Enduring “Mal de Mer”

We were based in Dunmore in the winter of
1983 for the Herring fishing but we returned home in the Reaper for Christmas,
and along with all the other half-decker’s, manoeuvred inside Cheekpoint quay,
where they could be moored without any concern for their safety. Once Christmas
came no one wanted to be checking on boats, for the week we’d be off.  It
would be over soon enough. Once there was a buyer we would be away fishing
again, and with empty pockets, glad of it.

Cheekpoint village mid 1980’s.  MV Reaper at the top of the quay,
Boy Alan and St Agnes amongst others.  Photo via Anthony Rogers

That January of 1984 a market came
available on the Sunday after New Year.  The weather had been broken, with
gale after gale blowing in off the Atlantic.  As we walked onto the quay
that afternoon it was enough to just look at the boats in the harbour of Cheekpoint
to know that the evening wasn’t going to be pleasant.  Punts and half deckers
alike were pulling on anchors and ropes, swaying in and out at their moorings,
reflecting the restlessness of the river.

As we set sail there was a low scudding
cloud and a fresh wind from the SW.  We were an hour or two from high
water, which would mean a slower trip than usual down against the incoming
tide.  At Ballyhack the seas were already a choppy, but by Creaden (the
Waterford side of the harbour mouth) we were pitching and heaving heavily, the
seas breaking in on Broom Hill (Wexford side) looking fairly ominous.
Deep down in my stomach I could feel the
rumblings of upset and my head was starting to pound a little.  I had been
there before, and knew that by keeping my head up and staying busy it had
helped. As we kept moving out the harbour I noticed a change for the worst in
the seas.  The wind hadn’t altered any but the seas were running higher
and the trough that the Reaper went into became deeper and slower to climb out
of.  Standing was difficult, and making your way round the deck took planning, attention and luck.
Although I didn’t realise it at the time,
the tide was now running ebb and with it the change for the worse in the
seas.  Try as I might, none of my tried and tested methods of keeping the
sickness at bay would work.  Progressively I worsened, just like the seas and
then I started to yawn, deep yawns which seemed to rise out of my belly. 
Minutes later I was spewing over the side.  Immediately I felt better, and
longed to believe that the worst was over. 
There was a small flicker of
hope, maybe we wouldn’t find any fish and we could go in.  However
this was dashed when we marked a sizable lump of herring and Jim shouted to set. 
I was sick again and then it was time for the nets to go.  When we had the
nets out and the tea brewed, I forced a cup of the hot sweet tea down. 
Jim said it would help, but Denis was just grinning. I took one look at the
sandwiches and cast them into the sea.  Gulls pounced on them immediately,
screeching at each other and tearing away at the bread. How I longed to be like
those birds, with feathered wings to take them above the relentlessly pitching
and heaving seas.  A seal came into view, a giant, interested no doubt in
the actions of the birds, and what they had found to eat.  If I jumped in
and swam with him, would the cold of the seas and the shock of the water be
enough to relieve me of the horrible sensation that seemed to make every fibre
of my being ache.
I wondered how the other boats were
faring, were others feeling as bad. I also realised my father was nearby in the
Boy Alan.  I wondered what he would make of me. I said a quick prayer to our lady, asking for the strength to finish the job, not let myself or my father down. Again the sickness came, but it was a dry wretch, more painful and debilitating.  
Tea over, Denis checked the net. 
Signs were good.  Jim and himself consulted and decided we better start to
haul.  As the nets came in so did the herring, pile and pile of them and
the back breaking work of dragging the fish filled nets across the deck, was
like my own cross on Calvary.  I have no recollection of how long it took,
but I know that I didn’t have anything left to vomit as we proceeded. 
Over and back, stowing them safely, whilst the deck heaved, rolled and pitched
and I staggered like a drunk.  At some stage the winkie came into view and
it was like Christmas morning all over to me, to see it advancing towards the
gunwale of the boat.
Once in I loosened to light to stop the
winkie from flashing and last thing I remember was slumping onto the
nets.  I awoke at the breakwater at Dunmore East, and was surprised that I
no longer felt sick. But I was worn out, grey in the face, a spent force. We
tied up at the quayside and I started to get the ropes ready for the
shaking.  However a wave of relief washed over me when Jim said that we
would go home that night and return in the morning to shake out the nets. 
I didn’t sleep well that night.  The
sense of shame I felt at and the expectation of the slagging I would get next
day stopped my mind from finding rest.  In the morning I strolled over to
the village to get a lift to Dunmore.  Calling in to my parents, I found
my father lying on the couch.  My guard was up immediately, 
“How’re ya today?” he asked.
 
