The History of Leith

August 3, 2004

FIRST TRIP-(Or A Newhaven Lad Grew Up – Quick)

Recollections from an old salt. Captain W. L. Hume, M.N.I., retired Shipmaster, – everything from Tankers to Lighthouse Tenders, Deep Sea to Coasting, Passenger to Salvage Tugs, and, not without a bit of unbelievable comfort, large Luxury Ocean Going Motor Yachts – thought it might be a good idea to jot down some of his recollections from early beginnings and his introduction to a life at sea, being thrown in, as it were, at the deep end, namely as a schoolboy passenger/first tripper on a deep sea trawler, or, in modern television parlance, to quote Captain Manwairing from ‘Dads Army’ – “stupid boy” -.


From an early age I can remember clambering over, under and through boats of all shapes and sizes, dinghy’s – launches – pilot boats – tugs – herring drifters – trawlers et al, I cut my teeth on all of them, the excitement and enjoyment of a steam driven paddle steamer, William Muir, crossing The Firth of Forth from Granton to Burntisland, or day excursion on the Fair Maid round the Islands of Inchcolm-Inchkeith-May Island, Bass Rock, with a call to the Victoria Jetty at North Berwick before it fell into disrepair, the occasions where the main attraction was to gaze down at those gleaming steam engines with massive shafts of polished steel, to’ing and fro’ing at a regular ninety revolutions per minute, or bolder in venturing somewhat further afield with a voyage on a North Sea trawler, such a memorable trip is worth recording as it just would not be possible, with present day rules and regulations, coupled with the fact that all the old steam trawlers have long since been scrapped, it helps to illustrate a hard and dangerous way of a hard industrial life, thankfully, long since disappeared.

With a decidedly salt-water family background, trawler fleet owning maternal grandfather, uncles as top skippers and mates, it was not too difficult to arrange a ‘trip’, parents being more than satisfied that I would be well cared for and properly looked after. School holidays from Trinity Academy barely started and I was up and about at the crack of dawn (instead of lying’ in , as most young lads were in favour of).

Down to the harbour with a ‘sea-bag’ and appropriate swagger, quickly found my boat, lying alongside the quay, with a couple of battered rusty trawlers tied up outside, no sign of life stirred as I rapidly found my way on board, eventually a flat capped head popped up out of a door leading to the engine room – yes laddie, whit’ ye efter,… oh I’m coming with you this trip says I, ah… you must be the skipper’s nephie, ok make yersel at hame, the crowd (crew) will be here by an by……..

This of course was Tam, the watchman (a genial retired trawler engineer ) who, apart from keeping an eye on everything, had to light the three boiler fires quite early to ensure a proper head of steam would be ready in time for sailing, he disappeared rapidly, shaking his head and muttering, ma’ goad he must be awfy keen.

Within a short while the crew members arrived and quickly changed into working clothes, then set about their various tasks to prepare the boat for sea, under the watchful eye of the Mate, the deck crew checking that all loose gear was properly stowed, securing the hatches to the fish hold, ice hold and net store, the coal trimmers busy locking the six massive steel coal bunker lids set in flush to the deck, Chief and Second engineers busy with last minute adjustments to the huge triple expansion steam engine, the Fireman making sure all the fires were suitably stoked and building up a working steam pressure, overall the entire operation was quietly checked by the Mate who in turn had the responsibility of reporting to the Skipper.

So when the Skipper eventually arrived on board, to that effect everything was ship shape and ready to sail – last but not least the all important Cook, (God sends the food and the Devil sends the Cooks) – old Fishermen’s saying, though bless em’, they worked under unbelievable conditions, he would be sorting his stores and provisions into many cupboards, all meat was packed in fresh crushed ice in the ice-hold, on these older trawlers there were no fridges or any other domestic equipment or utensils most people take for granted today, meat and vegetables had to last out for between 10, 16 and even twenty one days, depending on how far away the fishing grounds would be.

