A Day in the Life of a Trawlerman




“Come on, watch ho, let’s be having you, no gash for you”.

The dreaded call out I awoke to, from the Deckhand who was due to go below after me.                  

After having just slept solidly for about five hours, I climbed wearily out of my bunk and fumbled my way into my moleskin trousers, shirt, jersey and hob socks, put my feet into my clumpers and passed the bathroom where I splashed my face with cold water then made my way to the Mess Room.


It was just 00:10 hours; the start of my next eighteen (18) hours on deck at 00:30 hours.

The Mess Room was empty, an indication that the crew were working on deck; the cold supper left out by the Cook had been ‘attacked’ with only half a tin of corned beef, some scraps of cheese, bread and cold fried fish being left. I was joined by my watch mate, John Day and we sat in silence with a cuppa while John smoked a cigarette and rolled a few more in preparation for the rest of his time on watch.


Our watch officer was the Mate, Arthur Coulson who was sat alone in the Officer’s Mess prior to taking over from the Skipper at 00:30 hours.  The 2nd Engineer, John Green and the Fireman, Paul Hunter, who were due on watch emerged from their berths at 00:25 hours and made their way to the Engine Room.


At the same time John and I made our way to the drying room, donned our oilskins and thigh boots and proceeded along the starboard side of the ship to the fore deck.  The trawl was down and the weather and sea were reasonable, but cold. Hundreds of seagulls swam in the ships wake, fighting each other to feed off the innards washed overboard from the deck where the crew were gutting. Awaiting us was the watch going off for their six hours below – Charlie Ball, Frank Swanson and Eddie Dixon; as soon as we climbed the aft deck boards they knocked out their gutting knives and made their way aft to the Galley before having a quick cuppa, a swill (wash) in the bathroom before going to their bunks.

There were about sixty baskets of fish still to be gutted, washed and sent down the Fish Room,

with around forty minutes to the next hauling time, so it should be cleared before we hauled ready for the next catch. There were six of us gutting as well as myself – Keith Elwood; my watch mate John Day; Dave Woolster; the Bosun, Chris Parker; Dennis Wright and Jack Little, with the Fish Room Man, Ray Pougher and Deckie Learner, Tommy Rawson down the Fish Room. As it was early morning there was very little conversation from those working except the usual grumbles voiced by cold tired men at the most unsociable time of day.

 (Note the fish washer and chute)


The only orders came from the Bridge with the Skipper, Les Dodgson complaining that some of the fish we were throwing back were big enough to save; a usual grumble from most Skippers.



The fish washer perched on its rails was sending down clean fish into the Fish Room with each movement of the ship as the continuous stream of water from the hose pipe (donkey) poured into the washer and propelled the fish around, finally sending them down the chute and through into the open Fish Room hatch.


I settled down in the aft inside pound and began gutting the remaining fish; mainly good sized cod with a sprinkling of haddock, some ling, tusk and monkfish.

Catfish were always kicked down from the forward pounds by the men working there as they would, given the chance, take hold of the heel of your sea boot and hang on grimly; it took some time for them to release their bite. 


When the last fish went down the Fish Room and the liver baskets were tipped into the hopper to be blown aft to the liver house, the deck pounds were washed down, causing hundreds of gulls to congregate to fight over the remains of the fish guts as they were swilled through the scuppers into the sea. The Mate shouted out the Bridge window that there was ten minutes to go until hauling time, just enough time to make a brew (mug of tea/coffee).


Right on time ten minutes later, the tannoy from the Bridge announced it was hauling time and as John Day and I were on watch, we downed the remains of our cuppa and went on deck. I went to the winch and John stood by aft at the towing block.


The Mate, Arthur Coulson, now in charge, began to bring the towed gear (warps) away from the ship’s side by altering course to starboard and then gave the order to ‘leggo aft’ at which point John released the warps from the towing block, allowing the individual warp to be hove in through their individual sheave attached to the gallows.


At the winch I had slipped the clutch on the portside cable drum ready to heave initially on the fore warp and, as the warps were let go from the towing block, I began to heave in a limited amount on the fore warp through the forward sheave.