“I’m grand” I said
“Although I’d be better if we had the nets shook from last night”
  
“There was a lot of men glad to get
home from Dunmore last night” he said, continuing “that was one of
the roughest nights we had in many a year”
“No one else was sick” I
said, 
“Oh they were sick alright” he
countered, “You should have seen the speed of some of them going up the
ladder in Dunmore” 
And although I doubted it, I still had a
laugh, and started to feel a little better.
“Did I ever tell ya about the young
scouser that shipped out of Liverpool with us on a trip to Gibraltar” One of my
father’s traditional opening lines to a yarn. 
“No” I said, wondering where
this was going
“Ah he was all mouth” he said,
“There was nothing he couldn’t do, or hadn’t seen. We were in the Irish Sea
when he started to grow green.  By the time we were in the channel he
couldn’t stand and when we reached Biscay he barricaded himself into his cabin and
refused to stand his watch.  The bosun was another scouser and when he
heard of the carry on, he grabbed a fire axe and splintered the cabin door.
 He grabbed the young fella by the throat and dragged him to his watch.
 By the time they got to Gibraltar the young land scurried down the
gangway and as far as we know took a train home”

From outside I heard a car horn blowing,
it was Robert Ferguson, come to collect me father in his white Hiace van.
 I started towards the village via the knock, but as I walked I thought
about my father’s story.  Did he just make that up for my benefit, or was
it actually true and if so how did he recall it so fast.  Down the years
I’ve often wondered about that ability he had.   Maybe now as a father I
can properly understand, we show love in so many different ways, we constantly
worry about and try to protect our children. Just like his ability to soothe
away the blood and pain when we were in a fall, he also done his best to soothe
away the pain of growing into adulthood. Whether the story was true or not, it was a
wonderful ability he had.  And it at least meant I could hold my head up
that morning as we journeyed to Dunmore and I continued my journey towards
adulthood.

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
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East meets West, a Herring Fishermans Christmas

I’ve covered the Herring Drift Net Fishery in several parts these last few weeks, and today in the run up to Christmas, I wanted to recount an incident that made Christmas a little more poignant for me in the mid 1980’s.  We were selling directly at the time to Polish luggers that moored off Passage East in the harbour. These were fishing boats themselves and I’ve covered their activities before.
Part of the process of selling to the lugger was that we had to go aboard to agree the tally and get a docket to ensure we got paid.  Stepping out of the half decker and onto the ship was entering a very different world.  All ships have a similar smell; food, diesel oil, humans living in close contact.  They also have a familiar look, bulkheads, narrow passages, small cabins with smaller bunks, men trying to pass each other in close proximity.  The first thing I noticed was the solidness of the deck, it felt like land when compared to the half decker.

A squat burly man, the bosun, stepped forward.  He had a woollen hat on his head and a padded jacket on against the cold and damp, but no oilskins.  He held a tally book in one hand and he extended to other and gave me a firm handshake, then a gesture to follow him, into the superstructure of the vessel. 

Once we reached his cabin, he sat down at the table and indicated I do the same.  He had a book of dockets, upon which the evenings catch per boat was listed.  I wrote the name of the Boy Alan above and he stated the number of cran taken aboard.  I was, frankly, bricking it in case t’was a lesser amount than what Robert Ferguson (Skipper of the Boy Alan) had stated.  With a wave of relief I agreed with his tally and this was entered into the book.  He took out a glass from a shelf, filled it, and his own stained glass, then he beamed at me, toasted me Slainte and we both downed the shots.  The rum struck the back of my throat and I could feel the redness in my cheeks.  But I managed it without a cough.  
As my eyes glanced around the cabin, it was obvious to me that it was its own self contained unit. The table was adjoined to the wall and at its best could seat four, but only if the papers, docket books, glasses, bottle and a number of other nick knacks were tidied away.  There was a small wash stand, that doubled for washing drinking glasses and a regular shave, judging by the items set beside it. There was wood panelling around the bunk and I could see some photos within easy sight, as the bosun lay at rest. I could see a family group, but too small to distinguish and some individual photos of children.  The porthole was on the outer wall and as the Lugger swung with the tides would have given him a view of the New Line in Passage, or Seedees bank on the Wexford side. Behind me lay a metal bulkhead, grey and unyielding.  In all it was probably a ten foot long by five feet wide rectangle and it was the bosun’s only space for privacy.  He was luckier than most crew aboard I guess.

