BBC HomeExplore the BBC

7 February 2011
Accessibility help
Text only
Nation on Film

BBC Homepage
Where I Live

Contact Us

Like this page?
Send it to a friend!

Trawlerman asleep Danger to life and limb was the most serious of the ever present dangers surrounding life at sea.

'Time and Tide' reflects the hardship and tragedy experienced by East Coast fishermen.

Fishermen do not like to talk about people lost at sea or the risks involved in fishing. 'Life is for living, not for worrying'. But everyone in a fishing town knows of someone who has died at sea.

When a man is missing the whole clan get together to look for the body and help out his family. The Lifeboat Association rescue grew in parallel with the fishing industry.

A 24 hour job

Fishing was known to be one of the more arduous occupations a man could choose to earn a living.

Fishing was a 24 hour job

A fisherman's day could be 24 hours long, with most of the hauls made at night. The little rest that was available was taken lying on a bone hard locker.

Denied a normal family life or social activities, fishermen risked their lives in all weathers for little reward. Even as late as 1939, deep sea fishing was described as Britain's most dangerous job.

The War had thrown people together, broadening horizons and raising expectations of a different life for returning heroes.

A better life

Men left the trade for the navy or mercantile marine. Fishermen wanted to provide for their sons a better start than they had had.

Before World War II, nine out of ten boys went to sea, but after the War, more and more boys, even the lads from the Orphan Boys Home, were found other employment.

The supply of fisherboys dried up and the consequences were serious. Skills that had been handed down for years from master mariner to apprentice might be lost within a generation.

The Trawlers

Many trawlers at the turn of the 1900s were still made of wood, which had been a successful medium for hundreds of years.

Iron and steel hull-shells were replacing the older ships in the fishing industry, although many wooden boats are still afloat.

Steaming ahead

The first Steam Trawlers sailed towards the end of the 19th century. The size of trawlers was limited by cost, and the size of the opening to the fish docks.

A steam trawler crew usually consisted of nine men. The men spent weeks out at sea and were only home for a few days.

They partied hard when they had the chance and the harbour towns were packed with pubs catering to the fishermen's habit of binge drinking.

Relationships could be difficult, there was tension between the fishermen and their loved ones.

Not only might they die at sea, but they led reckless lives on shore as well. Failed marriages were common place.

For those fishermen from other ports, away from home for long periods, brawling and prostitution seemed to go with the territory.

A fisherman's wage has always come from his share of the catch. This 'great gamble' was a part of the attraction, one week nothing, the next a huge haul.

Safety at sea

Fishermen at sea
Safety first - danger on board

The problems of safety at sea aboard deep sea trawlers were not properly addressed until the loss of three Humber trawlers during the winter of 1968.

The deck operations, especially in bad weather, posed many dangerous situations if the utmost care was not taken and the proper procedures not adhered to.

The proper maintenance of deck equipment was essential and this included adequate service between trips when the vessel was in dock.

Safety advances were;

The introduction of improved hauling operations to the majority of trawlers using heavy bobbin trawls.

Development of a hydraulically-operated towing block for trawls

De-icing the masts and stays with a form of rubber sleeving and the superstructure with sets of rubber panels.

Icing up was an ever present danger in the northern waters. Freezing temperature caused a steady build up of ice on superstructures.

If the ice was not removed then capsize was inevitable.

At least three de-icing systems were devised;

The Palmer de-icers used compressed air to expand the rubber and thereby shatter the base of the ice formation, making it break off.

The Dunlop de-icer utilised heating elements within the rubber panels and the heat generated kept the panel and surrounding area clear of ice formation.

A third idea was a paint that conducted electricity and kept the superstructure clear of ice.

The commonest form of de-icing was to physically remove the ice with heavy blunt tools!

Automated mechanisms and design

Stern trawlers helped to improve safety

Additional mechanisation to conventional trawlers was a further safety feature inasmuch as a reduction in manual work led to less fatigue.

Fatigue is one of the prime sources of human error aboard ship and a reduction in this direction aimed at increased safety.

The greatest advance in safety came with the advent of the stern trawler and the stern trawler with shelter deck facilities for the crew was an even greater advance.

No longer did the deckhand have to gut the fish in the open with the hazards of extreme weather conditions to contend with. Now he could do all this under cover and in comparative safety.

Fire! fire! fire!

Much was done to minimise the danger of fire aboard these vessels and a good deal of advance warning equipment for fire conditions had been introduced.

This had been fitted along with remote warning systems for engine-room and automatic or semiautomatic fire extinguishing systems.

Three new systems were introduced.

The Monalert engine alarm system provided a remote alarm system, both in the wheelhouse and the engine-room, covering engine oil pressures, fresh water temperature, engine overspeed, air pressure control, oil levels and bilge and fishroom slush well levels. Should any of these exceed pre-set levels, then the respective alarm was sounded both in the wheelhouse and in the chief engineer's berth.

The Minerva fire defence system provided a detection system for both fire and heat. Sensors were located at strategic points throughout the accommodation and engine-room spaces. In the accommodation areas and alleyways smoke detection units were located whilst in the galley and engine-room spaces heat detection equipment was linked to the alarm system.

A comprehensive fire extinguishing system. This was semiautomatic and comprised a sprinkler system for the accommodation and a Multispray system for the engine-room.

The inflatable life raft

The greatest advance in lifesaving equipment was the introduction of the inflatable life raft aboard fishing vessels.

Fishing vessels found the inflatable life raft to be a real lifesaver.

Before this the trawler crew had to rely on a standard wooden lifeboat which as often as not afforded less hope for survival than the vessel they were abandoning.

Unseen Danger

Unguarded winches, ropes and wires under extreme tension.

The hazards of using gutting knives when the ship was rolling and tumbling about.

Exposure to the weather

Noise, which often spread beyond the engine-room and pervaded the whole accommodation, so that those off-watch had to put up with it as well. The level of sound in the average engine-room was well-nigh intolerable. Admittedly, humans can adapt to such conditions, but it does not mean that this was at all desirable, as excess noise is definitely harmful, not only to the eardrums but to the whole nervous system. Some people have a higher tolerance to noise than others, but in general noise is a cause of fatigue, strain, and therefore accidents. Small irritations grow out of all proportion when one cannot get away from them, as is the case aboard a ship.

Herring girls

A 'fisher girl' would follow the 'Silver Darlings' (herrings) from May to October down the East coast.

Herring Girls
Heroines of the herring industry

It was a hard life, started as early as 15, the 'fisher girl' carrying her belongings in a wooden or tin 'kist'.

Her bed was called a 'karf' which she would fill with fresh chaff at each port of call.

She would have to bind her fingers with strips of cotton torn from flour sacks, to protect them from the sharp gutting knives and the hard herring jaws.

The Scotch girls, followed the fish down the coast, and invaded Yarmouth in October, numbering some 5,000.

All around the coastline of Britain were strung temporary herring stations.

These stations had huts for the accommodation of the female work force.

see also

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy