Roles of the Crew


Roles of the Crew


A system of marine education implemented by the trawler owners and government regulations allowed trainee fishermen to be trained in the technical and safety aspects needed for the progress through life in the Fishing Industry. Sea time, during which they learned their trade, was the most beneficial process through which all fishermen needed to become competent and earn promotion. Any ambitious fisherman would during his career observe and learn from the man immediately above him in the chain of command.

Legislation required that all ship’s Officers followed and completed the Department of Transport examinations together with the required amount of sea time. This process spanned a number of years during which time the person worked at each job title stage and achieved the necessary experience and qualifications.



To take command of a deep sea trawler required a number of  disciplines. The way forward for any young person joining the Fishing Industry was as one would expect to start at the bottom of the ladder. Ambition, hard work, intelligence, determination, strength of character and a large slice of luck were the main ingredients needed to progress through the stages to become a Skipper. Being in command of a vessel was the ambition of most fishermen and those who did achieve command took on a great responsibility. The most responsible part of the Skipper’s duties was to ensure the safety of his vessel and crew, a task always made difficult due to weather conditions and operational procedures.

Making his vessel a profitable unit was his objective and the most difficult to achieve as it relied on a number of variables, not least the vessel of which he was Skipper. A modern vessel with the latest equipment and advanced technology gave a Skipper the edge over a rival in command of an older vessel with outdated gear.

The most positive and valuable asset to any potential Skipper was the ability to predict where and when to take his vessel to the most prolific fishing grounds. Successful Skippers seemed to have this inbuilt sense coupled with experience and historic information collated over years which enabled them to consistently complete profitable trips. The recording of information relating to date, time of year, location, weather and sea temperature, etc, being logged and retained for future reference was absolutely necessary for them to build up a catalogue of vital personal knowledge. There was a saying in the Industry that went ‘A Skipper was only as good as his last trip’ Over the years a number of Skippers were noted for their ability to catch fish.  People like Roy Waller, Richard Taylor,Charles Drevers, Bernard Wharram who all were very successful. The most successful was  Bill Brettell who on a number of occasions won the top award. Many people claimed that fish which became stuck in the meshes of his net (stickers) were trying to get into his trawl, not out. 

Many of these top men regularly featured in the Silver Cod/Challenge Shield Competition which identified the ship, Skipper and crew who, over twelve months landed the most fish and generated the most points making them the top vessel for the year. Although these competitions were open to all vessels operating from the Humber ports, it is a fact that no Grimsby trawler won either the Silver Cod or The Challenge Shield. The nature of these competitions led to criticism from many people who claimed that the aim to be top ship led to recklessness on the part of the Skipper, in that he would continue to fish in weather conditions that were considered too dangerous.

Although there were a number of trawling companies trading from Hull, successful Skippers sailed mainly for one employer and were coveted by the Company. Less successful ones often had to move to another company to seek a command. Many failed to be a success at all and spent a great deal of time sailing as Mate or even lower rating.

There was an unwritten rule practiced by trawler owners which banned ship’s officers, in particular Skippers, from seeking work with alternate companies. A company which agreed to give a Skipper a job had to seek agreement from the company from which the Skipper was leaving. This rule was often used as a form of punishment by a company who did not want a Skipper to transfer his employment and therefore did not allow a transfer to take place. Under these circumstances an individual could be unemployed for weeks/months at a time.



As second in command the Mate was required to assume overall responsibility when the Skipper was otherwise employed e.g. sleeping below. The Mate organised and supervised the watch keeping rota and the daily work schedule for the ‘day men’ who prepared the fishing gear en route to the fishing grounds. During fishing operations the Mate managed the deck when the trawl gear was being shot and hauled and was responsible for the stowage and landed condition of the catch.  When the Mate had his watch below period, he had an appointed  ‘fishroom man’ to cover his absence down the fishroom over a twelve hour period .  (The twelve hours consisted of the Mate’s watch below and his time in command on the bridge whilst the Skipper slept).

The ‘fishroom man’ had to be hard working and conscientious and ensure the fish were sorted and stowed correctly. For this added responsibility the fishroom man received a (secret) gratuity when the catch was landed and sold. The Mate was personally obligated and liable for the payment of this tax free bonus (known as a backhander).

Fresh fish trawler trips to Iceland, Norway etc, were normally of 21 days duration but when fishing distant grounds off the coasts of Greenland, Labrador or Newfoundland, they were away for up to 28 days. The landing of fresh fish which was more than sixteen or seventeen days old could result in a poor quality product which, in turn often led to fish being unsold and sent to the fish meal plant. Profitability depended upon a catch being a good quality product. If a poor quality catch was presented on the market the Mate was held responsible and this often led to him losing his job.

