Deep sea fishing – the most dangerous of jobs
The business of deep sea fishing was a brutal and uncompromising way of earning a living and was recognised as the most dangerous of jobs. These dangers were also evident in the running of a financial business that relied heavily on day to day supply and demand.
Trawlers often brought a catch to market with the crew having optimistic views on how much their hard earned work would profit them….. only for an excess amount of fish being landed or a poor demand by the processors to dash their hopes. These circumstances not only affected the crew but the cost of sending a vessel to sea for three weeks or more, fully loaded with the necessary fuel and equipment, was an expensive outlay which often resulted in both crew and owner settling in debt.
However, the heartbreaking situation of working for three weeks without remuneration was nothing compared to the dangers encountered on vessels regularly plying their trade in the Arctic which geographically almost always presented an environment fraught with inherent danger.
Gale and storm force winds, coupled with sub-zero temperatures led to extreme icing up conditions which were frequently encountered during the winter months. Accidents, sometimes life changing injuries to crew, were normal. Weather conditions made operational activities many times more dangerous and could result in loss of life caused by crew members being crushed, caught by wires, ropes parting under strain, and the washing of a man overboard inevitably led to loss of life. The tragedies which could overcome a vessel and crew, more often than not, were down to circumstances and weather conditions over which there was very little control.
With vessels experiencing gale, storm and, on occasions, hurricane force winds combined with severe icing up, the ship’s superstructure collected additional top weight which could quickly affect the vessel’s stability leading to it capsizing with catastrophic consequences. Hull suffered many such incidents over the years when vessels sank and all hands on board perished.
However, there were times when decisions, made by the Skipper to continue fishing in extreme weather conditions, led to accidents, loss of life and, in some cases, loss of the vessel. Trawler owners were hard taskmasters and expected their Skippers to combat and overcome conditions and circumstances that were obstacles to success.
The True Cost of Fish
It is a nationally accepted fact that the deep sea fishing industry is the most dangerous of occupations and over the years the Port City of Kingston upon Hull has experienced more than most, with the loss of hundreds of ships and thousands of men throughout its 150 years as a major fishing port. In 1883 Hull and its newly opened St. Andrews Dock was home to 420 fishing smacks and in the same year, during the ‘Great Storm’ in the North Sea, 47 vessels with their crews of 260 men were lost, with 27 of the vessels being from Hull.
Over the years the list of disasters and loss of life increased even though there were many changes to design and safety. Many of the incidents happened during the period 1940s to 1970s, some of which were due to war time activity but most were the result of the appalling weather conditions in the Arctic regions, which were the main areas in which the fleet operated. Post WW2 Hull’s fleet suffered a number of major disasters in which vessels were lost with all hands. Some losses were down to extreme meteorological conditions, whilst others resulted from grounding, collision and, in some cases, fire onboard.
On 4th Oct 1952 the ‘Norman’ was lost off Cape Farewell, the southern tip of Greenland, when stranding in poor visibility on what was later named ‘Norman Rock’. A contributory factor to this accident may have been due to allegations that the charts carried by the vessel were not up to date. Nineteen crewmen lost their lives with only a young deckie learner, Norman Spencer surviving after he had swam onto a nearby rock, from where he was rescued by a German vessel (Poseidon).
Lorella H455 and Roderigo H135
On the 26th January 1955 two Hull vessels the ‘Lorella’ and the ‘Roderigo’, whilst fishing off the North Cape of Iceland, were lost with all hands (40 men/boys) being overwhelmed after battling for three days against storm force winds and severe icing conditions; both vessels capsized within two and a half hours of each other, 90 miles off the North Cape. There were no survivors.
Staxton Wyke H479
In August 1959 the ‘Staxton Wyke’ was lost after collision with a Newcastle ore-carrier ‘Dalhanna’ in the North Sea, with five of the crew being lost.
St. Finbarr H308
On the 25th December 1966 (Christmas Day) the freezer trawler, ‘St. Finbarr’ was consumed by fire and an explosion whilst fishing off the coast of Labrador; this led to the loss of 12 crewmen. The Wireless Operator was sadly lost during his transfer to the rescue vessel, the Hull trawler ‘Orsino’ which rescued 13 survivors and took the ‘ St. Finbarr’ in tow. Due to bad weather, the vessel sank on the 27th December whilst under tow.
