The Cod Wars
Introduction to an account made by Tom Watson – Skipper of the ‘Wyre Victory‘
The dispute between the United Kingdom and Iceland which resulted in three so called Cod Wars saw a number of incidents between British trawlers and the Icelandic Coast Guard vessels (Gunboats).
Some resulted in serious confrontation and a number brought a wry smile to the faces of those involved. In the early altercations the Coast Guard often attempted to board the trawlers from a small fast craft but the defences set up by the trawlers made it extremely difficult and as far as I remember it was never achieved.
The third Cod War saw the Coast Guard concentrate on the fishing gear being towed by the trawlers whereby they employed a warp (wire) with a cutting piece of equipment, similar to an anchor, on a long wire and by crossing across the stern of the trawler they hooked onto the warps and cut them.
This action was extremely dangerous for the crews on board the trawlers but also very expensive to the vessel in loss of time but also to the trawler owners who had to pay for the replacement of the gear.
Although the trawlers were fishing under the protection of frigates of the Royal Navy and commercially owned tugboats many a vessel suffered the loss of a full set of gear.
On occasions a number of trawlers formed a group and harassed a gunboat with a threat of ramming them. In fact the Hull trawler Arctic Corsair did collide during a particularly aggressive action by the Odinn badly damaging the stern area of the gunboat.
The trawlers suffered constant harassment because of the unrelenting stalking of the gunboats.
The story recalled below shows how this led to Skippers, taking what can be described as clever and brave action, to avoid and nullify the attentions of the Icelandic Coast Guard.
The following is as recalled by Fleetwood Skipper Tom Watson of the Wyre Victory:-
There has been a lot in the press of late linking the coming negotiations about the fishing limits when we leave the EU with the so-called Cod Wars that we experienced with Iceland when they extended their limits. This prompted me to reminisce about our experiences and in particular when I disabled the Gun Boat ‘Odinn’.
It occurred in April 1973 when we had a film crew on-board filming the documentary ‘A Life Apart – Anxieties in a Trawling Community’ and the whole thing was filmed. That wasn’t intentional I didn’t know that they were, or had, filmed it until it was all over as I was too busy.
The disabling of ‘Odinn’ was never shown in the documentary and was kept out of the press because the Government didn’t want to embarrass the Icelandic Government during talks that were going on at that time; talks which in fact we now know were being heavily influenced by the Trawler Owners but that’s another story.
Anyway, I’ll describe what happened; it is probably a bit long because there were other characters involved that deserve a mention.
During our trip we had had several run ins with both the ‘Odinn’ and ‘Aegir’ trying to cut our trawling gear away and, at one stage ‘Odinn’ had threatened us with his gun; nothing unusual with that – they threatened everybody.
The weather then freshened up so they left us alone for a bit but once it moderated the ‘Odinn’ returned. We had by then moved grounds a bit further North across Isafjordur Gully and were enjoying a bit of peaceful fishing off Kogur and the Little Cape until he found us again.
He did the usual, called us on the VHF and warned us but I had what I thought was a secret weapon!
Whilst in dock following the previous trip, the manager of Wyre Trawlers, Mike Johnstone, had suggested that it might be an idea to tow a device behind the vessel on a long tow rope to try and dissuade them from going across the stern and cutting the gear. He suggested a device used by the Merchant Navy Convoys during the second world war called a Fog Buoy. This was a kind of small sledge that was towed behind the vessel during poor visibility and threw up a fountain of water so that it could be observed from the ship behind in the convoy and so they could keep on station.
“Mac “Mackworth” fog buoy
As used in Atlantic convoys 1939-45.
Fog buoys of this kind were towed by ships in convoy during
thick fog to help prevent the ship behind from coming too close.
They scooped up small ‘water fountains’ (see diagram) which
could often be seen from the ship directly behind.
Photo courtesy of Chris Brooker
Merseyside Maritime Museum
We deployed this and when ‘Odinn’ came along, I gave him a good b******t story of how it was connected to our main generator and would send a powerful electric shock back up the cutting wire. The Captain of the ‘Odinn’ might have been a few things but he wasn’t daft. He thanked me for the warning as he proceeded to turn alongside us to show the cutter being launched. I then got the Bosun, Cyril Armitage (nickname was Spud – one of the best seamen I ever sailed with apart from when he’d had his dram!!) up onto the boat deck where the grass rope attached to the Fog Buoy was made fast.
‘Odinn’ then turned and started his run and, as he approached, Spud began to release the grass rope; I ran out onto the boat deck shouting, ‘Not Yet, Not Yet’. When the ‘Odinn’ just got to just short of crossing our stern, I shouted to Spud, ‘Now Spud, let it go now!’
