in the galley (the cooks job) the hold is always scrubbed with disinfectant after landing (the hold mans job) and the deck and surrounding areas are scrubbed after the last of the fish has been stowed, as we set off for the nearest port to land. (the deckhands job)

In this particular case it was the skipper/owner who, rather than trust any of the crew to look after his pride and joy, chose to do it himself.
He would start the engine each time we put to sea, stop it when we finished our trip, change the engine oil, and do all the necessary maintenance the engine needed, and checked the bilges on a regular basis, pumping them out when needed.

There is quite an accumulation of water in the bilges at times, especially after we have landed and the hold man has finished scrubbing, but normally the bilge pump is running during this operation so, by the time he is finished the water will all be pumped out.

Among other sources of water entering the bilges, you also had ice melting from the tons of ice carried to keep the fish fresh, so a close eye had to be kept on them at sea to keep the water level down.

One lovely summers day,on the first day of a new trip with only a slight swell running, we had just cleared the decks of fish from our second haul when the skipper shouted in a panic out of the wheelhouse window "MAN THE PUMPS WE ARE SINKING!"


There was two manual pumps worked from the deck of this particular boat (all boats having hand pumps that were worked from the deck) so at once, one man began pumping the small pump aft, while the other two men on deck rigged up the bigger pump, and in no time at all the water was flowing out of the boat.

As we were towing at the time the gear steaming from our stern would only hamper us should the circumstances get worse, so the next order from the skipper was to let the brakes off the winch and run off the gear, which would give us maneuverability at least.
The wires we used to tow our gear were tied onto the winch with rope, which made them easier to ditch should an event such as this occur, but we had to stand clear, as the skipper, in such a hurry never slowed the boat down when we came near the end, bursting them away rather than cut them loose, making them spring about the deck in a very dangerous way as they rumbled over the side.

Thousands of pounds worth of gear dumped at sea, but it might save our lives if we couldn't get the flow of water stopped, and we had the position of it charted with our "DECCA" (decca navigator) allowing us to retrieve it should we survive.

The skippers next move was to steam for the nearest fishing boat, which, lucky enough was only a couple of hundred yards away, and tie alongside it while we kept pumping the bilges, but the slight swell on the sea seemed bigger when the two boats came together, which could inflict damage on both boats, so we untied the ropes and dodged beside them, keeping them close, "just in case."
Having already experienced some dubious decisions from this skipper, and with everything seemingly under control, I decided to check out the source of our announced sinking.

When the skipper saw me heading for the engine room he said, "its not a panic, the water is gushing up under the engine," and sure enough, once down in the engine room, when I looked at the source of the panic, water was spraying up from the bilges.

On closer examination, I noticed the water level was up to the propeller shaft and it was a coupling on the shaft that was throwing the water up, not a leak in the hull as we were led to believe by the skipper.

When I pointed this out to him, he tried to cover his panic by saying that it was better not taking any chances, as soon as he saw the water squirting up, his thought was for the safety of the crew.

Aye whatever, I thought, all it would have taken was to look more carefully and all this panic, and dumping of the gear could have been prevented.

When I went back up on deck and broke the news to the boys, they were very relieved at first then shook their heads in disbelief at this fool of a skipper who was supposed to be the most responsible man on board, and who had also undertaken the job of keeping the bilges dry, but through his negligence had let them fill up to this level.

Panic over, and the bilges pumped dry we went back to retrieve our gear before we could start fishing again, but during his denied panic the skipper had lost the decca readings of where the gear lay, and we only had a rough idea where it was.

We towed for hours with the creeper over our stern in the area where we thought it was until finally we felt a pull, the rope leading from the winch to the creeper began to strain, a sure sign that something was on the end of it.

At last we had found the thousands of pounds worth of net, trawl doors, sweeps and wires that we had dumped hours ago, but after being in the water so long the tide had tangled them together quite badly, and it was well into the night before we managed to get it all aboard and sorted out ready for shooting again.