When fresh fish trawlers landed their catch, the sale of the fish was sold by a system known as a  Dutch auction. This was the accepted way of doing business but could be a hit and miss method due to supply and demand of the day.  Dutch auctions start at a high price and come down in stages with the buyers making their bid as and when the price suits them.

The crew of fresh fish vessels could, and sometimes did, complete a trip which resulted in them owing the Company money. Assuming the crewman sailed on the vessel’s next trip, the deficit would be deducted from the monies earned on that trip.  Settling in debt occurred when a very poor trip was brought to market coinciding with poor demand and low prices.  If a vessel had  a major breakdown and returned home, it rarely cleared expenses. These incidents not only cost the crew but also the owners.

All crew members profited from the sale of the catch based on a percentage of the gross earning of the vessel. The Skipper and Mate, as ‘share men’ were paid on the nett earnings of the vessel, i.e. after all expenses incurred on that trip were deducted.  These expenses included all payment made to sources such as the crews earnings, fuel costs, landing of the catch, etc.  If the vessels catch realised £12,000 gross the crew members would receive their agreed percentage of £12,000.  The Skipper and Mate would receive their agreed percentage after expenses, e.g. if the expenses for the trip was £4,000 they would  settle on £8,000.

The Skipper, as  a share man, earned £100 to every £1,000 of the nett amount the catch made. So in the example above he would settle on £8,000 which meant his share would be 8 x £100 = £800 plus trip money of £80 totalling £880, less any personal expenses.  The Mate would settle on £75 to the thousand, e.g. 8 x 75 = £600 but no trip money. The Mate was also responsible for his own personal expenses.  Personal expenses included items from the outfitting store, such as personal protective clothing, and his bond bill incurred during the trip, items such as tobacco, cigarettes, chocolate and a limited allowance of alcohol.


Boatswain (Bosun)


The position of boatswain required a man of good seamanship and net technology knowledge. He deputised for the Mate during the periods when the Mate was sleeping or acting in command during the Skipper’s watch below. It was a role that most men progressing through the ranks had to master. Quite often the Boatswain was a mature seaman who never achieved his ambition to be in command or serve as Mate, sometimes as a result of failing the required Department of Trade eyesight test.

On passage to and from the fishing grounds the Boatswain was the Officer in charge of one of the three watches but whilst fishing his role was total committed to deck work. The major part of his job was organising the hauling and shooting of the gear during fishing operations. A specific quality required for this role was expertise in net fixing and repair. Further to this, the ability to sort out foul gears, a situation that often occurred when a main wire, such as the warp or cable was severed whilst the gear was on the seabed leading to the gear having to be retrieved via a single wire, warp or cable, was expected of the Boatswain. But by far the greatest ability a boatswain could have was to be an able net repairer.  The Skipper determined where he wanted to tow his trawl, sometimes the seabed was even and kind to the net, other areas were not and the trawl would often be hauled onboard with substantial damage done to it. The Skipper would solicit from the boatswain the extent and time required to repair it. Experience allowed the boatswain to estimate how long the repair would take. His answer to the Skipper would either lead to repairing the net or the Skipper instructing the crew to put a full new trawl in place. To mend a badly damaged net the boatswain would organise those deckhands who were proficient at mending to start repairs, one from either end of the split, but could also by calculation, perform a manoeuvre whereby he started two other deckhands at a ‘jump’ point in the middle of the tear. This meant that four (4) men could be mending at the same time to repair the damage thereby halving the time taken.  Many Skippers carried regular boatswains for this skillful ability.

The boatswain was not a shareman and was paid a percentage of £12.5 to every thousand pounds of the gross amount the vessel’s catch made, plus liver money.  He was paid a weekly wage to his family or designated representative.

Deckhand (Sparehand)


All qualified deckhands were paid a weekly wage. Their settlement from the catch was equal to £6 for every thousand pound of the gross amount the vessel’s catch made, plus liver money. Many fishermen were content to sail always as deckhand and did not, for whatever reason, wish to attain promotion.

With the work schedule during fishing operations, and the often horrendous weather conditions the deck crew were subject to, it is surprising that any harmonious atmosphere existed at all. It is easy to see, after eighteen hours of hard work with only six hours rest, in extremely hazardous and freezing conditions, how discord could start between tired men.  The deckhands were that part of the crew that were most effected by the conditions and circumstances under which they operated. The period of rest included meal times and any personal hygiene a man would wish to undertake. A meal lasting half an hour when leaving the deck to go watch below, and a meal when he was awakened to start work again, reduced actual sleeping time to less than five hours.  

