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Deep Sea Fishing

The sailing fishing fleets of fifty years ago have disappeared, but the British fishermen still carry on the traditions of their predecessors, though in conditions less exacting. The modern methods of deep-sea fishing - trawling, drifting, seining and lining - are described in this chapter


DRIFTERS ENTERING YARMOUTH HARBOUR with their catches. Sometimes the vessels are loaded to sinking point; then there may be such a glut on the market that the herrings have to be taken back to sea and dumped overboard. Many suggestions have been made to prevent such waste of this valuable food.

A LITTLE more than fifty years ago the North Sea was swept by a storm in which 360 fishermen and fisher-lads were lost. Fathers and sons perished together, and widowed women and orphaned children were left penniless in ruined homes.

That disaster was known as the Great March Gale of 1883 and there are survivors who can thankfully compare things as they now are in deep-sea fishing with what they were then. In that storm smacks were caught on the dangerous Edge of the Dogger and foundered with all hands because they were powerless to escape.

That was the time of sail, when small ships were at the mercy of wind and sea. To-day such a storm may cause no more than odd casualties amongst the steam trawlers which have almost driven the smacks off the waters.

Fifty years ago the smacksman was almost unknown to the public. He came from the poorest of homes, the workhouse, the reformatory, and often the jail. Miserable little apprentices who

for various offences appeared before magistrates begged to be sent to prison rather than back to fishing. The doghole of a cabin aft was the fisherman’s sole refuge all the time he was at sea, and that meant, if he were a fleeter, eight, ten or more weeks. He ate, drank and slept in this human kennel, often bug- and rat-infested, and was primitive enough to use his hands and fingers instead of cutlery and to keep his clothes on and remain unwashed throughout the trip. There was no privacy, no sanitary accommodation, nothing that could give a man self-respect or enable him to keep it even if he had it.

The fishing-ground varied according to the presence of fish. Sometimes it would be the Dogger, sometimes a more distant region. A fleet might consist of 150 smacks and it might cover a wide area. These brown-sailed craft, which grew from cutter to ketch, had no superiors as sea-boats, nor were there any better seamen than their crews. A man who could neither read nor write and could not understand a chart could tell from his lead or surroundings where he was. The colour of the water, the run of the tide and, above all, the tallow on the lead would be unerring guides.

The man of sixty who had been fishing for fifty years was almost as much a part of the sea as the “prime” and “offal” out of which he made his poor living. Against his small earnings, however, was to be set the board and lodging at sea. Food, especially fish, was good and plentiful; but it might well be said that while Providence provided the food the Devil himself too often supplied the cooks in the form of dirty, incompetent men or small boys teaching themselves their trade.

Half a century ago a sailing fishing fleet was a familiar sight on the North Sea. Yarmouth alone sent out four fleets, carrying crews of about 2,800 men and boys in all. Five fleets went from Hull, several small and two large fleets from Grimsby and two fleets from Lowestoft. Other ports contributed fleeters.

A total of 10,000 men and boys were fleeting in the summer. That number was reduced in winter, when many of the smacks were single-boating — that is, making short trips of a few days and keeping the fish in ice and bringing it back to market. In the fleets the fish was sent either by fast sailing cutter or by steam carrier. The carriers, which until lately were seen daily off Billingsgate Market, were still called cutters.

One of the most dangerous features of the fleeting was the ferrying and boarding of the catches —pulling the smacks’ boats across the exposed sea and getting the heavy boxes, or trunks, on board. On one February morning alone, in one fleet, seven men were drowned through their boats capsizing, and in another fleet two were lost — nine altogether.

Ten thousand men and boys were afloat on the North Sea, far from land and all its comforts. Of the men most had spent almost all their lives on the water and they knew nothing of enjoyment and recreation except indulgence of the basest sorts. Drink at sea and on land was the general resort. Ashore there were numberless and almost uncontrolled public-houses, and on the fishingbanks there was the pernicious “coper”, or floating grog-shop.

What the “coper” meant was tragically indicated by a skipper who said, “Many’s the smart smack ’at’s been lost through him, many the home that’s been ruined, an’ many the life that’s been lost. Time after time I’ve spent my last penny on board the old Dutchman, an’ when we’d no money left I’ve seen boatloads of gear ferried to him from the smacks to swap for drink. He did a roarin’ trade in the old sailin’ days, when for days together smacks couldn’t fish because there wasn’t any wind.”