The timing was perfect! The heavy grass rope snaked out onto the surface and ‘Odinn’ crossed with a big bow wave that then dropped away and he became dead in the water. The rope had gone round his propellers and stripped them from the shaft; he was completely disabled and would have to be towed back to Reykjavik.
I hauled my gear and, after getting the gear on board, called ‘Odinn’ on the VHF and said that it looked like he had a problem and could we help. I take my hat off to him because he answered me, even though his voice was trembling with rage and anger. He told me, ‘no I couldn’t help but I should be aware that other Icelandic Coast Guard vessels were expected to arrive shortly and wherever I went I would be arrested and I would never be allowed to fish at Iceland again’.
After that I didn’t wait around too long. I started to steam along the North Side and had a link call with the office to tell them what had happened. They said that that they were disappointed because the orders were to ‘play it cool’ and when I said that they must be joking, even the operators at Portishead started laughing.
It was while steaming along the North side that I got a 183 word telegram from somebody either in the Government or MAFF, I forget which, but the telegram contained instructions of what I was supposed to do. I was instructed to immediately go outside the 50 mile limit and stay outside; I was to maintain radio silence and not communicate with anybody; I was to navigate around Iceland and down the East side keeping outside the 50 mile limit until I reached a set position off SE Iceland.
I was then to send just one telegram informing of when I would be docking. In reply…and this is the truth, I told the sparks to send back two words ‘Get f****d’. That is another thing that I curse myself for because I never saved that telegram.
Word must have got around because we also got a call through Portishead Radio for Michael Grigsby, the documentary Producer onboard from the ‘World in Action’ TV programme asking what had happened. When they found out that it was all on film, they wanted to send a helicopter to get the film but I wouldn’t give my position out because I was afraid that I would have been picked up by one of the other Gun Boats and arrested.
As I was steaming along the North coast, I picked up on a group of Hull and Grimsby boats that were on ‘a fish shop’. ( A ‘fish shop’ was an area where ships congregate when the fishing is good and plentiful).
Billy Hardy (Wiggy, one of Grimsby’s top men) had picked it up and had a Dhan down.* I called one of the crew up on the VHF (I forget which one) and asked what they were catching. I told them what had happened but they already knew and told me that they were on good fishing and invited us to join them. I said that they should be aware that I might bring the Gun Boat to them but, to a man they were delighted with what had happened and said that if the Gun Boat came we’d all chase him away.
*A Dhan is a Marker Buoy which was used sometimes when fishing was good; especially when there were no landmarks to fix the vessel’s position. It is a long piece of timber with a large cork fixture around about half way down and has wire attached to an anchor which keeps it fixed in one position. It also has a radar reflector fitted on the top and is normally used when other means of fixing the ships geographical position are not available.
We fished there for two or three days and I filled the boat up; we never saw a Gun Boat.
When I got home I was told that I wasn’t to be allowed to go back to Iceland for 3 months and I would have to go home fishing around the UK during a cooling off period and amazingly, I was requested to keep a low profile. I was not to speak to the press or TV about what had happened because, as mentioned before, sensitive negotiations with the Icelandic Government were ongoing and they didn’t want to cause any embarrassment. That Is why it was never in the press or mentioned on the News. I never thought much about it at the time but it makes me angry when I think about it now.
The Icelanders were offering a deal all the time but the naïve and incompetent Government were being lobbied by the greedy Trawler Owners to keep asking for more and so we finished with nothing.
What effect did the 200 mile limit have on the Humber fishing ports?
The three ‘Cod Wars’ between Britain and Iceland were the consequence of Iceland’s unilateral declaration of exclusion zones eventually resulting in a 200 mile limit around Iceland’s coastline being imposed thereby expelling foreign vessels from thousands of square miles of traditional fishing grounds. Norway, Canada and other countries also adopted this policy/ban.
For the Humber ports of Hull and Grimsby, who were both extensively distant water operators these actions were a disaster and signalled the beginning of the end for a number of other British ports, in addition the fleets that sailed from Fleetwood and a smaller number of Scottish fleets were left with only home waters to fish. The overall effect was that thousands of people employed in the fishing industries, both in the catching and processing of fish, lost their livelihoods when many businesses folded, with hundreds of ships being laid up/scrapped.
A nationwide workforce of highly skilled experienced fishermen who had developed their knowledge over many years was no longer required and suffered redundancy. Many of the seamen, some of a mature age, were not able to adapt and never sailed again, whilst others found employment in different maritime fields or low paid manual shore work.