The starboard cable drum was then engaged and both warps were then hauled in simultaneously. Each warp had a rope mark inserted within the strands of the wire to indicate each 25 fathom and, on this occasion we had been towing a total of 14 lengths equal to 350 fathom of warp attached to the individual otter boards (doors).

The winch man’s job during this process was to manually turn the guiding on gear to evenly spread the wire as it came on to the cable drum. Just prior to the final length of warp being hauled in, a warning mark of three rope insertions came clear of the water; at this point I slowed the winch down and, as the final length mark of two rope inserts came inboard, the Bosun, Charlie, who was now in charge on the deck,  took over.  

I went to man the aft gallows with John and in a very short period of time the aft otter boards emerged from the sea. The Bosun stopped the winch as the otter board (door) reached the sheave and John put the heavy duty restraining chain between the two towing brackets then hooked it up onto the gallows.


The Bosun at the winch then reversed the door down for it to rest on the chain and allowed the warp to be disconnected from the door by unclipping the G-Link.


The Bosun then took the weight again and the short independent wire linking the warp and the ground cable took the strain off the backstrop which was attached to the backside of the door. This process was then carried out at the forward gallows with Dave Woolster and Jack Little unclipping the G-Link from the fore door thereby disengaging both doors allowing the hauling process to continue.

The gear was now attached to the two ground cables which could be as short as 15 fathoms or 75 fathoms, depending on the type of seabed being fished or depending on the Skipper’s preference.


The Bosun then carried on heaving in the cables onto the cable drums until the large 24 inch diameter steel bobbins, Dan Lenos…..

emerged from the sea.  At this point the cable drums were disengaged as all the lifting/heaving would now be done using the whipping drums on either side of the winch.

The trawl net with numerous aluminium floats on the headline was now clear of the surface. The footrope, which consisted of 60 feet of steel and rubber spherical bobbins, and two sets of wing rubbers totalling 29 feet at each end, was then stretched the full length of the space between the forward and aft gallows. The main body of the trawl streamed out to windward of the ship and a medium haul of fish surged up breaking the sea surface and spread out inside the codend, the closed off end of the trawl, often referred to as ‘the money bag’.


The heavy footrope was brought inboard in one heave created by one wire which ran through an additional sheave on top of the fore gallows and an identical wire leading from another sheave on the aft gallows. The Deckhand at the starboard whipping drum began to heave on the wire which had been connected to links at the foot of the Dan Leno butterfly.

These links were spliced into the eye of the toe leg wire which was connected to the footrope and allowed the toe leg to be hove freely through a ‘kelly’s eye’ link until a heavy duty chain, secured to the gallows was hooked into the end of the footrope link.

The same procedure was carried out by the Deckhand, Ray Pougher on the portside whipping drum. This action caused the entire footrope of about 160 feet to become taut to the chain aft, thereby allowing it to drop inboard and be lowered to rest on the deck just inside the ship’s rail.


To bring the headline with the floats (sometimes as many 80) inboard, the Gilson hook on the end of a wire which ran through a block attached near the top of the main mast, was utilised to hook the forward headline leg which brought the whole length inboard in one heave.

The large net area of the trawl wings, square and belly is  brought inboard courtesy of the ‘lazy deckie’, a rope fitted around or to the selvedges of the bellies with a thin rope to the headline. The initial heave gathers the bulk of the net followed by a number of heaves until the fish are contained within the codend.


The Bosun directs this operation with a series of heaves being achieved via a wire running to the winch whipping drum through a block on the side/top of the Bridge wheelhouse; each heave bringing inboard around 15 to 20 feet of net each time. Once the fish are contained within the codend, the Gilson hook is again used. It was hooked into the wire leg of the wire/rope combination becket sited around the codend, allowing the codend to be transferred forward from where the larger heaving wire, the double sheaved tackle block, was used to bring the weight of the bag of fish inboard.


As the bag swung inboard the bag ropes, which are strong wires with wooden sleeves slotted on and attached through eyelets on the rigging, were then secured by a wire onto the side of the forward gallows. The bag ropes prevented the bag of fish from swinging right across the open fore deck thereby restraining the bag to the forward pounds, which allowed the Bosun to go beneath and release the codline knot thereby allowing the fish to spill out onto the deck. This haul resulted in approximately seventy baskets of good sized Cod with a just a few red fish (bergalts). 

At this time John Day and I had started repairing a small amount of net damage to the after top wing of the trawl. The Bosun joined us to speed up the work while the Deckie Learner, Tommy supplied the braiding needles of twine, and replenished the needles as they were used. Whilst hauling, the wind began to blow stronger creating a swell and a slightly rougher sea, about Force 4 to 5

After fifteen minutes we were ready for shooting the gear again. The codends were hove outboard using the wire from the fore derrick which was positioned at right angles to the main fore mast. It was used whenever something needed to be hove out over the ship’s rail and released into the sea by quickly slacking off the derrick wire and tripping the hook by pulling on its rope tag line.

With the change in weather the codends and belly part of the trawl quickly drifted clear of the starboard side ready for putting the heavy footrope and the headline back outboard.

The process used during hauling was reversed and the bobbins were put over the side and lowered via the toe leg wire until they were fully lowered and their weight was taken up by the Dan Lenos. The headline with the floats was pulled over by the action of the sea and floated in a long bight on the surface above the footrope.

At this stage the Mate gave the order from the Bridge to lower the Dan Lenos and the cables until the independent wires with the keep reached the backstrop thereby allowing the G-Link to be clipped up and the weight transferred to the otter board. The Bosun at the winch took the weight of the door off the preventor chain and John Day unhooked it and pulled the chain free of the door brackets. During this time the gear had streamed away from the ship’s side due to the wind and sea.

The Mate began manoeuvring the ship to shoot the gear and, at half speed with the helm over to starboard, began a large sweep around to fully open the trawl and spread the Dan Lenos. He then gave the order for the otter boards to be let go and stopped the engine until the warps were run out to the first length, then held.

The next part of the manoeuvre was carried out by the Mate. Having decided which direction he wished to do his next tow on, he brought the ship round to starboard at speed until he reached the compass heading he wished to steer; he then began to steer that course going full ahead and, as the aft warp came alongside the aft rail he then shouted orders for the two men at the winch cable drums to begin paying out the required length of warp – in this case 16 lengths, 400 fathom 2400 ft.

The wire streamed out at speed from the cable drums with Dave Woolster on the aft starboard side and the Bosun on the forward port side. The speed at which the warps ran out was controlled by Feroda (asbestos type material) brakes attached around each cable drum operated by the two men at the winch. When  there was one length left to run out, the Bosun banged on the cable drum to indicate the fact to the Bridge; the Mate reduced to slow speed to allow the warps to be blocked up together in the towing block aft.

The process of blocking up was achieved by the use of a messenger wire which ran from the starboard whipping drum through a number of sheaves fixed on the casing of the aft accommodation. It then went through the sheave aft of the towing block and then all the way to forward ensuring it was outboard of all obstructions. On the forward end of the messenger wire was a hook which, when given the order from the bridge, was hooked onto the forward warp then released to slide down the warp; at the same time, the two men at the towing block pulled rapidly on the slack messenger wire until the slack and weight was taken up at the whipping drum by the man working the wire. Once the messenger hook had the weight on it, the man at the winch continued to heave it in and, in doing so picked up the aft warp as it was pulled towards and into the towing block.

The messenger was stopped once the two warps were tight up to the block and the man at the block operated the locking mechanism thereby securing both warps together. Once this was done the man at the whipping drum working the messenger wire was ordered to release the wire and the warps were safely contained within the towing block. This allowed the vessel to be manoeuvred while following the tow that the Mate on the Bridge wished for. After a very short pause the Mate, after assuring himself that the gear was on the bottom correctly with both warps cutting the water evenly about 12 to 14 inches apart, informed the Engine Room, via the Bridge telegraph and they set a mutually agreed speed at which the gear was to be towed. The number of engine revolutions used was dependent on the Skipper’s preference and differed from ship to ship.