Triple Trawler Tragedy
In early 1968, over a short period of twenty five days, Hull’s fishing community was devastated by the loss of 58 men, with only one crewman saved when three vessels were lost.
St. Romanus H233
The first loss, estimated to be on the 11th January 1968, was the ‘St. Romanus’ H223 whilst on route to the Norwegian Coast fishing grounds. It is believed the vessel foundered in storm force conditions approximately 90 miles into its passage from Hull to Norway. There were no survivors, 20 crewmen were lost.
Kingston Peridot H591
Off Iceland sometime on the 26/27th January 1968, the Hull vessel ‘Kingston Peridot’ H591 was lost in extreme weather consisting of storm force winds and severe icing conditions. The vessel’s last communication to another Hull vessel indicated that the Skipper was experiencing difficulty in establishing an accurate location. A mayday was sent from the vessel stating they were badly and dangerously iced up . It has been suggested that the ‘Peridot’ may even have grounded and been lost as a result. The position of this loss is listed as NW of Tjornegrunn. This mainland area was recognised for its poor radar reception, which may have been a contributory factor.
Ross Cleveland H61
On the 4th Feb 1968 the fishing fleet, including Icelandic vessels, were exposed to one of the worst storms in history off the North Cape of Iceland with all vessels seeking shelter in anchorages. One popular place of shelter was Isafjordur and a number of ships were anchored there on 4th Feb in conditions that could only be described as horrendous, with hurricane force winds and extreme temperatures causing severe icing up. In spite of the fact the sheltered area offered some protection, many vessels were fighting to hold their safe position by heading into the weather at full speed. The Hull trawler, ‘Ross Cleveland’ H61 was attempting to make a safer position within the anchorage area and was manoeuvring in very poor visibility. During this manoeuvre, the vessel already heavy with ice on the superstructure heeled over badly and in minutes capsized.
Of the nineteen crew onboard two (2) men managed to free a liferaft and cleared the sinking vessel. The Mate, Harry Eddom who was dressed in full waterproof clothing, due to the fact prior to the capsizing he had tried to clear ice from the radar scanner, was helped from the water by the two men. The two men who rescued him were not dressed in any way to combat the Arctic conditions of the situation and, although gained some protection in the confines of the liferaft, succumbed to hypothermia and died within a very short period of time due to their lack of protective clothing.
The liferaft with Harry Eddom and the bodies of his two shipmates was driven ashore and the Mate managed to get onto the rocky landmass where he climbed up the side of what was a very steep cliff and miraculously found shelter behind a wooden hut where he crouched throughout the night. Later the following morning a young Icelandic boy found him and notified his father; together they managed to get him to their home. The loss of the ‘Ross Cleveland’ was made public to the world as being lost with all hands. Only when the Icelandic family, who rescued the Mate, contacted the authorities were his family aware of his amazing survival.
It was thought that his ability to cope with the horrific conditions was down to him being fully clothed including his waterproof oilskin suit and his robust healthy constitution, plus the fact that he adopted the foetus position throughout the night as he sheltered behind the hut. Harry Eddom was back at sea three weeks after the loss of the ‘Ross Cleveland’. With the demise of the fishing industry, Harry like a number of Hull ex-trawlermen, went off to the Middle East and served as Skipper of a diving vessel servicing oil support vessels/rigs on the East coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.
The ‘Ross Cleveland’ was not the only casualty of that storm. The Grimsby trawler, the ‘Notts County,’ was driven ashore and one crewman was lost, with the rest of the crew being rescued by the Icelandic Coastguard vessel. At the same the Icelandic fishing vessel, the ‘Heidrunn’ was lost with all hands (6 crewmen). The Coastguard were wrongly and heavily criticized by some Icelandic people who said their vessel should have been assisting the ‘Heidrunn’ rather than the ‘Notts County’.
