The Ryanwood bobs gently against the quayside wall of Peterhead harbour. At just 80-foot long, she is dwarfed on all sides by industrial fishing boats. The six-man crew, and that of her sister vessel, the Castlewood, are busy loading provisions. Food comes on board, as does water, as does ice.
In a few minutes, the craft will head out into the North Sea, in search of haddock. I have been invited to join the crew with the warning that, although the trip is expected to last four days, it could take longer. With little experience of the sea, I have prepared for the journey – perhaps unwisely – by watching a documentary film in which Canadian fishermen land sea crab against the ferocious Atlantic elements, in a boat of similar proportions to the Ryanwood.
Watching it made me feel queasy. “What kind of weather would force you to turn back?” I ask stand-in skipper Martin West, as he brushes past me on the deck. The question, I hope, is theoretical, though I have been told that gales are forecast. “We’ve never had to turn back yet,” he says, with a wink and a well-timed laugh.
It will take around 12 hours to make the 120-mile trip north to the waters off the east coast of Fair Isle, where we will shoot the first of our nets. From there, if we get lucky, we will zigzag through the same area for days, a succession of lines roughly 10 miles in length.
Inside the wheelhouse, there is a standard-issue book of psalms, for singing, or times of great distress. I am told it has never been opened. Family photographs of West’s brother and absent skipper, Kevin, line the walls.
A deckhand asks if I get seasick as the engine splutters into motion. “No,” I say, thinking back to a summer ferry ride to Zeebrugge. But I have brought along some tablets, and pop one discreetly into my mouth.
All sight of land is gone; the sky and sea meet at a depressingly grey horizon. The motion so far seems reasonable, if a little unpredictable. The wooden wheel, so beloved of Captain Birdseye, sits redundant, replaced by a high-tech dial.
Despite wide-scale culls to the Scottish fishing fleet, Peterhead remains the UK’s largest white-fish port, and one of the biggest in Europe. As with its northern neighbour, Fraserburgh, the trade remains central to the local economy, wound tightly into the fabric of its history and its way of life.
But tales of walking from one side of the Blue Toon’s harbour to the other on the decks of resting boats are already the stuff of nostalgia. European Union-led waves of decommissioning in 2001 and 2003 were designed to preserve dwindling fish stocks at a negotiable human cost: the northeast whitefish fleet now tallies just 150 boats, down from more than 300 in 2000.
Paired with successive reductions to the cod quota, and strict limits on the number of days permitted at sea, many boats, under pressure from the banks, were simply scrapped, regardless of their age or potential.
New research suggests that, at current rates of fishing, global fish stocks will collapse by 2048, effectively ending any future for the industry. As it stands, the tightening restrictions have at least left some breathing space for those, like the Ryanwood, that have managed to ride the storm. Reduced supply and increasing demand have seen prices soar to around £70 per box of fish, more than double their value five years ago.
A second industry has spawned, whereby days at sea and quotas are hired from those left with licences but no boats. “Everybody’s earnings have got better in the last couple of years,” says West, “if they still have a boat to get out on.”
Wages for deckhands of £30,000 to £40,000 a year, he says, are justified. “You’re never still on a boat, especially in winter, and you get battered black and blue. On top of that, you’re sleeping, when you do sleep, in a glorified coffin.”
My sickness, I am told, was inevitable. Most of those new to the job, or returning after a break, spend their first few days doubled over. Obligingly, I run to the lower deck and vomit, then vomit again and again. For the next few hours I will do little else. The bunks – where I convalesce – are situated in the lowest part of the boat, next to the engine room and its thick diesel fumes.
In all, there are three wood-panelled cabins, as long and as wide as a prostrate body, and intended to accommodate two. Birthday cards are stuck to the mirrors; a teddy bear lies on the floor. If it belongs to one of the tattooed deckhands, none is prepared to admit to it.
For those in the profession, the cabins amount to home for up to three weeks at a time, with an average of only three days on shore every fortnight. The beds’ lack of comfort hardly matters. With boats hauling nets every four hours round the clock, sleep deprivation is the norm.
“There’s no need for clocks out here,” says engineer Raymond Hendry. In more than three decades at sea, he has grown accustomed to the punishing workload. “When the skipper calls, that’s all you need to know. You just get into a routine of shooting and hauling.”
Unusually, Hendry has no other family involved in fishing. His son works in Aberdeen; his brother is an engineer on shore. Most of the deckhands I speak to have brothers, fathers or children in the industry. If not in pair trawling – where, as in the Ryanwood’s case, each catch is split between two boats – then in pelagic boats targeting mackerel and herring, or in the Fraserburgh-based prawn fleet.