With the fishing gear now being towed again, all hands began the process of gutting and cleaning the catch once more. From commencing hauling to the completion of shooting of the gear again, due to the short delay for mending the net, the time taken was around one hour. As the last haul contained about seventy baskets of good sized fish we should be clear on deck again after 90 minutes so if we towed three hours as in previous tows we would have a good hour of rest which meant that if you were not on watch, which unfortunately John Day and I were, you could have a short nap.

After clearing the deck we could now enjoy a cuppa and a cold fish sandwich, which most fishermen were used to. Those men not on watch slipped away to their bunk leaving just John and I to keep watch on the gear being towed in case either of the warps pulled out making the gear tow unevenly. This often happened especially if the area being fished was rough ground with obstacles and quite often an extremely muddy seabed where the otter boards might dig into.

The main thing we had to be alert to was if the gear became ‘fast’ to a major obstacle, such as a wreck which would probably stop the vessel’s movement through the water and the warps to be dragged out. Sometimes these ‘fasteners’ could cause one warp to break or, in really bad circumstances both to break whereby the whole set of gear would be lost.  This type of incident would be expensive and time consuming as a whole new set of otter boards, Dan Lenos, footrope and trawl net would need to be assembled. This operation, depending on the proficiency of the crew, could take as quick as three hours or as long as six or seven hours.

The rest of the tow passed without incident and we were made aware of the fact that it was hauling time once again by the Bridge ringing down to the Engine Room indicating that the Mate was ready to haul the gear again. We quickly roused the sleeping men and then John went to stand by the winch and I stood by the towing block ready to release the warps when instructed from the Bridge. If things went according to plan we should be hauled and shot again by breakfast. This time the whole process went smoothly and resulted in another slightly larger catch of approximately ninety baskets, again mainly cod.

The three crewmen due to go below next stayed gutting while the other two watches went to the Mess Room for the first sitting of breakfast; this included John and I.

The food served up was porridge, fried eggs and beans, freshly baked bread and the usual fried fish. Large mugs of hot tea and or/coffee was also served by the Galley Boy who brought the food from the Galley to the tables via a serving hatch through the Mess Room bulkhead. His role at all meal times meant he was in attendance and cleared and washed all the utensils after each meal. The oncoming Engine Room staff – the Chief Engineer, Sid Porter was eating in the Officer’s Mess and the Fireman, Wally Simms was in with the crew.

The oncoming watch of the Third Hand, Charlie and his watch mates, Frank and Eddie sat with bleary eyes after their six hours off.  They all tucked into the breakfast food as their last proper meal had been at 18:00 hours the previous day, with only the cold supper table to keep them going. At 06:25 everyone finished their cuppa and prepared to go on deck or, in the case of the Engineers, to the Engine Room.The Deckhands arrived on deck to continue gutting and those going off watch – the Bosun, Chris Parker, Deck hand, Dennis Wright and the Deckie Learner, Tommy Rowson trudged their way aft to the drying room to get out of their oilskins and seaboots before entering the Mess Room for their food, followed by a quick wash and then the comfort of their beds for five hours.


Back on the deck now was the full complement of six men gutting as quickly as they could in order to clear the deck before the next haul. With still about thirty baskets of fish to gut, the warps started to pull out with the brakes screeching in protest. The Skipper, who was now back from his watch below shouted down that we had snagged a fastening. He stopped the engines and gave an instruction to haul the gear. The men cleared from the pounds and the warps were released from the towing block; the winch man began heaving in, initially at speed as the slack warp was taken up and then much slower as the weight was taken up by being fast to the seabed or obstruction. The Skipper was manoeuvring the ship while the gear was been hove on and suddenly the gear became clear of the fastening and the winch speed increased. The hauling then took its normal routine and soon the otter boards were in the gallows and disengaged. The winding in of the ground cables went on without a hitch and the Dan Lenos were hove up to the gallows sheaves. As the gear had been down for more than two hours, a bag of fish was expected to float to the surface but did not materialise.

Once the footrope and headline was hove on board it became apparent why. The belly section of the trawl net was badly damaged with a large part of it missing which meant that any fish captured had swam out of the damaged area while hauling. In the codend was about twenty baskets of fish which had obviously found their way down to the codend prior to us coming fast and the damage being done. Once all the net was inboard the Mate, who was now in charge on deck started the process of examining the damage and arrived at the conclusion that a new belly section needed to be put in.