February 1974 saw what was to become one of most controversial losses of a Hull based vessel. In very challenging weather conditions, on the 7th February off the North Cape of Norway, a number of vessels, including some stern trawlers: the ‘Pict’, the ‘Swanella’, and the freezer trawler, ‘Gaul’, were among 17 vessels fishing the North Cape Bank area. The conditions became so bad most of the fleet were ‘laid and dodging’ with some seeking shelter by heading into the land. It was normal safety practice for all vessels to keep a radio schedule with their owners at 0900 hours daily, sometimes direct, sometimes through other ships acting for them. The ‘Orsino’, the weather/mothership took on this responsibility. On 8th February the weather had deteriorated considerably with Force 8 winds and snow squalls. At 1630 hours that day the ‘Gaul’ should have made a report to the ‘Orsino’ but didn’t; in fact only eight trawlers did report in at that time. The ‘Gaul’ and her crew of 36 men were never seen or heard from again.
Being a modern 1106 ton freezer trawler, the disappearance of the ‘Gaul’ caused widespread speculation in the media and general public causing additional heartbreak for the families of those lost. With so many theories being passed around, the obvious cause of loss due to incredible weather conditions was ignored. Stories citing the ‘Gaul’ as a ‘spy’ ship and that she had being boarded by the Russians and taken into one of their ports, abounded.
In the following weeks, to those vessels operating on Cape Bank, it became clear that the Gaul had sunk after being overwhelmed by the conditions. This conclusion came about because an obstruction had been identified in an area previously seen to be clear for trawlers towing their gear on the seabed. Most of the fishing at that time was demersal fishing, i.e the trawl gear being towed on the seabed because the fish swam close to the seabed. Most Skippers had their fishing charts kept up to date re: obstruction – ‘fastenings’ as they were known. To suddenly have their fishing gear come fast to a large obstruction causing considerable damage to the net, or even losing a full set of gear, confirmed their fears. Although this information, which included the Latitude and Longitude of the wreck, was known to many Skippers, the authorities, including the owners never acknowledged this fact meaning that new misleading theories of the loss came to the media on so many occasions.
A formal investigation into the loss of the ‘Gaul’ was held in Hull in September and early October 1974 with a conclusion that……..
‘the Gaul capsized and foundered due to taking a succession of very heavy seas on her trawl deck when she was almost broadside to the sea, which initially caused her to heel over, and then she had no time to recover before a subsequent wave or waves overcame her ability to right herself. It seems likely that initially, she was thrown so far over that those onboard her were unable to transmit a distress message.’
These major losses were only a percentage of men lost, with thousands being lost in a multitude of different accidents. In the early years when vessels were less safe and the operational method of the ‘boxing fleet’ resulted in many men being lost from the small boats which transferred their daily catch to the cutters who took their catch to market. As years went by and vessels travelled farther afield to distant grounds they were exposed to hostile weather conditions. So many incidents were crewmen, especially those manning the deck, were lost overboard in heavy seas. Additionally because of the dangers of shooting and hauling the fishing gear coupled with little health and safety regulations, men were frequently badly hurt, even maimed and often fatally injured during fishing operations. Whenever there was a need for medical attention the vessel was often fishing many hours away from this kind of Service, i.e a vessels fishing off Bear Island would need to proceed to the nearest port on the North Norwegian coast, taking up to eighteen hours, to have access to proper medical facilities. Although all Skippers held a medical certificate their knowledge was rudimentary with limited equipment and medications. Records show that there were many deaths from illness due to the inadequacy of medical assistance. The number of men lost to single, dual or multiple fatalities far outweighed those lost in major disasters, tragically a very small number of which were down to suicide.
Some instances of dual and multiple loss are:
St. Hubert H142
On 29th August 1960 she trawled up a mine, off Makkaur Lighthouse, Norway, which she kept on deck to dump in deeper water. Sometime later the mine detonated and destroyed the vessel killing 3 crew. The trawler ‘Prince Charles’ rescued the remainder of the crew who had taken to life-rafts as the ‘St. Hubert’ sank.
Skipper George Ness died later of his injuries.
Ian Fleming H396
On 25th December 1973 the motor trawler ‘Ian Fleming’ was abandoned in a sinking condition after striking a rock off Havoey Sund, North Norway. Fifteen crew took to one life-raft and five crewmen, including the Skipper, took to another raft which capsized with the loss of three men: Mate – Terry Day, 2nd Eng – Dennis Colby and Wireless Operator – George Lee.
Arctic Adventurer H 381
On 8th December 1964 the vessel suffered a boiler explosion in which three engine room crew lost their lives whilst outward bound for the Norwegian fishing grounds in a position 90 miles east of Dunbar, Scotland. The disabled vessel was towed back to Hull by the trawler ‘St. Matthew’ H201. Repairs were not economic and the vessel was declared a total loss.
Arctic Viking H452
On 18th October 1961 in the early hours of the morning, as she was homeward bound passing Flamborough Head she was hit by two very large seas from astern, laid over and capsized. The vessel had been experiencing stability problems prior to her being lost with one theory being that she was exceptionally low on fuel and this lack of weight in the lower reaches of the vessel adversely affected her stability.
The crew managed to launch one raft and a number of them gained access to it; unfortunately one man was seen by the others as he failed to clear the sinking vessel. Three men were trapped below deck aft and one man was forward, none of them could get clear from the vessel.
A Polish vessel, the ‘Derkacz’, who had heard the Mayday message, came to the area and saved those in the liferaft after performing excellent seamanship manoeuvres in very heavy sea conditions. The Arctic Viking sank at 12.30pm four (4) hours after capsizing with the loss of the following named five (5) crewmen:
CREW LOST ON ARCTIC VIKING (H452), which foundered, 16 miles off Flamborough Head, 18th October, 1961:
CRAFT, David (34), 254 Wansbeck rd, Longhill Est, Hull.
KENT, Edward (38), 51 Hessle rd, Hull – Fireman
LOUND, Dennis (29), 8 Endsleigh-villas, Wellsted st, Hull – 2nd Engineer
ROBINSON, John (23), 22 Foston-grove, Preston rd, Hull – Sparehand
WADDY, Arthur (47), 35 Harrow st, Hull – Bosun
The photo shows the ship’s telegraph recovered from the ‘Arctic Viking’ by a team of divers including Andy Dowsland (left) and donated on loan to STAND. On the right of the photo is Tony Craft, the grandson of David Craft who was one of the crewmen who sadly was lost on the ‘Arctic Viking’.
Arctic Viking H452
Boston Lincoln GY 1399
Whilst carrying out hauling/shooting procedure two crewmen, brothers Terry and Harry Williams, were lost overboard. The loss was a result of Terry Williams being knocked down the ramp of the stern trawler, his brother Harry was working on deck at that time and, bravely without hesitation took to the sea to try and rescue his brother, sadly both lost their lives. Their bodies were not recovered but after a considerable period of time it emerged that their bodies had been washed up on the Russian coast and buried there. Again, after a protracted time span due to the fact that it was Russia, the two brothers bodies were exhumed and returned to their families for Christian burial. Their graves are side by side in Hull’s Northern Cemetery. Further grief to the Williams family occurred in 25/05/1976 when Brian Williams suffered fatal injuries in an accident with a trawl otter board whilst serving on the Hull based stern trawler St. Benedict.
The size and weight of standard type otter boards, eleven feet by five feet, with a weight of over a ton made them a danger to crewmen when working around them. Over the years a number of individual accidents involving them resulted in fatalities……
Esquimaux H297 – Carl Phillips 12/05/1953 Fatally injured whilst working the forward Otter Board (door )
Kingston Amber H471 – Terence Ledger 04/05/1971 Fatally injured when hit by the aft Otter Board (door)
The hauling and shooting operation always presented the potential for accidents due to the high speed of running warps (wires) when being payed out or hove in by the powerful winch.
The use of heaving equipment, wires being used to lift/lower during the operation made the deck a highly dangerous work area. Men were often caught up in wires, ropes and dragged onto/around the winch which was almost always fatal.
Ross Aquila H114 – Bernard Warmsley 06/04/1963
A small number of fatal accidents occurred when excessive loads caused blocks to fail causing catastrophic injuries to men below….
Arctic Corsair H320 – Ron Senisal – Accidentally killed 17.10.1978
Due to the very limited medical facilities onboard and the often isolated area in which these vessels were fishing, anyone who became ill with complaints such as stomach ulcers, heart problems, etc, were at serious risk. A number of fishermen succumbed to such illnesses……
Kingston Andalusite H133 – Kenneth Thresh – Skipper Died from unexpected stomach problems.