Through the stupidity of the skipper we had feared for our lives, lost half a days fishing, and went without sleep all night trying to prepare the gear in time for daylight breaking, nonetheless, as all good crews do, we had everything ready for the morning, and once the gear was shot we all lay down for a well earned rest, grabbing a few hours sleep while we towed away, except the skipper of course whose job it was to stay in the wheelhouse and do the job he is supposed to do.

As I drifted off to sleep the days events ran through my mind, and I thought to myself that it was time to move on, there are skippers and there are skippers, this guy had blundered once to often, and in my mind, had a long way to go before I would class him as a Skipper.

The rest of the trip went by, thankfully uneventful, but I never felt safe with that skipper in command again and moved on soon after to a prosperous boat with a reliable man at the helm.

The sea is no place to be with people you can't depend on, one of the places where your life depends on trusting the people around you, none more so than the skipper, and when faith in him is gone it's time you were to.







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Wednesday, 21 April 2010

We all have our callings.

"Elk Bath" – A wildfire in the Bitte...Image via Wikipedia

You would think that with my love of the sea I would have settled down in a little cottage overlooking it so I could spend my retirement gazing out forlornly and recall my adventures to any willing ear that happened to pass by.
Not so, I live ten miles from the sea on the edge of a little village next to a pine forest, which provides me with beautiful scenery as I watch the landscape change with the seasons.
Not quite the thrilling life I was used to but it provides me with the peace and tranquility, (without the distraction of the sea) I need to write my tales of adventure to any willing eye that cares to log into my blog, and to write at my leisure the book I promised myself I would write, if only for my own satisfaction.
Any other interest would just be a bonus.

However back to the story.

Its at this time of year when the kids burn the grass, a thing most young ones do in their youth, but when I did it, it was in places where no damage could be done.
Here,in this village when they do it, forest fires can be started.
The shepherds or herds as they like to be called here are used to burning the old grass to bring forth new shoots for the spring lambs, (burning the mares) the mares being the thick tufts of grass resembling the tail of a horse that need to be thinned out, and that is supposed to be where the young ones are supposed to get the urge to do it, but I think it is just a natural thing young ones do never thinking of the consequences.

Anyway, last night the mares were set alight, and with a strong wind blowing the flames towards the forest it wasn't long before the fire tenders arrived to put them out.
It only took them twenty minutes but that twenty minutes saved what could have become a raging forest fire.

As I watched the fire engine pass my window on its return to the station, I recalled when I was a boy living next door to a fireman which might have encouraged me to become one when I grew up, especially when I was given the chance to ring the bell one hot Sunday afternoon when we passed the fire station and the doors were wide open.
I was only about seven years old and the family had been out for a stroll enjoying the sunshine after church when our neighbour spotted us walking past and invited us in for a look round, lifted me up into one of the tenders and pointed to the strap that was attached to the bell and told me to ring it.
Needing no second invitation I grabbed it and began thrusting it back and forth.
CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! The noise could be heard all over the town of Ayr, and the folk passing by thought the engines were ready to race out to a fire, but smiled when they saw it was only a little lad clanging the bell, the envy of any young boy.

Another time, our neighbour happened to have stopped by his house on the way back from a fire, and just by chance when he was leaving to return to the station, I was leaving my house to catch a bus to school.
"Going to school" he asked, "hop in and I'll give you a lift."
I had to be lifted up, too small to hop in, but I could see out of the window, and waved to some of my school chums who were heading for the bus, and after being dropped of at the school gates I was the talk of all the school, teachers and pupils alike being the envy of them all, having lived the dream of most young boys, whose ambition it was to become a fireman when they grew up.

Today the fire engines have changed dramatically with sirens replacing the bells,what was referred to as the fire engine is now called a tender,and now with females in the service, both the males and females are referred to as firefighters, but regardless of my experiences I never once wanted to go down that road.