But the trend is changing, breaking a chain that has gone back for generations. Since 1965, the number of people employed on Scottish-based vessels has halved, with less than 300 fishermen now employed on a regular basis in Peterhead. That the top end of the industry is now seen as a closed shop – with even basic boats costing £1million plus – does not help.
“I wouldn’t like my young boy to come to this,” says West, who spent most of his own childhood holidays with his brother on his father’s boat. “It’s still a joy, and I have no regrets, but with no guarantee of a future, what can we tell our boys?”
“Wakey wakey, hokey pokey.” I have been dreaming about aeroplanes; specifically being on one during heavy turbulence. It takes a few seconds to realise I am actually being thrown about on a boat in the middle of the North Sea, which seems infinitely worse.
The forecast gales have arrived at force eight. It feels like somebody is sitting on my stomach then thumping me on the back of the head, pasting me to the wall and dragging me back for more. Again, the loudspeaker: “Wakey wakey, let’s go.”
My cabin-mate David Geddes swears a few times before throwing a magazine at the wall. It takes me four attempts to get out of the top bunk. Finally, I sit on the edge and wait for the momentum to take me over. In the galley deck, I tug on my yellow rubber boots, buckling over as the boat thumps into water.
A rusted door leads to the lower deck, where water spews in across the grey wooden floor. John Wallace, the crew’s cook, is propped against a box of orange buoys with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. He raises an eyebrow, tilting like a pendulum against the sway. Another ladder leads out onto the upper deck where I am hit with a punch of freezing seawater and the squall of a thousand seagulls.
The assembled deckhands greet me like the man from Atlantis, or the local village idiot. At one point their faces are just inches from the sea, then suddenly metres above it. The Castlewood – normally a blip on the radar – is drawn ever-closer as our shared net fights its way to the surface. Her lights appear then disappear behind the angry swell of waves.
Both crews work silently, wrapped tight in hoods and hats, like ghosts in the frozen night. Each man bends silently to his individual task: one throwing a grapple hook to the net, another operat- ing the pulley. The fish look motionless on the water’s surface, as if we are the reeling animal, and they the hunter-gatherers.
Their weight drags the boat down, stressing the engine, tilting the deck. Two swollen nets are manoeuvred onboard and dropped into the hold below. The process is repeated for the Castlewood, before she edges off into the distance.
We are 24 miles east of Fair Isle, 34 miles south of Orkney. As the deck lights shut off we are consumed by total darkness. “This is nothing,” shouts deckhand Gilbert Green through a wall of rain and netting. “It gets a hell of a lot rougher than this!”
I am back in the wheelhouse in search of drinking water. I haven’t yet slept and don’t know when I will. One idea being floated ahead of the EU Fisheries Council talks next month – to ban cod fishing outright – could sound the death knell for haddock boats like the Ryanwood. Already restricted to 20% of their cod catch in the late 1990s, the boat now has a licence for just 800 boxes a year.
“We get the odd codling, maybe 10 or 15 boxes in a haul of 500 boxes, but a complete ban could stop us going to sea completely,” says West. “Fish buyers need fish, and if they’ve got to import from Norway or Iceland, those countries will run off with our markets. It wouldn’t just affect the fishing fleet. It would affect everybody because there wouldn’t be any boats for engineers to fix.”
The North Sea fishing grounds are policed by patrol vessels which routinely check each boat’s logbook and positioning. A patrol plane flying overhead serves the same purpose, confirming the Ryanwood’s identity. “A waste of money,” says West.
“We have satellite communications now that can track where we are from Edinburgh.”
A conveyor belt carries assorted fish from the hold. The effect is of a macabre game show. Undercover, but with water sloshing halfway up our boots, it feels as though we are under attack.
The boat creaks in agony; the lights flicker briefly, then settle. Fish are measured before being thrown into holding bins where they are washed. Even in this context, the smokers manage to get cigarettes into their mouths and lit without incident.
My job is to lift plastic baskets of haddock and whiting on to a chute, where they are dropped to the packing room below. Their weight is one thing, the shifting gravity quite another. One foot should go in front of the other, but doesn’t. I almost stand on a three-foot shark before grabbing the walls for stability.
It is picked up by the tail, thrown back into the sea. “Whiting!” comes the call from the fish room and I look at the baskets at my feet. My knowledge of fish extends to supermarket vacuum-wrapped packs.