A large percentage of these men were very capable, hard working, excellent shipmates who frequently stayed in a particular vessel for long periods of time. It was a bonus to sail in a vessel manned by men such as these; the camaraderie made life at sea that little bit more acceptable. A crew of competent seamen, who were not afraid of hard work, who hoped for good fishing was a boon to a Skipper. Team work on board always led to a productive and, in general, a happy ship. An accomplished deckhand was not simply a labourer most had seamanship skills, especially in net repair, that could only be achieved by years of sea time experience.


Engine Room Personnel 


On side trawlers the engine room was manned by a Chief Engineer, a Second Engineer, and two Firemen/Greasers.  The Chief was responsible for the running and maintenance of the engines and all other auxiliary equipment, this included the deck winch and the anchor windlass.  The Second engineer took charge of the Engine Room during the Chief’s rest time. The four engine room staff worked two watches of two men, six hours on, six hours off, throughout the trip. Although their work schedule was less extreme to those on deck, it was nevertheless a demanding job which started once the vessel left the quayside until it berthed again at the end of the trip. The Chief and a Firemen formed one watch, with the Second and a Fireman the other. The Firemen’s role was one of continued basic maintenance and cleaning. The Chief and Second Engineers had the additional responsibility  of ensuring the deck winch was kept in a good operational condition at all times. During bad weather this often involved them having to go on deck to oil/check the working parts. The winch was one of the most important items of equipment, without it the trawler gear could not be shot or hauled. In terms of seniority, although there were no laid down rules, it was accepted that the Chief Engineer’s role was on a par with that of the Mate. Financially they differed as the Mate was classed as a ‘shareman’ and only came on pay after all expenses of the vessel were met. The Chief’s remuneration was based on a gross settlement and he was also paid a weekly wage.





Catering/Galley Staff  


The galley was manned by the Cook and his assistant/galley boy. The role of the Cook was probably one of the most difficult onboard the vessel. In addition to working in a really confined space in often extreme weather conditions in which everything he prepared had to be firmly placed to avoid it being spilled as the vessel rolled and pitched, the use of ‘battens’ on the galley stove bore evidence to this. These iron bars divided the stove top and could be moved and temporarily fixed to retain the food filled pans in place whilst cooking. In addition the Cook had the unenviable problem of cooking for a twenty man crew and pleasing them all with the meals he prepared. Three meals a day plus a cold buffet supper table, meant that the Cook had to provide a variety of foods that not only were tasty but were nutritious and suitable to satisfy twenty hardworking men some of whom had just come of the deck from a wet freezing and at times hostile environment. The Galley staff worked long hours with breakfast usually two sittings between six am and seven am followed by dinner at twelve noon to one pm. Tea was taken at six pm to seven pm.  The cold supper often consisted of just bread,cheese, corned beef, and cold fried fish. Cold fish sandwiches were quite popular with many fishermen. The Cook and Galley boy finished their day at around eight pm. In addition they could usually catch a short nap in between dinner and teatime. At all time there was kettles of tea available. The Cook’s assistant was usually a young man/boy in the early stages of his life at sea. Some wished to follow a life in catering but in the main they were looking to be promoted onto the deck as a deckie learner. Their role as assistant to the Cook consisted of many menial tasks. Preparing vegetables, serving the crew’s messroom and Officer’s mess at meal times, washing up of all the many utensils used at mealtimes and general cleaning duties. The role of Cooks Assistant was not a well paid job and in order to supplement his salary he cleaned the berths of many of the crew who on settling day would give him a gratuity for his work. As a rule the Cook would look after his assistant and because they were generally youngster were helpful and would not allow them to be used.


The Radio Operator  


The role of a radio operator was in the main highly technological with him being responsible for the operation and maintenance of all the electronics, such as the wireless receivers and transmitters, the radar(s), the echo sounders/fish finders, Other items of importance included Decca Navigators/Lorans and depending on how well the vessel was laid out the introduction of new technology was included in his work load. The Operator was not employed by the trawlerowners, they were usually employees of Marconi or Redifon and payed a salary by them, in addition they received a percentage of the gross amount the catch made at market. In the late 1940’s and through a period in the 1950’s the wireless operator had a secondary role, he was responsible for the process of extracting the cod liver oil from the livers saved by the crew durin the gutting of the catch. This involved the operator dragging full baskets of livers along the deck to the liverhouse at the stern of the vessel where he tipped them into large steam powered boilers to render them down. The fluid extracted was crude cod liver oil which was further processed ashore by the Seven Seas Cod Liver Oil Company. In the mid to late 1950’s the Operator was relieved of this role as technology developed and his skills were need on the navigation bridge.