Foreigners were not the only offenders. Smacks sailed from England, apparently to fish; but they made for Dutch ports, stowed their gear and took on board as much as £500 worth of spirits and tobacco. A smack would then rejoin her fleet and in one voyage of two months would dispose of her cargo and make a profit of £500 on it.

Such was the state of things when a sudden change for the better came. Sail trawling had reached its zenith and the old order passed completely. The “copers” were swept from the seas bv the ships of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, which supplied duty-free tobacco at 10d. and 1s. 2d. a pound, by arrangement with the Customs. International law too stepped in and the “coper” disappeared.

Just when the sailing period had reached its highest development, steam came in as conqueror. Experimental paddle tugboats, fitted with beamtrawls, as were the smacks, proved their superiority over sail. These squat craft were soon replaced by screw trawlers, and as this type proved successful, it was adopted for use in the fleets as well as in single-boating.

Steam Trawler Fleets

Gradually there has been evolved the splendid fishing vessel for which to-day £20,000 and more can be paid. This is a ship that goes to the White Sea, Iceland, Greenland, Bear Island (Siberia), Newfoundland — or to any grounds on which fish can profitably be had. The sailing smack had neither safety nor comfort. There was no protection from the weather. In the bitterest blizzards the helmsman was at the exposed tiller, and sometimes for long periods it was impossible to get a hot drink or a hot meal.

A Lowestoft trawler going to seaWhen smacks were superseded, four fleets of steam trawlers came into existence. The fleets were the Red Cross, Gamecock, Great Northern and Hell-yers’. It was upon one of these fleets (the Gamecock) that the Russian Baltic Fleet fired on the night of October 15, 1904, and killed two men, wounded several more, sank one trawler and damaged other vessels.

OFF TO THE FISHING GROUNDS. There are only a lew survivors of the smack that depends solely on sail. Here is a Lowestoft trawler going to sea. The beam of the old-fashioned trawl is shown, on deck. Every fishing vessel must display her port registration letters and number; for example, LT for Lowestoft, YH for Yarmouth, LO for London, FD for Fleetwood and so on.

The youngest fleet was Hellyers', established in 1906 and consisting of seven carriers and fifty-five fleeters. The fleets were working continuously until war broke out in 1914. Then they were dispersed, for the ships and men were needed for the mine-sweeping, patrolling and other tasks for which they earned so much praise from the highest of naval officers. Among these admirers was Admiral of the Fleet Earl Jellicoe, who declared that the British Navy saved the War and that the British fishermen saved the Navy. Recently Admiral of the Fleet Sir Rogers Keyes said: “I personally owe to the fishermen of England a debt I can never repay.”

After the war two fleets were gradually reassembled; but economic conditions made it necessary to amalgamate them. Then came the time when the fleeting system proved unprofitable, and the two companies that controlled it went into voluntary liquidation early in 1936. Exceptionally bad weather, the rising price of commodities, especially coal, of which the companies used 100,000 tons yearly, lessening supplies of fish, and growing competition — all these were factors in the closing down. Sixty fleeters were concerned, and about 800 men in Hull, the headquarters of the fleet. In addition there were porters at Billingsgate, salesmen and office staffs. An old fleeting skipper described the liquidation as “a most terrible disaster for Hull.”

The fleeting system was for a long period one of the chief features of deep-sea fishing. Many smacks sailed from the Thames to the North Sea. They went from Barking (Essex), sturdy craft which joined their sisters from Yarmouth and other ports. A fleet was always at sea, but constantly changing in its units as they finished their trips and returned to port to refit and take in fresh stores. A smack would be at sea throughout the year, except for these short visits home, and in the whole twelve months the smacksman would spend only about six weeks ashore.

Admiral of the Fishing Fleet

When the smacks were displaced by the steam trawlers the fleeting system remained the'same. The fleet was controlled by an experienced fisherman called the admiral, with whom was a vice-admiral to act in his absence. The hauls of fish were ferried each morning to the waiting carrier, which, as soon as she had loaded, steamed at full speed for Billingsgate. These carriers were wonderful sea-boats and drove through gales that held up big steamers. Famous among them were the Pelican, Albatross, Gannet and Cormorant, which kept railway time between the North Sea grounds and London.

Sometimes a carrier would bring to market nearly 3,000 boxes of fish, a box or trunk weighing about 80 lb. In one fleet of 130 smacks a day’s fishing totalled 2,865 boxes. With the exception of 139 boxes of “prime”, turbot, soles and the like, all the boxes contained “offal” — haddocks and similar inferior fish. Too often the offal when sold at Billingsgate did not pay for the cost of carriage from the fleet, and there was nothing for the fleeter’s toil in getting the fish.