This particular vessel I was being initiated on had been built in 1917, of some 275 tons, and served as a Mine-Sweeper from 1917 to 1919, prior to being converted for commercial fishing, anywhere from North Sea grounds to Orkney & Shetland, West Coast of Scotland to Faroe Island or exceptionally Iceland, the later was not popular because extra coal had to be carried in bags on deck, which entailed much additional work because it had to be stowed below in the bunkers as soon as there was room, this being in addition to the discomfort of being away for nearly three weeks, which usually meant, during the long run home having a meal of fish three times a day, (fried, poached, baked and even cold – the cooks were ingenious with the variety).

In common with most trawlers of this vintage the lay-out was fairly standard, the fo’c’sle had accommodation for deckhands and coal trimmers, whilst the rest of the crew were accommodated right aft in what was generally known as the cabin, a large, open plan, nearly triangular in shape, the table took up most of the space with leather cushioned bench seats, whilst above there were bunks round the ships sides for the 2nd fisherman (Bosun), 2nd Engineer, cook and Fireman, the Mate and driver (Chief engineer) each had a small individual cabin which allowed for a relatively reasonable degree of privacy, the Skipper of course had his own cabin immediately below the wheelhouse at main deck level which also contained the radio telephone and settee, chart table, and bunk, the settee berth which became my abode for the next week or so, was very comfortable, being on the centre line not too much movement was evident.

All of the crew were very considerate and helpful, particularly in keeping me right where safety was involved, elsewhere it has been recorded that fishing has the highest statistics for industrial accidents, so, after finding out for real what each and every man did, I opted for a career on the bridge, after all it was easy to move the big brass telegraph handle to make the ship move then with a few turns of the outsize steering wheel could go where required, enjoy an overall view of the crew working on deck………but, it did not quite work out like that, in spite of being a mere nipper passenger, it was soon learned that everyone, but each and everyone (Skippers Neffie’ or no) had to pull their weight, even if it was just to bring pint mugs of scalding hot sweet tea from the galley for all hands whilst on deck, sometimes for many hours, who might be repairing a badly torn net>

In any event I entered into the spirit of things and loved the whole venture: With much hustle and bustle from shore staff bringing last minute items, the Skipper appears,…………. everybody on board he enquires from the Mate, followed , without waiting for an answer, all ready, and to the silent thumbs up and nod of the head from the Mate, says, right lets go, and with two or three bounds is up on to the Bridge, dropped the old railway carriage type windows, stuck his head out and addressed me directly, come on up here out of the way, which I dutifully did with haste, now you just stand in the corner, keep out the way and do nothing, unless I tell you.

In the meantime the deck crew were untying all of the ropes, cept for one, with two other trawlers lying outside we had to use one rope to spring against, forcing the other boats outwards then when the Skipper deemed the right moment he gave a slight movement of his up-turned open palm towards the bow, indicating that the last rope be cast off, which was done with speed as the deck hands were fully aware of what was required, he then turned to me and said ‘give the whistle lanyard three hefty pulls’, which was to indicate to other boats we were going to move astern, whilst at the same time he started to spin the huge steering wheel in the opposite direction at great speed, and with concerted movement moved the engine room telegraph to full astern, which was followed by an instant reply from the engine room, to relate they understood the order and had acted upon it, with much bumping and scrapping sounds of metal on metal we were soon clear of the two boats now being re-secured by their own shore gang.

So out into the swinging basin with a few more deft manoeuvres and the ships head was directed towards the dock entrance, by which time the Mate arrived on the Bridge, to take over the steering and at the same time to indicate everything had been stowed away ready for a sea passage, then out through the Pier Heads into the buoyed channel, a deckhand had now come on to the bridge to take over from the Mate, who being in charge of the duty watch, in turn acknowledged the Skippers instructions, the Skipper hurriedly disappeared to his cabin and start listening to the Radio-Telephone, thus routine settled in, all this activity passed so quickly I never noticed it was well passed mid-day and was promptly told to go and get some grub.

