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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