The steam trawlers which composed the fleets were mostly small and old. A typical vessel was forty years old, of 41 nominal horse-power and 66 net tonnage. A few of the fleeters took on a new lease of life as single-boaters, but most of them were useless for this purpose.


LANDING BARRELS ON THE QUAY AT YARMOUTH (Norfolk). These barrels are used for packing fish for the export trade. In 1934, some 114,837 tons of herring were landed in England and Wales and were estimated to have had a value of £759,986. Since the war of 1914-18 the export trade has fallen heavily. In 1910 more than 1,750,000 barrels of herrings were exported, mostly to Germany and Russia. Formerly the West Indian slave-owners found Scottish herrings to be a cheap and wholesome food for their slaves.

To-day the whole of British deep-sea fishing is done by single-boaters, and there is perhaps as much difference between the latest type of steam trawler and the earliest as there is between the Queen Mary and the pioneer Atlantic liners. The trawler’s business is to follow the fish. Not many years ago most of our fish came from the North Sea, but as those grounds became depleted through incessant trawling, other areas had to be sought. Thus there were opened out the prolific regions of Iceland, the White Sea, Bear Island (Siberia), the Atlantic, Moroccan and other waters. Where the fish is there will be the British fisherman, and now he goes regularly, all the year round, to distant waters, in craft that are unsurpassed sea-boats and in their way as well equipped as luxury liners.

A good example of the latest singleboater is the Stafnes, said to be the heaviest and strongest British trawler afloat. She comes from the yard of Cochrane & Sons, Ltd., Selby, Yorkshire, and is owned by the Rinovia Steam Fishing Company, Ltd., of Grimsby. Special efforts have been made to ensure the safety and comfort of the crew. The Stafnes is 162 feet long.

In the forecastle, which is big and airy, there are twenty-one bunks, with a locker for each man, but this accommodation will not be taxed unless the ship is engaged in the salting trade. A large boat-deck aft is fitted with a hatch ladder to the door of the cabin, making a safe route in bad weather for men leaving the bridge. Aft, also, are a large cabin, separate rooms for the mate, third hand, engineers and cook, and a large mess-room. There is a bathroom for the crew, and hot and cold water are fitted throughout the ship.

The skipper’s room is on the same level as the wheelhouse, which he can reach in two seconds — a great help in emergencies. Beneath his room is the wireless operator’s cabin, which is equipped with telegraph, telephone and direction-finding instruments. The steam steering-gear also is below.

There, too, is the skipper’s bathroom, with a shower-bath. In the wheelhouse are an echo depth-sounding machine and an electric log which records upon a dial. All parts of the ship, except the forecastle, are heated by electric radiators and, to give a homelike look to the skipper’s room, an imitation coal fireplace has been fitted. Large supplies of fresh water are carried for the boilers and there is an oil-extraction plant for rendering down fish livers.

Single-Boaters in High Latitudes

Wireless in British fishing vessels is essentially a post-war development. There are now some 700 of these craft fitted for “wireless-telephone or wireless telegraph/telephone communication”.

There are even larger trawlers than the Stafnes, and all the principal fishing ports are adding to their big type craft. The chief fishing port on the west coast — Fleetwood (Lancs), famous for hake — is being provided with no fewer than fifteen large new steamers, each with a length of 184 feet. Hull and Grimsby are following the same policy and Aberdeen and Milford Haven (Pembrokeshire) hold their places.

These are the fishing vessels that go to high latitudes and out into the Atlantic, single-boating. They carry in some instances more than 400 tons of coal and great supplies of ice, and they are well provisioned. The latest modern trawler develops a speed of over 13 knots and the equipment is all that money and experience can provide. A trawler making the White Sea trip will have 2,000 miles to go out and 2,000 miles home — 4,000 miles’ steaming on passage, apart from the trawling, and her absence will be on an average three or four weeks.

There are four methods of deep-sea fishing — trawling, drifting, seining and lining. Trawling is towing a huge net on the sea-bed and scooping up the fish, round and flat, which are classed as demersal. Drifting is the system of putting out a vast net vertically, making it a wall near the surface of the water into the meshes of which the pelagic fish such as herring and pilchards drive themselves when swimming, and are held fast by the gills. Seining is really miniature trawling. Lining is the use of a great number of baited lines which are lowered into the water, left for the necessary time, and then hauled. There is no better fish than that which is caught by lines, because it is free from crushing and disfigurement and is normally got to market quickly. The old yawls of the Yorkshire coast, the “Scarboroughmen” and “Fileymen”, were famous long-liners.