Crew members who were not working, that is those ‘off watch’, had all dispersed to snatch couple of hours rest, fishermen soon learn to sleep anytime, anywhere, due to the uncertainty of their work pattern, normally a regular cooked meal was attended by all hands, except for the watch, with plenty of food, but today, being sailing day was slightly different, a mixture of cooked cold meats, pies and usual table embellishments, with gallons of tea to wash it down, if anyone wanted anything they just helped themselves.

My first recollection of going for a meal in the cabin was the stifling heat, all steam trawlers had a very efficient system of radiators, coupled with a noticeable motion, then suddenly realising I wasn’t hungry after all, so back on deck and glad of the refreshing gulps of clean crisp air, though never succumbing to ‘mal-de-mer’ I realised what it was and did not like it one bit, so sat for ages on a heap of stowed net aft, hands came and went during the change of watches, passing without as much as a side glance, only an occasional ‘you all right sunshine, you’ll soon get over it’, with darkness creeping in I forced myself up to the Skippers cabin and turned in on my settee berth, with the boat having a much kinder movement it was not long before I was well and truly in the land of nod.

Coming out of a deep sleep to the sounds garbled voices, squeaks and someone nearer speaking quietly, I realised it was the Skipper using the Radio Telephone, shafts of daylight were dancing up and down from the Port Lights round the cabin, which I discovered were caused by the much more pronounced and lively motion, we were well and truly out in the open sea, with my stirring the Skipper says, away and get a bite to eat, far from feeling queasy I realised I was really hungry, so off I went to the galley to find the cook busy preparing lunch, by jove you’ve had a real good sleep, breakfast was finished ages ago but I’ll get you something, well I experienced my first trawler meal, and could have eaten two, each and every one thereafter was equally enjoyed with no further thought of sea-sickness.

From my perpetual questions, to anyone who would listen, I learned we had passed through the notorious Pentland Firth heading for the fishing grounds, but no one, apart from the Skipper, knew exactly where, lots of speculation and guessing, it did not concern me in the least with having so many other interesting distractions, apart from the magnetic attraction of being up on the Bridge, sometimes with lots to see or otherwise with miles of empty ocean, so down to ask the Chief if I could look round his engine room, to reach this dedicated area it required going down a very long steel ladder with polished handrails, the engineers usually went down frontward, at great speed, lightly holding on to the rails and feet hardly touching the steps, I chose the more conventional method of going ever so gently facing the treads, to be met on the control platform by the Second Engineer who was on watch.

At first I was quite mesmerised, not so much by noise, steam machinery basically runs quietly, but movement, to see these massive steel connecting rods moving up and down and turning the somewhat even larger propeller shaft with unfailing regularity, oh I had seen it all before, stationary and docile, now seeing it alive and doing its work with such apparent ease, after having all the various bit an pieces pointed out, the Second Engineer picked up a large brass oil can with a long swan-neck spout and proceeded to ‘oil round’, which meant a squirt of lubricant to each and every moving part, quite an art co-ordinating the circular or up and down movement, basically a Triple Expansion engine has three cylinders, with solid steel rods attached to the huge crankshaft which in turn transmits power to turn the big four bladed propeller, as long as pre-heated steam is passed into the cylinders the engine will keep turning, in bad weather conditions the ship will plough steadily through huge waves, whereas a modern diesel engine can be forced to slow down, rather like applying a brake on a motor vehicle.

I am thus assured our machinery is working satisfactorily, the Second then directs my attention a small item tucked away on the ships side, that’s the hardest worked piece of machinery bar none on the boat for the entire voyage, which after detailed explanation turns out to be the quite small single cylinder steam engine that drives our electricity supply, this only churns out 110 volt direct current, which in turn provides enough electricity for all the lights and power to charge the lead acid batteries which keep our all important Radio Telephone in good order, prior to simple luxury of having electric light fitted on board the usual means of lighting was provided by Carbide gas lamps, not the best of systems to use at sea, particularly in rough weather.

After being given a basic grounding in the mysteries of the engine room the Second invited me to have a look at what goes on in the stokehold, which in deference to a grumbling stomach and desire for a breath of fresh air I opted to leave that till later.

Back on to the centre of operations, the Bridge, ‘where are we now asks I’, oh somewhere beyond the land, no far to go afore the ‘old man (Skipper) will give us a shout, in the mean time away an get yer head down; which I promptly obeyed. Muffled noises brought me to full conscious awareness of different activity, the big steam winch outside the cabin was clattering, the ship obviously stopped and ever so gently rolling to a broadside swell, must see what’s going on says I to myself, and up to the darkened Bridge I go, much activity on deck, what, I timidly ask the Skipper, is happening now, just about to ‘shoot’ the gear says he, don’t go on deck and keep out the road.

So watching out of the window I see that the Otter Boards have been hoisted outboard and the net untied from the bulwarks, and ready to put over the side, the vessel has now been brought broadside to the wind on the starboard side and the Skipper ties a long rope (Becket) to the steering wheel to keep the ships head that way, at a quiet ‘let go’ signal and slow ahead on the engine room telegraph, the Fireman, in charge of the trawl winch, releases the brake, out zing the wires, or warps, which continue until the correct depths have been released, the two wires will have been drawn together and secured and trawling commenced, then the crew settle into a routine pattern of those on watch go to their stations and those off disappear below as soon as they can.

The watch arriving on the Bridge get standing orders from the Skipper, so long up into the wind, carefully and gently turn down wind until time to haul the gear, such activity goes on day and night, only disrupted by the net being torn or damaged or severe weather, until the Skipper says, bring the gear aboard, and head for home.

But what of the in between bits, the trawl has been set to catch fish, so after the proscribed time, anything between 2 and three hours, always determined by the Skipper, the watch on deck bring the boat round to having the wind just on the ships quarter, that is which ever side the wires are out, and at the right moment a call to the engine room, ‘stop er’, at the same instant the towing block is opened with an almighty clang against the ships side, allowing both wires to become free, the trawl winch is coupled up an commenced heaving, the chuggy da chuggety of the winch alerts all hands that the trawl is being brought in, the forward trawl door is secured first, followed by the after door, then all hands (except the two engineers and the cook) haul the net in, until ropes are secured to bring in the heavy ground gear, eventually the cod end breaks surface to indicate whether a good bad or indifferent catch has been caught.

A strop is quickly put round the cod-end and a stout wire is hooked on, leading up to the top of the mast, through a sheave and down to the winch barrel, once the net has been lifted over the gunwale it is lowered over the fish pounds and the Mate crawls underneath to undo a special knot, capable of holding back tons of fish but by pulling the ends in the correct manner the contents are disgorged onto the deck, then provided there are no net tears to repair the whole exercise of ‘shooting the gear’ is repeated, a task which is carried out day and night without a stop.

My next job of helping out took the form of learning how to identify, sort, gut and wash the newly caught fish, before they were sent below into the hold, where the Mate was kept busy packing them in boxes with plenty of crushed ice, on this boat we carried nearly eight hundred empty wooden boxes each holding 8 stone of fish, a lot of other Ports used a system of packing the fish on shelves built up in the hold as the voyage progressed, both methods had their own merits but unloading boxes seemed a speedier operation, the shelf fish were generally discharged directly on to the Fish Market floor, where as boxes were taken by lorries.

After a spell at gutting a few fish of mixed variety, at that time pitifully slow, an experienced fisherman could gut a couple of dozen in the time I could successfully deal with one, but with smaller soft hands it took some learning, before long the last of the catch was sent below and a quick clean up of the debris was soon hosed away, with the ponds ready for the next haul.

A quick mug of tea and turn-in, except for whoever was on watch, the coal trimmers for example had a fairly hard time, as we got further into the trip and coal being used day and night the trimmers had to keep the stokehold supplied from the bunkers, a very hard, dirty and altogether unpleasant task, by contrast they were also obliged to dump ashes overboard after the engineers had cleaned out a furnace fire, all in addition to dealing with the fishing side of the job.