My ambition was always to follow in my grandfathers profession and be a fisherman.

Having achieved that I never once regretted it, loving every storm, every beautiful sunset and sunrise, taking the good with the bad, living the dream I carried with me throughout my childhood, leaving the firefighters to fulfill their calling, and the teachers who envied me then, to ponder on what might have been had they followed their dream, but then again they are fulfilling their calling, albeit, maybe their second choice, but it wouldn't do if we all worked at the same occupation, as some of us are only meant to dream of what might have been, while carrying out some other form of work, which are all equally important, when it comes to keeping the wheels of life turning.






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Friday, 2 April 2010

Breaking the law.

Fishing down the food web, a North Sea perspec...Image via Wikipedia

In the seventies so much herring was being caught thanks to new methods of fishing (mainly pair trawling and purse seine netting) with modern instruments in the wheelhouses that showed the skippers where the spots of herring were, how deep they were and gave images of their nets capturing the spot leaving no escape route for the fish.
This was a boom time in all methods of fishing with great prices being paid by foreign buyers coming from Europe and Russia, with Russian factory ships lying off the west coast for weeks salting and curing herring until they were full, then head back to Russia while another would take it's place.
Mackerel too were heavily fished in this way but never reached the same high prices as the herring.

So much fish was being caught that the powers that be decided to close the North sea to herring fishing for five years and the west coast for three.

This meant that even the seine netters like the "Wanderer" (the boat I worked on at the time) would have to dump any of that species if we happened to catch them.

Sometimes it was hard to escape spots of herring when fishing for white fish especially as the herring were not being fished for by the herring fleet, allowing them to multiply rapidly, which was the reason for closing the fishing in the first place, although there was no immediate signs of any scarcity of them.

During the time when the herring came into the Firth of Clyde to spawn all the fishing fleet from prawn trawlers to seine netters like us, could catch anything from ten to fifty boxes a day and were supposed to dump them back into the sea where, once being towed inside our nets for hours had no chance of survival, so instead of throwing them back to feed the seagulls and gannets we would land them on the quiet out of sight of the fishery officers who prowled the harbours during landing times.

One day we hauled our net to find it full of good sized herring, about eighty boxes in all, a good haul at the best of times, but the thought of throwing all that fish away at the cost of around a thousand pounds was too much to even consider so we kept it aboard and I boxes it in the forward part of the hold to try and conceal it.

We steamed away from them for an hour and shot our gear again hoping to catch white fish this time, but once again it came up with a good haul of Herring, so once again I boxed them forward in the hold and hid them behind empty boxes and some full boxes of white fish that had been caught earlier on in the trip.

We had a good catch of white fish aboard before the herring started interfering with our trip so with the hold almost full, albeit mostly with illegal fish we steamed for the harbour to land.

Sure enough the fishery officer was on the prowl, and much to our dismay jumped aboard our boat as soon as we were tied to the quay and asked to see what was in the hold.
Confident enough that the herring were concealed we opened the hatches and as I looked down onto the floor of the hold from the deck, all I could see running down, thick and white the length of the hold was milk (sperm) that was seeping from the male herring, a dead giveaway.

The fishery officer never mentioned it and climbed down the ladder behind me when I entered the hold in preparation to land.
As he looked aft where the bulk of the white fish were stacked, his back to the hidden herring, he remarked on the good catch we had and was pleased that no herring were among them, chatted for a short while then climbed back out again, and went ashore quite happy.
I scratched my head in amazement wondering how he never spotted the milk on the hold floor, or even asked to see the fish in the forward hold, and I still wonder to this day why we were not nabbed.
We landed the herring at night, straight on to a lorry when all was quiet, or supposed to be quiet anyway as ten to twelve boats were all waiting to do the same thing.
The buyers would purchase our fish and send lorries down at night when the fishery officers were off duty, load them up and whisk them away to their factories where they were prepared for their outlets the next day.
The herring were sold at a cheaper price than would have been had they been sold in the markets and bid for, but the rewards were greater for us, as all the money from our contraband was split evenly among the crew, tax free.
"Stoker" we called it, which was managed in some way every week but never in such abundance.

The fishery officers eventually became wise to our game and would patrol the harbour at night, making it more difficult for us, but we always found a way around it by landing at harbours that had no markets but enough room for a lorry to come alongside the quay where we lay and load our catches that way.

In recent years, boats who tried to flaunt the quota laws have been caught and given heavy fines, lucky to walk away with their fishing licences intact, licences that never existed in the seventies but now every boat has to have one, and log every fish that is caught.

All the fun has gone out of the job, and the Klondike days are gone, the fish are getting scarcer, and who knows if it was the illegal fish landed or not, all I know is that I had fun when I was at sea regardless of all the rules.

The adventure is still there, the storms still have to be contended with, and the fish will recover, as the fleet has been cut drastically, I only hope that there will still be a Scottish fleet to enjoy the bonanza when they return, and the European Union has not damaged it enough that only foreign boats are left and allowed to plunder our waters, and clean them up the way they ruined their own.





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Saturday, 13 March 2010

Broadcasting and copyrights then and now.

















Musicians (pop stars mainly) are complaining of lost revenue, due to their music being downloaded from the Internet, but copying music is nothing new, as pop songs were recorded onto tapes during radio broadcasts in my day.

To try and counteract these measures, Disc Jockeys were either told to talk over the start of the songs, and cut short the endings, or maybe it was the Disc Jockeys collaborating with the artists to safeguard their copyrights.

Either way it was a complete nuisance when we were recording the songs, but it never stopped us, and if you were sitting playing your tapes in the car with the window open, people walking past could never be sure if it was the radio or the tape deck that was playing the music if, on recording we never pressed the stop button before the DJs voices could be heard. It was all a matter of timing, and if you were willing to put up with the DJs voice, then it didn't really matter what was being said over the music as long as we had the main part of the song blaring for all to hear.

DJs still talk over the songs they play, but it wasn't always that way, so it's thanks to my generation that we still have to put up with their gibbering even though tape decks are almost a thing of the past.
I say almost, as I still copy some songs from the radio, and play the tapes on an old player I have at home, but I can no longer go to the beach, open a window and blast out the top ten from the comfort of my car on tapes I made up, as it only has a CD player, and although the car is only four years old, the said CD player is all but out of date already, before I even got round to making any discs.

The pop stars of today are facing the same problems as the stars of old, only this time the Internet does more damage, so I do sympathise with them, although they still make enough money to keep the wolves from the door, as did the stars of yesteryear.

I have no wish now, to copy in any way the songs that adorn the charts these days, as I think the old ones are the best, and I have already copied all of the the ones that I wanted.
There are a few good songs still coming from this generation but they are few and far between, so I'll leave all the copying to the younger ones, and let them worry about copyrights, but I am sure of one thing, no matter how many new ways of transmitting music comes along, and no matter how they try to safeguard it, someone will always come up with a way to overcome it.

Hopefully the new ways of broadcasting will provide us with a way of listening to the radio without all the needless banter over the music from the DJs, and we can go back to the days of old when you sat down to listen to the radio, and heard all of the songs that were played, then got the dedications for the next song from the more subdued DJs.

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Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The shoals of cod.

The round Ailsa Craig on the Waverley Paddle S...Image via Wikipedia














There was still a cold winters chill in the breeze that blew off the sea on this March afternoon as I strolled along my usual haunt at Ayr beach, bringing back memories of the cod fishing around the Ailsa Craig at this time of year.

Although there was a breeze blowing the sea was calm, and had been for weeks now, something that did not seem to happen during the cod fishing when I was at sea, as I remember vividly getting tossed about every day with lumps of sea crashing down around us as we gutted cod continuously from daylight to dark, our hands freezing from the icy blast that whipped up the waves.

It was always after a cold winter that the cod were at their thickest, and as this was the coldest winter we have had for years, I was wishing I could get down to the fishing grounds to see for myself if there was any cod left to catch, as a few years ago, the European Union put a stop to fishing for them during the spawning season to try to replenish the stocks that had seemingly depleted over the years.

The cod came into the Firth of Clyde every year at this time to spawn bringing boats from all the fishing ports around the coast of Scotland to cash in on this bonanza.
For around three weeks of March the cod were at their thickest, small catches appearing just before the main flood, and then again, after they returned to the deeper water, making the season last for about six weeks in all.

Each night Ayr harbour was full of fishing boats waiting to squeeze into a space at the quay to unload their catches to the eager buyers who, although the cod was plentiful, would try to out bid each other to acquire the green gold that could make or break their year, also for the fishermen whose livelihood depended on the shoals, and getting the best prices possible for their fish.

It is hard to believe that these shoals do not come here anymore, because even though they took a slaughtering, year after year they would return in greater numbers to go through the process all over again, until one year the numbers started to decline.

The winters had been getting warmer, and we had started to catch the cod in the deeper waters where they returned to after spawning, but we always believed that there were plenty more fish in the sea, so we carried on regardless, after all we were there to make money and that was what we were doing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we began to catch cod with both male and female reproductive organs inside them, and I often wondered if that was natures way of making sure they survived.

The grounds around the Ailsa Craig where these cod used to shoal, have not been fished for some time now, and given the conditions of this winter I would love to be able to have a couple of experimental hauls just to see if the warmer winters was one of the reasons the cod started to dwindle, or if it was the damage caused by us that depleted the stocks so much so that there came a point of no return.



















Having kept all my hunting instincts even though I left the fishing years ago, I still think there are plenty fish in the sea, and that the cod found another place to spawn during the warmer winters, and now that we have had a cold spell just at the right time, my instincts when I walked along Ayr beach yesterday with the chilly breeze hitting my face told me the cod were there.

Whether it was just the smell of the cold sea air bringing back memories of the good old days, or my instinct I'll never know, because I'll never get to prove it one way or the other thanks to the laws of the European Union, which in this case might be good or bad. Who knows?

The yearning for these days, and their memories will never leave me, and no matter how many walks I take on a cold March day, this year or in years to come, I will be down at the fishing grounds around the "Craig" catching large hauls of cod, and there is nothing the European Union can do about that.





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Sunday, 28 February 2010

A painful reminder.


Some typical alcoholic beverages.Image via Wikipedia

One day when we were fishing off the lighthouse that serves the south eastern corner of Arran, warning the many ships on passage to, or from the Clyde ports of the danger from the island "Pladda" which lies close to the shipping lane, we were contacted over the radio by the captain of a passing coaster who wondered if he could get some fish in return for some whisky.

These ships are called coasters because their routes mainly take them around the coast of Britain, sometimes travelling to European ports, but never venturing too far afield, across large oceans, although they are big enough to do so.

This particular ship towered above our small fishing vessel, but kept a safe distance from us even though the sea was calm, while he waited until our haul of fish was aboard.
The fish we were catching that day consisted mainly of whiting, with a few boxes of large cod and the odd plaice through them, which was all adding up to a good days work.

It would have been about mid-day when this event took place, giving us a welcome break from our routine of constantly shooting, hauling and clearing up one lot of fish just before the next lot came aboard, so when the exchange of whisky for some fish came, the offer was hard to refuse. Not that it would have been refused at any other time, as I am sure you know.


Once the net was safely aboard we edged as close as we could to the waiting vessel, keeping just enough distance between us to allow their crew to lower a rope down to us where we had a basket of mixed fish waiting for the rope to be tied to then hoisted up, emptied, and returned with the whisky.

Sure enough when the basket was lowered back down to us there was three bottles of a good malt whisky (Ballantine's) in payment for our fish.

Great whisky! We all adjourned to the galley where we all indulged in half a mug of this amber nectar before carrying on with the rest of the days fishing.

AH! It was a good dram, heating the cockles of our hearts, putting a glow on our cheeks and giving us an energy boost to continue. (I'll call it that anyway.)

As soon as I was back on deck I delved my hands in among the fish to pull out any large cod and put them into separate boxes from the smaller fish to give us a better idea of how much quality fish we had.

Just as I came across a big cod, I felt a sharp jag at the tip of my middle finger on my right hand, just under the nail, but thinking nothing of it I carried on, as quite often we would get jags from the barbs that grew on some of the species we caught, like the gurnard.

Our hand were always leaking blood from somewhere, between cuts from our knives, or scrapes and punctures from the defensive armour of fish like the gurnard who had spikes coming from various parts of it's body, and spikes that I had often experienced jagging into me.

When the working day came to an end and my hands began to dry out I could still feel the niggle from the jag I received, and on examination I could see a black dot under my skin which meant the spike had broken off, so I tried to squeeze it out but to no avail.

Usualy this does the trick, but as half a day had gone past the skin had started to cover over the wound, trapping the spike under my skin, so my next move was to cut around the spike and try to squeeze the, by now very sore and irritating intruder in my fingertip.

Nothing worked, the spike seemed to go deeper instead of coming to the surface, so I gave up and turned in for a good nights sleep, but that too was disturbed by the throbbing of my finger, and even after getting up during the night to take some pain killers I still could find no comfort from the pain.

I worked all the next day with it, and as the day went on the pain seemed to ease, probably due to the coldness of the water my hands were constantly in, then we were off ashore to land our catch, and as my hands dried out the pain returned with a vengeance.

After we landed and everything was ready for the next trip, I took myself up to the outpatients department at the local County Hospital where my finger was x-rayed only to be told that the x-ray showed nothing, and there was nothing they could do, but the throbbing in my finger told me otherwise.

It was a week later, at the end of the next trip, after getting little sleep through the pain from such a small spike, that I visited my own doctor, who on examining the source of my pain decided to freeze the whole finger and cut open the tip with a small scalpel.

By this stage I would have let him operate without freezing my finger, but he insisted, and after three injections he decided that my finger was numb enough to begin.

He started with small slices, working his way in, creating as neat a hole as I have ever seen, until I jumped, withdrawing my finger from his grasp as I felt the scalpel touch something.

The doctor poked away with a needle for a couple of seconds at the spot that had made me jump, then withdrawing it showed me the offending spike.
It was barely visible on the tip of the needle, but there it was, the smallest thing you could imagine, but none the less had caused me no amount of pain.

As it turned out, the small tip of the spike had lodged itself beside a nerve in my finger, which had caused the throbbing pain, and the relief was immediate as soon as the offending intruder was removed, even though my finger was still numb.

It was hard to imagine how such a small thing could cause so much pain and discomfort, and it brought to mind the story of the little boy who removed the thorn from a lion's foot, with the lion being so grateful he befriended and looked out for the little boy from then on in.

Well I can tell you,I now know how that lion felt, and that I felt the same way for the doctor who relieved me of my pain, although I did not go as far as looking out for him from then on in.
Someone who can carry out such a delicate operation with such skill and understanding of his patient needs no help from a lowly fisherman such as I, but he is still practising at the same surgery that I go to, and as long as I live I will always be grateful to him.

I carry a small scar on that finger, and it is a reminder that it does not need to be the big things in life that can give us the most problems, sometimes it's the smallest irritations that are the hardest to bear.

(The Wanderer was bigger than these punts seen in the top picture, as you all know, but I just thought I would show you a photo of a coaster.)
Any old excuse to show boats, now the whisky......just savour that too.






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