CONVERTED PADDLE TUGS, mostly from the Tyne

CONVERTED PADDLE TUGS, mostly from the Tyne, were the earliest steam trawlers. They were fitted with beam-trawls and experimental otter gear, and successfully worked rough grounds. Some of these pioneers are shown in Scarborough Harbour, Yorkshire. The Triumph, in the foreground, was built in 1867 and had a gross tonnage of 103. She had a length of 95 ft. 5 in., a beam of 18 ft. 5 in. and a depth of 9 ft. 10 in.

Of the four methods, trawling is by far the most laborious and hazardous. The drifter and the seiner work mostly within easy reach of port. The long-liner will get into high latitudes and well away to sea, especially the vessels that seek halibut and cod. But all waters are the working-grounds of the powerful modern trawler. She specializes in inhospitable regions. In the summer she will work in constant daylight, in the winter in almost constant darkness. She can tell a sorry tale of hardship and suffering.

Bear Island, for instance, is about 400 miles within the Arctic Circle, on the edge of the ice drift. The seas freeze as they come on board, the fish freeze when they drop from the net, and the winch has to be kept running to prevent freezing. The work is ceaseless and no such thing as real rest and sleep is known until the catch is complete, the fish-room full and the run home begun.

Those conditions apply to trawlers working in high latitudes, but the strain is almost the same wherever the trawler goes. Her trip may be short — five or six days — or long — four weeks or even more. The time spent ashore between trips may be forty or forty-eight hours, except when the ship is in for repairs, so that most of the trawlerman’s life is spent afloat, either on passage or at work.

In trawlers especially there is always danger from warps, nets, blocks, bollards and so on, and the motion of the ship. Terrible accidents occur from snapped wire warps and the sudden tremendous strain on ship and gear due to bad weather; and there are sea-boils, cuts, sores and many minor ailments, apart from serious injuries to limbs. Excessive and unprofitable work is often caused through the trawl becoming entangled with the many wrecks that lie on the sea-bed, as well as rocks and other natural obstructions.

A Mile of Nets

The drifter is much smaller than the trawler, though she is far bigger to-day than the old luggers, yawls, mules, Zulus, keel boats, yaffers, sploshers and other oddly-named craft which went after the pelagic fish. The drifter now is almost solely mechanically propelled, but she retains her quaint descriptions for members of her crew: the skipper, who controls the ship and takes the wheel at important times; the hawseman, who is forward to make fast the seizing of the warp; the whaleman amidships, paying out the nets; the net-ropeman, attending to the net-rope; the net-stower, in charge of the net-room; and the younker, a man of all work.

During the herring season at Yarmouth as many as 1,000 drifters will be assembled, and there have been times when the River Yare was so closely packed that one might have walked across it from bank to bank, stepping from ship to ship. The same congestion was not uncommon at Scarborough formerly, when the inner harbour on a Sunday would be a solid mass of Scottish sailing luggers.


THREE PRINCIPAL METHODS OF DEEP-SEA FISHING are illustrated here. These are respectively trawling, drifting and seine fishing. Trawling, as explained in the accompanying chapter, is an active method of fishing, in that the trawler pulls the net along, and this functions in the manner of a tug. For this reason a trawler uses a large-diameter coarse-pitch propeller. The motion of the ship through the water, with the help of the kite-like action of the otter boards, keeps open the mouth of the net, which is divided into sections as shown. Drifting is a comparatively passive occupation; the vessel rides to her nets, which are hauled on board by menas of a steam or electrically driven capstan. The nets are kept hanging in a vertical position by floats or buoys. Seining is of Dutch origin and is really minature trawling. The system is specially adapted to small vessles. A special seine net winch is arranged for pulling the net on board and emptying the fish onto the deck. Seining is generally carried on during summer. The best grounds are those in comparatively shallow water.

One familiar sight during the herring season is the fisher-girl at work. At Yarmouth on a busy day the girls will be at work from 6 a.m. till 9 p.m., in all weathers, “gipping”, or gutting, the herring with astonishing rapidity. The girls work in crews of three, and an expert with the sharp gutting knife will gut herrings at the rate of one a second.