The relentless on-going task of fishing day after day, far from being tedious or boring, I learned something different every time the net was set or hauled in, not much to watch other than several other trawlers, some from other countries, or the wide variety of sea birds, chasing all the offal scraps washed overboard after each gutting session.

With the number of fish boxes being gradually filled as each day passed, crew members gradually began the guessing game of when we would stop fishing and head for home, only the Skipper knew for sure, but with a more than adequate catch it was not too long before the order was given, ‘bring the gear in’, everyone moved that much quicker, with the last bag of fish emptied the Otter boards were brought inboard, wires unshackled the net stowed away, all movable gear on deck properly secured, the engine room telegraph clanged its signal for full ahead, gradually the steaming watches were in place for the long run home, even I was beginning to look forward to getting home.

Ploughing through reasonable weather next morning just before dawn I could see several lighthouses flashing their signal, one in particular which was much brighter and stronger had been pointed out to me as Cape Wrath, the most north westerly tip of the Scottish mainland, and before long we were well into the notorious Pentland Firth where the tide can reach a rate of 8 or 9 knots, fine if you are travelling in the same direction.

The Mate, who was on watch at the time told me that a ship going at full speed against the tide appeared to be stopped, but today we seem to have wings, another hearty meal and we are soon rounding the north easterly corner of Scotland, Duncansby Head, at which point the ships head is turned southwards, this brings us across the Moray Firth, and being quite open to a strong westerly wind it creates a very rough confused sea, eating and sleeping, in unison with the rest of the crew.

Otherwise my time was spent in the wheelhouse, so many things now to see, ships of all shapes and sizes going in all directions, then when past Peterhead and into the lee of the land the boat was a much more stable platform, I was keen to see all of the places that were just names from the geography class, but missed many of them whilst asleep, although I did get an excellent close up view of the famous Bell Rock lighthouse which has been standing on the Inch Cape Rocks since 1812, like a granite finger some 8 or so miles off the coast at Arbroath.

Turn to starboard between the Isle of May and the North Carr Lightship, both like sentinels at the Firth of Forth estuary, only a few hours now before we reach the harbour, the crew have mostly changed into shore going togs and in a cheerful mood, nearing the harbour all the mooring ropes were made ready, give a long blast on the whistle the Skipper says to me, which I carried out with gusto, our speed now cut right down to slow ahead, the Pier Master called out through his old fashioned speaking trumpet, indicating which berth we had to go to, and very soon with a slight touch astern the boat slid alongside and became swiftly secured, the first people to come on board were the Customs Officers to clear the ship, no one else was allowed to leave or come on board until these officials had completed the formality, although we had not been to a foreign port the Skipper carried duty free cigarettes for the crew who had to sign a declaration that they did not have more than a pre-determined allowance.

The waiting shore staff came on board to indicate unloading would start a bit later on. Being already to go ashore I took my leave from the crowd, all of them had been ever so good to this first tripper who had thoroughly enjoyed the venture, so with my sea-bag slung over my shoulder, and a huge parcel of fish to take home, off I went to catch a Tramcar, at least that’s what I intended, except the ground was still heaving about as though I were still at sea, a feeling that lasted until the following day.

On reflection after many years, I am glad to have undergone such an experience, particularly as I pursued a successful professional career at sea, including a brief further hands-on experience on board several steam trawlers of diverse sizes and vintage, immediately after the 39/45 war, somewhat early on in a life long sea-going career in the Mercantile Marine, later in life, but that, as they say, is another story, of interest, adventure and somewhat unique experiences, being there doing what I was paid to do, but that will have to wait another bout of reminiscent thoughts.

This is part of a dissertation on the sea-going career of an ordinary Newhaven lad, who had even been somewhat reprimanded by day school teachers to wake up and pay attention else I would never get anywhere in life – after having reached a great many parts of the globe, and been Master of my own ship(s), I wonder what I could have achieved if perhaps I HAD paid attention.

“Those were the days!”

With many thanks to Capt Hume.

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