The Polish deep sea fleet numbered about 80 vessels at the time and they fished from the North Sea across the Atlantic and as far as Africa. Mackerel was the top catch, followed by Herring and Cod.  The fishery was centrally planned by the communist government and was managed by three state run companies Dalmor, Gryf and Odra.  The bosun was one of 16,000 employed in the deep sea fishing.
   
I was still sitting, as he moved to get back on deck, and slightly embarrassed I moved to join him.  I’d forgotten how tired I was, it was the first chance I got to sit in hours.  He ripped the page he had been scribbling in off the docket book and placed it in my hand.  “Good Business” he said and clapped me on the back and pushed me out the door.
Returning to deck was like running a gauntlet.  At several cabin doors, seamen were offering produce; fags, spirits, beer or clothing.   Each came at a price, but it was buttons compared to what we would normally pay in Irish shops.  Half of Cheekpoint, and all the other villages in the harbour were dressed as Poles, drunk on questionable spirits and sweet tasting beer and coughing up tar from foul smelling fags.  They traded their eastern European produce, in the hope of making enough western currency to buy sought after goods.  These could be then sold at huge profits at home or given as gifts.  Levis jeans seemed to be a favourite western purchase, branded jackets, clothes, perfume and watches were also sought after.    
The bosun walked me to the ladder, and as I turned towards him to descend onto the halfdeckers below, I wished him a Happy Christmas and said I hope he made it home to his family. He must have grasped what I was saying because he beamed at me, and said yes, but that we needed to bring more fish!  There would be no trip home without a full hold.  Although Poland was firmly behind the “Iron Curtain” and had been since the end of the second world war, the Communist party had turned a blind eye to the country’s deep religious beliefs.  Christmas in Poland was a festival with as much meaning and custom as in Ireland. To be home for Wigilia would be important to any family man.  
Heading upriver that evening I realised the Poles who worked so hard both to fill the fish barrels and to trade with us for hard currency were no different to ourselves in the run up to Christmas.  Most of them, just like the bosun were probably family men.  Working for low pay in a dirty and dangerous job, they wanted no more than ourselves; a few bob in their pockets and some nice gifts for their families once they made it home.  I as much as anyone knew what it was like to have my father away. I could appreciate just how hard Christmas was on fishing and sailing families, many of whom, particularly in the previous generations, were lucky to get a parcel with some hand made gifts or foreign purchases and a letter.
We would continue fishing for another few days, and although this was governed as much by the weather, as the market, I was happy for the lugger crew when we were notified that it was time for them to set sail for home. We had whatever we were going to have for Christmas now, and so did the Poles.  
In the preceding days I followed the progress of the lugger on her journey home, at least in my minds eye.  I wondered would they head up the Irish sea and over Scotland, or go via the English Channel and then slip across the North sea.  Days later they would steam over the tip of Denmark and into the Baltic. They would probably welcome the air getting denser and colder and surely their hearts would lift their chests as they slipped into port at Gdansk, Hel or Kolobrzez.  They would take a bus or a train home, and arrive into the arms of family and greetings over would unpack their bags and widen the eyes of their children.

At least that’s how I imagined it would be.  Free of the routine of fishing, we could turn ourselves now to Christmas shopping, house calling, drinking beer and making merry.  Christmas was only starting and it would soon enough pass, and just like the Poles we would grow weary and perhaps even bored of the festive routine, and would long to be back on the water.
Postscript.
The glory years of the Polish Deep sea fishery was coming to an end.  3 factors were crucial in the demise, and even as the luggers bought Herring in Waterford harbour, the storm clouds were upon them.  The first impact was the extension of 200 mile limits on national fishing grounds and related restrictions, the second, was the changing of the guard in Poland and the move to private enterprises and finally the third, was joining the EU.  From being one of the largest deep sea fishing fleets in the world the Polish fleet is now decimated.
some figures:
in 1988 total catch was 628,000 T approx. in 2008 it was 179,000
in 1990 there were 77 deep sea fishing boats.  By 2009 there were 4!
in 1980 there were 16,000 people employed in deep sea fishing alone.  by 2008 there were 2991
All the details on the Polish fishery are taken from an EU report on Fisheries in Poland IP/B/PECH/NT/2011_02 

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales