True Trawler Tales by Catfoss Mick

"I have been asked to tell of the many things I have seen and done during my many years as a deep sea fisherman."

"I know of and have seen countless tragic accidents and deaths on board ships but I don't wish to dwell on the tragic side of what was a very hard but fair and noble way of life. I have a lot of real life events of the more hilarious side of deep sea fishing to share. If there was one thing us fishermen had in abundance it was a sense of fun and laughter. Believe you me you needed it once you were past 61 degrees North"


Norbert (The Stilson) Roebottom
Norbert was a one off. He had been a Sapper during the war and had a love of engineering and engines. But engineering and engines didn’t love him. Just about every ship he served on came back to port with more spare bits, mainly nuts, bolts and engine parts, than it went away with. He couldn’t help tinkering with some parts of the engine or anything else onboard shipNorbert (The Stilson)
His favourite saying was if it’s not working attack it with a stilson. He had a full range of stilsons ranging from one inch to two foot. He was as blind as a bat and walked with a permanent starboard list because one leg was shorter than the other. The crew used to joke he got his chief engineers ticket for being refused an audition for the Muppet show. I thought this most unkind, after all he was a Yorkshire man through and through. He came from the village of Wetwang! it really does exist. Take a look
Anyway Norbert had been tinkering with a part of the engine situated near the propshaft. The part he was working on was the governor and he knew that if he opened it out he could get more speed from the ship. This was excellent news for the skipper as it meant we could get to and from the fishing grounds faster and that meant more time for fishing. Also good news for the crew because we could get home earlier. Well Norbert was the toast of the mess deck, good old Norbert this and good old Norbert that. 
Now the speed a trawler would trawl at was normally between three and a half to four knots. While we were fishing everything felt normal but I noticed as we had out-fished one ground and started at full speed for another the ship started rattling a bit. The skipper was getting a bit concerned about this and called Norbert onto the bridge. Norbert assured him by saying “You do your job and I’ll do mine. I am the chief engineer aboard this ship and I know what my engines can do and as for the rattling that’s just a bit of speed wobble”
After good fishing on the grand banks of Newfoundland we headed for home and as the ship got to full speed, I don’t know about a speed wobble, but you could lie in your bunk and feel everything shaking. Other things were happening as well. The mess tables were vibrating so much you couldn’t eat your meals off them. You had to hold your plate on your lap to get your fodder down you although old Billy Braithwaite said it was doing wonders for his circulation
Other things started happening in the engine room. Bits were falling off the fiddley top (railing across the top of the engine room) In fact even the galley stove, much to Norberts credit, rattled so much that for the first time since the boat was built everything the cook put in the oven was evenly cooked. No more half brown chips. 
Onwards we went on what should have been a five day steam; we did in four and a half days. We also got an extra two weeks shore leave as it took that long to put all the bits that fell off various parts of the boat back on again
As for Norbert he got demoted to second engineer and as far as I know the new chief engineer welded up Norbert’s stilson tool box


Grimly Fiendish

Every deep sea trawler for some reason would end up with a very 'spiky person'. One of those annoying people that thought they knew every rule in the book. Usually a Union man. We called them mess deck lawyers. Most were just plain daft but some like Grimly thought it was their vocation to change the fishing industry. I was told when he was on shore leave he would stand on a fish box at St Andrews dock telling the fish workers that just because they got free fish and the occasional crab to take home didn't mean they had a better job than a television repair man (Why he said that I just don't know) Anyway he was sailing with us and it was my first trip as a mate I was called onto the bridge by the skipper who told me Grimly could be a pain in the butt, however he was a good worker and if his mouth started flapping just threaten him with the sack

I used to go and sit in the mess deck with the lads when I was off watch and some of the things Grimly used to come out with I found quite alarming like his union rule (Which was in the log book) One hand for yourself and one for the job and one eye on the weather and one on what you were doing. I envisaged an ambidextrous deckie with boss eyes playing silly games whilst trying to mend a torn net. Mind you he did know his board of trade rules on how an officer can and cannot address a lower rank, when the crew were entitled to work to rule and all the other human rights crap that if you followed there would be no point in being at sea as you wouldn't catch any fish and the fishing firm you worked for would go bust. End result no job and no money

None of the crew really took any notice of him. He was more or less regarded as entertainment on days when the fishing was slack and the crew spent more time in the mess deck spinning yarns. On one occasion he did try to come the clever fella with me. On deep sea trawlers you carry seven officers skipper, mate, bosun, chief engineer, second engineer, radio operator and cook then two greasers (engineers) one deckie learner, one galley boy, one third hand, one fourth hand, eight spare hands and one deckhand