“Those ones,” shouts Geddes as the boat rolls heavily on its side. “If it’s got a thumb-print, it’s a haddock.” According to the myth, St Peter drew one of the haddock’s ancestors from the Lake of Genneserat, leaving the two grubby marks behind its gills.
The book of psalms, if not the Bible, comes rushing back to mind. I make it through a rusted hatch just in time, before throwing up yet again.
SATURDAY, 11.06 AM
John Wallace, who is from Galway, worked on fishing boats in Ireland and America before arriving in Peterhead. “They’re all much of a muchness,” he says, “although you do meet some cranky bastards out here.”
As cook, he provides two meals a day for the crew. Right now, he is wrestling with an enormous tray of black pudding, sausages, beef and turkey. A vegetarian when I came on board, I find that, after three days without eating, I no longer care.
The worst that can happen is that I’m sick, which I am, repeatedly, anyway. What socialising there is gets done in the galley, although there appears to be little appetite for talking.
Nautical tradition deems it bad luck to bring a woman on board, but Jade Goody, Lorraine Kelly and Jessica Alba all make appearances courtesy of satellite TV, reducing the need for conversation.
Inevitably, given the extreme rolling and gales that have now reached force nine, the talk turns to the Meridian trawler, which disappeared off the coast of Aberdeen last month with the loss of four lives, in similarly rough conditions.
It is a tragedy that hits home, underlining the dangers of forward to. “I think there’s a good future as long as we’re allowed to keep fishing,” he says. “But there’s very little stability for us now, and we’re just taking it one year at a time.”
A broken link on one of the winches delays the final catch which, when it comes, yields a bumper haul. A radio conversation between the two Wests confirms that the boats will return to sea in the morning after tomorrow’s market.
The oblivious crew are waiting in line for a shower: the first in five days. The water is hot, the pressure excel- lent. But as the boat slips into a cruising speed of six knots, the world is thrown into near-vertical rolls.
Water spills over the footplate; shampoo and body parts crash into the walls and metal taps. There is no special technique, I am told afterwards: you just get on with it.
West cranks the boat up to nearly seven knots and the rocking increases accordingly. Going any faster in these conditions would crumple the vessel like paper. Rain screes across the windows; daylight, if there ever was any, has gone.
Without warning, West breaks into a rendition of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, content with the bounty of the trip. With nearly 500 boxes per boat, the five-day voyage should translate to around £60,000 at the market. Of that, the bulk will go on overheads, on insurance, on quota costs. What’s left will be split evenly between the crews of both boats.
“There are no set wages in this job,” says West. “You can be gone a whole week and earn nothing. It’s like roulette because every time you leave the harbour it’s a gamble.”
A Babel of new voices emerges, as the boat travels the last 20 miles to the harbour. Myriad skippers, discussing prices, hauls and weather reports, fight for airspace alongside coastguards and mobile phones, which have recovered reception for the first time since we left port.
The satellite phone has been operational throughout the trip, but it is there for emergencies and none of the deckhands has used it. Most take the opportunity now to check for messages, send texts, play with ringtones.
New blips appear on a radar which for days has seen only the Castlewood at a distance of 0.36 of a mile, and then closing in at regular intervals. It is only on seeing the lights of the land in the distance that the true darkness of the sea can be appreciated, but still the approach is slow. Everything is packed: my wallet and keys are back in my pocket; I am ready, more than ready, to go.
Below deck, work continues. Boxes are shifted and prepared for landing. Despite the occasional joke, and the marginally louder voices, there is no real sense of animation, only tired and gaunt-looking faces.
On arrival, we are placed in a queue to unload our haul for the Peterhead market, which will open for business at 7am. Bodies jump onto the quayside, still swaying from side to side, as forklifts approach to receive the catch.
Seagulls, like men, crowd the harbour, in search of a decent meal. It is just a matter of hours till the market fry-up, reported to be the best in Peterhead. I manage to slip and fall, my land-legs betraying me on first asking.
Everything is still moving, or so it seems, and so it will continue for hours and days to come. I am happy to be back on land, but know that this is a bittersweet moment for the crew, who, in a few hours, will be heading back into the North Sea.
Deckhands phone family members – making their first contact in a week – to tell them they are back on dry land; that they miss them. “We’ll be back out again come sunrise,” says West. “You just never know when the weather’s going to turn. So when we’re able to fish, we fish.” ￼￼
First published in The Sunday Herald, 2006