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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