We were half way through the trip and we had a really keen deckie learner aboard. He could do most jobs on deck as well as any of the spare hands (A spare hand on a trawler is another name for an Able-seaman) The for'd mast navigation light had packed in so just for the experience and with a safety harness I asked the deckie learner if he would like to climb up the mast and put the new light in. But who had to butt in but Grimly "That's not his job" he said "You can't send him up there and if you do I want it put in the log book" I said you're right, you're very very right but I do know who's official job it is. It's the man who signed on as a deckie learner and as I recall that's you" Now what I didn't know was our Grimly didn't like heights. He said "yes but you can get a spare hand to do it" I said "well I'm ordering you to do it gobby" That's when he stamped his feet, got himself into a real frenzy and then came out with the most stupid thing ever I had heard. "Alright" he said "you can order me up there and I will go up but you can't make me put the navigation light in".....


Snecklifter and the Sump

Now Snecklifter and the Sump were your archetypical deep sea fishermen born in a one up two down, walk in foc'sle with a kipper box for a cradle. They grew up with a liking for drink and hard work. However I have to start this tale near the end so you can make sense of it all

We were steaming towards the north cape of Iceland having set off from Hull. That's a four day steam. It was on the third day when I was on the wheel when I noticed the compass getting sluggish. In fact it was beginning to freeze up and I though how can this happen. You see a compass is filled with alcohol to prevent that happening. In come Snecklifter and Sump apparently both of them had gone onto the bridge about an hour before we had left the river Humber.

Snecklifter and Sump were begging the skipper to break out the bond as we set sail and long before we got past sixty-one degrees north (legal limit for bond) because they both had the horrors due to a lack of alcohol. The skipper refused and told them they would feel better after taking a couple of watches and the effects of their need for drink were wearing off.

They did start feeling better after the first watch. They had drained the compass and filled it with water. Do you know I thought something was amiss when I sat between them on the mess deck. It was a smell like essence of giraffe combined with the pungent odour of dung beetle. It put me off my dinner so it did.

Anyway the skipper gathered all the crew in the officers cabin (posh mess deck) and demanded to know who spiked the compass. Of course those two flatly denied having anything to do with it. In fact the Sump said "you know you get a lot of alcoholics breaking into ships and drinking the alcohol out of the compass" The skipper said "I think you've lost your sense of direction. I think it was you and your pal Snecklifter, however I can't prove it, so we will leave it at that for now so get on with catching some fish"

The trip went by and soon it was time to head for home. On the return trip Snecklifter and Sump were put on day watch (working on the deck) and not allowed anywhere near the bridge. The reason being the only alcohol the skipper had to fill the compass was a bottle and a half of Gordon's Gin out of the bond. When we got back to Hull the Skipper had to report the incident to the Board of Trade who sent a compass adjuster to sort things out.

Later while I stood outside the settling office (that's where you get your pay) I met the skipper who said "you were on the bridge when I filled the compass with gin" I said "yes" and he said "according to the compass adjuster it was filled with water again and I think he said that because he's taken the gin home with him. You can't trust anyone these days Mick and that's a fact" I thought how right you are. You shouldn't have trusted me and my pal Willie the Kilt' while we were on watch coming home!


Flex - The Christmas Cracker

Christmas time was always a nightmare for the ships runners. They were the men whose job it was to crew the ships. Each deep sea trawler had to have a compliment of twenty-one men before it could sail, and come Christmas a lot of men would sign off the log book to be home for that one time of year. Now the days of deep sea fishing I'm about to tell you of were before we had a seaman's book which told who you were, what you were and where and how long you had been at sea

When Christmas came in those days the ships runner would sign just about anyone on in order to get the ship away. We regulars used to call these christmas people 'Christmas Crackers' and I will tell you we did get some odd ones. I can mind one christmas when we ended up with three French trawlermen who couldn't speak a word of English. That was fun, however one time a new crewman, Flex, joined us and was something else. His real name was Henry he said he had sailed out of Grimsby a lot and it was his first trip out of Hull. But we knew after the first few days when he was violently sea sick that he had never been to sea at all. So when we got to the fishing grounds (SE Iceland) we promoted the Deckie learner to proper Deckie so he could do the job Flex was supposed to do

We put Henry down to the fishroom doing one of the worst jobs aboard (and the only one he was fit for) chopping and crushing ice. Every so often we were slack fishing and would have time to sit in the messdeck and spin a few yarns over a mug of tea and a smoke and Henry was most entertaining. And adding to the fact that he was short tongued he told us how he first came to Hull and got lost looking for the city square. Apparently he pulled up a policewoman in desperation after wandering around for about four hours and said "excuse me is that titty square"? and she said " No it's me notebook" anyhow we all got talking about prison and Henry said "I've been to prison" I asked him what for and he said he tried to strangle his orrible wife with the cord of the electric iron while she was ironing and burning holes in his shirt. From then on he was called Flex

He liked being called Flex as it made him feel like one of the boys. We had been at sea for about ten days and we had been taking the mickey out of him summat rotten (not in a bad way) It's just that we found him so ridiculous. Well suddenly things changed. We went on deck to haul the gear in and when we got it aboard the skipper said "Stow the gear, we're going home" I thought what's going on because we were only half way through the trip

Apparently the office in Hull had a link call with the skipper and told him that Flex was highly dangerous and he was out of prison and on licence and supervision. The ships runner wasn't the flavour of the month after that I can tell you. It's a three day steam from Iceland and we made it in two and a half days and Flex must have had the best two and a half days of his life. The cook, who got terrified after hearing the news of how dangerous Flex was, started baking fancy cakes for him. Me and my pal 'Jock the Bolt' nicked a couple of the cakes and ended up walking along the deck like a couple of punch drunk earwigs. We didn't know the skipper had told the cook to put crushed up diazapan in the cakes Now I don't know how much diazapan had been taken out of the ships medicine chest to put in the cakes but when we got alongside St Andrews Dock quay we had to winch Flex ashore. I don't know what happened to Flex after that but what I do know is when the ships runner was pulled up as to why he signed on a complete nutter his excuse was "Well he looked like a proper fisherman, after all he did have an anchor tattooed on his arm!"


Harry The Carrot

Now deep sea trawler cooks are a rare breed and none were rarer than Harry the Carrot. He could do things with carrots that you've never seen, carrot cake, carrot soup, carrot on a stick dipped in toffee, crispy carrots in batter. His list of carrot recipes was astounding. 

But it wasn't carrots that kept him in a job aboard our ship, it was his bread. A deep sea trawler cook had to bake ten loaves a day. You needed lots of bread for snacking to keep you going between meals especially when heavy fishing. When the fish were on you were on deck for eighteen hours, apart from three half hour meal times a day, for up to twelve or fourteen days.

Anyway, when Harry was starting to make his bread he would lock the galley door and block the galley serving hatch. He said he did this because he had a phobia about people watching him knead the bread mix. .Now everyone knows the secret of good bread is in the kneading so no-one ever disturbed him because his bread really was a treat.

The first half of the trip was going well and suddenly as happens, the fish took off so the skipper decided to steam for a day to another fishing ground. We had been steaming for about twenty hours when I was called out for a duty watch. I was on the Mates watch which is nearly always the last watch before we get to where we are going.

About an hour before we got to the position the skipper gave us, we called him out. Now when you call the skipper out you always bring him a mug of tea and a sandwich. Anyway the skipper was on the bridge I came up from the galley and gave him his mug of tea and a sandwich. He sipped on his tea and took a bite out of his sandwich and said "What the sh**s this" He had found a Marks & Spencer label in the bread. Now one thing led to another and he said now one of you go and see what goes on with Harry when he locks himself in the galley to make the bread.

The following day me and 'Jock the Bolt' hid in the pantry. We heard the galley door being bolted and the serving hatch being blocked up and then really loud music. We opened the pantry door and there was Harry kneading the dough in the bread bin with his feet to the tune of the sabre dance.

We told the skipper what we had seen and the skipper called Harry onto the bridge and asked him what he was playing at and why did he find a Marks & Spencer label in his sandwich. "Well" said Harry "I have dermatitis in me hands so I knead the dough with me feet and I'll have you know I wash them thoroughly." The skipper asked about the Marks & Spencer's label. "Aye" said Harry "Well that's a lot to do with you innit." "How do you mean" said the skipper "Well" said Harry "I not only wash me feet I also put on a clean pair of socks every time I knead the bread and if you pull your finger out and we start making some money out of this rust bucket it would be a Harrods sock label you would be pulling out of your mouth instead of a Marks & Spencer one!"


Eiderclown Ernie

Now. I am sure that some of you out there have been late for work, missed the bus, stuck in a traffic jam. etc., so you would think that someone who (eats, sleeps, drinks and lives at work, could never be late for work. However, you would be wrong.

On Trawlers if you are late to relieve someone on watch or on the deck late for hauling time (That's pulling the trawl aboard). It's called missing the boat and nobody missed the boat more than Ernie. Now, when we got to the fishing grounds we would have all hands on deck, shoot the trawl, and then report to the mess deck.