A drifter carries nets enough when fastened together and suspended in the sea to make a wall a mile or more long and several yards deep. The upper edge, called the back, has a great number of corks which keep the nets upright. To give the necessary buoyancy, floats of various types are used. The nets are shot over the quarter just before sunset, while the vessel goes slowly along. When all the nets are overboard the swing-rope is paid out, the ship is brought round head to wind, the foremast is lowered until it rests on the crutch of the mitch-board, the drift mizen is set to keep the vessel head to wind, the fishing-lights are shown, a watch of one man is set, and the rest of the crew turn in until he calls them to haul.

This method of drifting has been employed probably for many centuries. Old Lowestoft fishermen believed that the method had remained unaltered for about 1,000 years and that the nets had been of almost the same design throughout that period.

Seine fishing has made great progress in home waters since its introduction some years ago. The system, which is Danish, is specially suitable for drifters, small trawlers and motor-boats. It is usually carried on during summer, and the best grounds are those in comparatively shallow water, with a smooth sandy surface. A small ship, a small crew, frequent hauls and general handiness and quickness make the seine vessel an important craft. Some seiners work from Grimsby, where they are .known as “snibs”, and they may be seen in the Shetlands and in the waters fished from Milford Haven.


THE HERRING SEASON IN FULL SWING. Drifters unloading their catches of herring at Yarmouth. When the fleet is in the harbour the vessels are sometimes so tightly packed side by side that they almost block the River Yare. The baskets in the foreground, of double pannier shape are peculiar to Yarmouth They are called “ swills.” The basket is made of unpeeled willow and will hold about 500 herrings. It was formerly used to transfer the fish from the boat to the shore.

The great line fishing is a most interesting industry. Apart from the vessels specially engaged in it, there are others which have been turned for the time being into liners — a drifter, for example, which because of the poorness of the herring fishing has gone into lining in the hope of success. In such a vessel not long ago were five relatives — the skipper, his son, his brother and two nephews. With that close relationship it is tragedy indeed when a fishing vessel is reported lost with all hands.

When the great lines are all out they will stretch on end for about nine miles. The hooks are baited with mackerel or herring and suspended about 9 feet by a smaller cord or snood from the main line, at intervals of about 20 feet along the entire length. The hooks are baited as the line passes overboard. In fine weather three or four hours pass between shooting and hauling.

The Highly Prized “But”

The hauling is the most interesting and anxious of all the operations. It is joyful to see a good haul of hooked fish; yet too often the haul is ruined by the attacks of dogfish, or worse still, of sharks. A big and valuable fish will be swooped upon by a monster whose powerful jaws sever the line with a vicious snap.

The fish most highly prized by the long-liners is the halibut — called “but” for short. A good specimen will weigh a hundredweight, but there are many of far larger size. The halibut are at once gutted, washed and shelved in the fish-room ready for market, where they will fetch a shilling or more a pound.

British fishing craft alone, apart from the fishing vessels of other countries, form one of the most interesting ship types in the world. There is not, however, the same variety as before the war of 1914-18, when sail was pre-dominant. In those days there were some 200 different types, adapted to innumerable localities, ranging from the currach, which resembled a washing basket, to the modern steam trawler. Currachs may still be seen, also the frail canoes with the crew of three which look so insecure, off the west coast of Ireland, fishing in the Atlantic and having dangerous adventures with monster sharks.

The sailing fishing vessels were as different in their names as they were in rig, and a few are still almost the same as they were in the days of the Norsemen. The Shetland big open boat known as the “sixern” closely resembles the Norsemen’s long craft, and the Yorkshire cobles keep true to an extremely old type.

Sail alone has almost vanished. The smallest of craft has its motor, and steam and internal combustion engine continue the fight for mastery in the biggest craft. Steam is still a firm favourite. The single propeller too has yet to be beaten by twin or more screws.

To-day the steam trawler provides comparative comfort and protection, and through wireless and telephony constant touch may be kept not only with home and the markets and other ships but also with that world of broadcasting which has proved a new heaven to all our toilers of the deep.

All this improvement is as it should be, for the deep-sea fishing is Great Britain’s sixth most important industry.

Scottish girls busy gutting herring at Yarmouth

AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE INDUSTRY. Scottish girls busy gutting herring at Yarmouth. The girls work in crews of three and are Astonishingly skilful with their knives. An expert will gut or “gip” at the rate of a herring a second. The gutted herrings are packed in brine in the barrets shown and are exported to the Continent. These herrings are mostly eaten raw.

You can read more on “The Fishery Patrol Ship”, “Fishery Protection” and “His Majesty’s Customs Service” on this website.