Kingston Jacinth H198 – Frederick Hird – Chief Eng. 06.06 1970 Died after suffering a heart attack
HEALTH AND SAFETY AT SEA
The Triple Trawler Disaster was the catalyst that brought about changes to Health and Safety at sea, but not to the extent many people assumed.
The way in which the fishing gear on a side trawler was hauled and shot, coupled with meteorological conditions made this operation one of most dangerous occupations in the world.
It was always down to the Skipper as to how bad the weather had to be before he decided it was too dangerous for the crew and ship to continue fishing. The pressure to catch a profitable catch of fish was always uppermost in the mind of Skippers, which at times clouded their view of what was fishing weather and what was not.
The deck crew were the ones most exposed to danger as the hauling of the net operation on side trawlers had to be carried out broadside to the wind and weather which left the men open to the elements. Most of this operation took place amidships, i.e. the lowest part of the deck with very limited room to get clear of large incoming seas, and with the vessel being static in the water.
There were many men lost and injured during this process but in extreme weather conditions the vessel was also more at risk than normal by presenting a more vulnerable attitude to the weather. However time meant money and the loss of too much down time for weather did not sit well with Trawler Owners, the Skipper and even the crew who were there to earn a living.
The Triple Trawler Disaster saw the birth of a group of women who became known in later years as the ‘Headscarf Revolutionaries’. The group formed by a local woman Lillian Bilocca began a campaign for safer regulation for the men at sea.
Left to Right
Mary Denness, Yvonne Blenkinsop, Lillian Bilocca, Christine Smallbone
They took on the Government and after much publicity and negotiations the Holland Martin report was implemented. This agreed into law certain conditions, and rules the group had highlighted in their campaign.
Lillian Bilocca laid down conditions to the Government as follows:
Her demands were for full crewing of ships, radio operators to be on board every ship, improved weather forecasts, better training for trainee crew, more safety equipment and a “mother ship” with medical facilities to accompany the fleet.
Not all the demands made a difference.
The stipulation re, Wireless Operators though a valid request was in almost all ships a reality. In a twenty five year career on Hull trawlers I never once sailed onboard a vessels that did not have Wireless Operator as a crew member. The inclusion of a Wireless Operator to most of the vessels lost, could not have changed the outcome.
Improved weather reports though useful, but if the Skipper did not act in accordance with a bad weather forecast, they were wasted.
The mother ship which, although providing some essential service to the fleet, was deficient in a number of ways. When the Orsino was assigned the role, being a modern stern trawler she was a capable asset.
When the Miranda assumed the full time role she had limitations. As a very old vessel, built as a sailing vessel she was at least three/four knots slower than any of the trawler fleet, her ability to cope with extreme weather was not as good as the vessels she was ‘mothering’ and her advocacy instructions were not compulsory, with some Skippers ignoring recommendations. The advantages provided by Miranda included a medical officer (Doctor), limited assistance with engineering problems and a mail system.
The Holland Martin report resulted in a positive outcome which led to crews receiving an allowance twice a year for clothing/bedding to be supplied and paid for by the Trawler Owners. Previous to this ruling fishermen paid for everything themselves including their mattresses, bedding and all articles of protective gear such as oilskins, duck (wet) suits, sea boots, even the knives they required for gutting the fish.
Although the changes to health and safety helped and provided some degree of protection and comfort, the nature of the fishing industry, the geographic areas of operation, the dangers of the daily work onboard, are not changed.
It is not possible to combat weather conditions in certain Arctic areas in winter, when hurricane winds and sub zero temperatures present constant danger to men and vessel.
The development of stern trawlers has reduced the risk to crewmen, especially the deckhands as most of the shooting/hauling of the fishing gear takes place in the sheltered aft deck. Additionally all the processing of the caught fish is carried out below deck in a completely protected area free from seas, spray and in the main freezing conditions.
The loss of the Kingston Peridot and the Ross Cleveland happened in spite of them having a wireless operator onboard.
The loss of the modern factory stern trawler ‘Gaul’ with her crew of 36 men shows that, at times of extreme weather and in certain circumstances, almost any type of vessel may be overwhelmed and lost.