He shouted up to the Bridge to tell the Skipper, who told him to go ahead and to get a move on. In order to save time the badly damaged section was cut across on the joining mesh from the lengtheners, a double mesh section attached to the codend and slashed down both the selvedges. To do this repair properly it would have meant opening up the selvedges and stripping the strengthening belly lines which were laced down each selvedge. The belly could be put in properly if/when time allowed. The repair was completed in around forty five minutes and the shooting process was carried out in another fifteen minutes. This setback meant that about two and three quarter hours work had resulted in a catch of only twenty baskets of fish. Once the gear was down again we set about gutting the fish left from the previous haul and the latest catch of twenty baskets.  The decks were cleared and the fifty baskets or so we had processed were now in the Fish Room being laid out by the Fish Room Man. The remnants of the belly net was checked and trimmed, to use if we experienced damage again which might require some net to be replaced.

A welcome relief at mid morning was when the ‘busters’ baked by the Cook were ready and, with a cuppa we settled down to a get together in the Mess Room with the usual chat about the horserace of the day. As a recreation, the Wireless Operator would bring the runners of a particular race taking place that day. The Skipper would act as the Bookmaker and stand the bets which had a very sensible limit so no one could lose too much. This activity gave a everyone an interest, especially if the race was a big event such as the Derby or Grand National. In the Mess Room there was usually a ‘timeform’ book which gave past information on horses form. To some of the crew it was their Bible. Some of the crew drifted away for a rest until the next hauling time which was due before dinner, which was normally held between 12 noon and 1.00pm consisting of the first sitting at 12 to 12:30pm, and the second at 12:30pm to 1.00pm.

Dinner was usually a three course meal – soup, main course and a sweet, often a ‘treacle duff‘. The most popular main course was meat and vegetables. This meal was always the busiest for the Cook and his assistant. Not only was it a large menu but change of watch both of deck crew, Engine Room staff and the Wireless Operator were present. The Skipper also came down, being relieved by the Mate, but many a Skipper had his meal taken onto the Bridge. 

Then it was back on deck to get as much of the catch cleaned, washed and put away as possible, but it may take longer than we have time for before hauling again. The Deckhands were very quick at gutting and made good inroads into the three hundred baskets mainly because they were all good sized cod, but in view of the good fishing, the Skipper decided to only tow for two hours which left best part of one hundred baskets on deck. The shortened tow realized another hundred and twenty baskets meaning that the amount to clear was now two hundred plus baskets which we quickly got into with a need to clear the deck before we hauled again. In order to clear teatime the Skipper gave instructions that we would haul again at 17:15 hours with the intention of the gear being being shot away again by 18:00 hours allowing us to get tea on time.


                                                 CREW GUTTING, CLEANING and WASHING THE FISH
                                                                  Note the fish in the washer


The crew achieved this, speedily getting the gear up and the bag of fish; seventy baskets onboard and we had the gear down and the warps blocked up with five minutes to spare. As my watch was due watch below at 18:30 hours we stayed on deck making a start of the fish; our watch Officer, the Mate, took over on the Bridge while the Skipper went down for his meal. John Day and I stood gutting and chatting in a good mood at the end of a weary day with the odd physical condition known as the ‘dippy giggle‘ setting in, but with the prospect of a meal and six hours off to look forward to.

At 18:30 hours the rest of the crew returned and we made our way to the drying room to get out of our wet gear.

On entering the Mess Room the lovely smell of a ‘pan of shackles’ met us. For people who worked ashore, this dish was simply a really good wholesome meal of beef stew. This offering was a common one that Cooks made as it was reasonably easy to prepare and always went down well with most of the crew.

After a quick cuppa I made my way to my berth via the bathroom for a quick wash then to my bed. Fishermen in general slept only in their underwear which meant that in order to keep warm during their time below they had heavy duty blankets on their bed, some even had quilted covers, like today’s duvets. After eighteen hours on deck the type of bedclothes were of little consequence. Sleep came very quickly once the light was turned off!