The mate would go on the bridge and sort out the watch's with the skipper. The fishing watch's consisted of four to six hour watch's, the mates, the Bosuns, the third hand, fourth hand, Three to take the watch for the first six hours of an eighteen hour day. If this is confusing you, you can imagine what it did to Ernie, who had the brain capacity of monotheem or maybe an Aardvark. Anyway the ship we were sailing on was a good earner. We were averaging fifteen to eighteen thousand pounds, per twenty day trip, and that was forty years ago. Our share out of that plus wages (you got wages deep sea as well as a share) made for a high old time for our three days shore leave, I can tell you.

We all liked Ernie and although it was only minutes that he was missing being on the job. The skipper was noticing his timing despite our efforts to cover up for him and bad time keeping means only one thing at sea, when the ship gets home you get the tick tack, (sack) we didn't want Ernie to get the sack, so we thought of ways of getting him out of his bunk on time for watch, we tried calling him out half an hour before watch and we poked him, we threw mugs of cold water on his 'ead, we pulled his blankets off, we even stood alongside his bunk with a hand held klaxton (fog horn) but to no avail.

It got so bad that the crew had a sweep (bet) valued at twenty pounds for the firstman who could get Ernieout of his bunk on time. Someone suggested tieing a mattress on his back then we wouldn't need to get into his bunk in the first place, although a crewman said, lets tie one of his legs with a long piece of thin rope from his bunk up onto the deck and then attach it to the trawl warp, so when we start hauling the gear, he will be on the deck before any of us; but we all agreed the first one was a bit dangerous in case he fell overboard, and the second idea was a bit course even for rough buggers like us.

Anyway to cut a long story short it was the deckie learner who won the twenty pounds, he just stood up in from of us and said I'll get him up on time for the rest of the trip, and he did, in fact Ernie was on watch and on the deck five minutes before he was supposed to be, Ernie impressed the skipper so much he even started to call good time keeping (doing an Ernie) on the way home. So we all gathered on the mess deck and asked the deckie learner how he did it, he said "Well I would unscrew Ernie's bunk light out and stick his finger in the socket and turn it on". I said "That must have hurt" and he said "No not a bit of it, I was wearing rubber gloves!"

By Liam Sparke (October 2013).




He was called Bullwinkle because he had two thick tufts of hair hanging on each side of 'is 'ead and nowt else. He was tall and gangly with a squat nose. In short, he resembled the cartoon character of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. He was also our Bosun but I never knew his real name. Anyway we were trawling south side of Bear Island when the skipper called down over the tannoy to haul in the gear smart like. As we hauled in the doors (otterboards) they came up first and they were covered in trammel net. The skipper shouted from the bridge to chop 'em away as fast as we could. We cleared the net away and got the rest of the gear aboard. We started steering away from where we were at a good rate of knots. When everything was done foread, fish put away and decks cleaned etc I looked aft and saw a small ship on the horizon. We did not take it to be of any significance to events

We were all sat in the mess deck as you do when you come off the deck for a cup of tea and a smoke and to await next orders from the Mate as he always goes straight to the bridge to see what the Skipper wants us to do next. After about an hour the Mate came into the mess deck and asked if anyone could speak Norwegian. We all looked at him and shrugged our shoulders. Meanwhile the ship I had seen earlier was catching up with us and it turned out to be that it was his trammel nets we had chopped to bits as the skipper had accidentally towed through them (so he said) Well things got frantic for our skipper

After about two more hours he came rushing down into the mess deck and said "We've got a mad Norwegian on our stern and I think he's daft enough to try to ram us. Are you sure none of you can't speak a bit of Norweigan? There's a bottle of rum in it. Bullwinkle's ears pricked up and he said "Well I can speak a little bit of it. My wife's brother married a Norwegian lass and I did pick up a bit of the lingo from her. Bullwinkle didn't trust the skipper and said "I know you, having sailed with you for the last two years. It's like the case of beer you promised us out the bond last trip if we could finish that busted trawl within three hours. We did but we never got the case of beer. So give us the bottle of rum now and I will go on the bridge and sort the mess out that you got your'sel into"

The skipper went to the bond locker and came back with a bottle of bonded rum plonked it on the mess deck table and said "Happy now dog breath". Bullwinkle opened it up and guzzled nearly half of it in one go, then gave the rest of it to those that still sat in the mess deck

Now when he got on the bridge you could hear the Scrob ranting and raving on the VHF. The skipper said "it's been like that for the last half hour. No good me answering it I can't speak bloody Norwegian. So get on with it and find out what he wants." Bullwinkle grabbed the phone and says "Wahtee you wantee?" The skipper looked at him, aghast at the situation and said "I could have done better than that you rum robbin b*****d." To which Bullwinkle replied "Well I told you I only knew a bit" The skipper says "but that wasn't even Norwegian" Well, said Bullwinkle, "that's the way my sister in law speaks, mind you she has lived in Hull for a long time" 

Note 1 A tremmel net is a three layer mesh net, very expensive too

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