A fishy tale by Quentin Bates

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The Cromer was a lovely boat, forty metres and two thousand-odd horsepower of beam trawler that ran mostly from Holland under a British flag. We worked from Holland, and only went into a British port once or twice the whole time I was on board. But it was never a happy boat. There was a steady turnover of crew as nobody other than the skipper and the mate seemed to like it there. It didn’t help that the money was nothing special. Although it was a big, comfortable boat, it seemed doomed to be mediocre.

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We worked a two-trips-one-trip-off system, ten or twelve days at sea at a time, and three or four of us going home for a break after two trips. Every trip started much the same way, with the skipper glowering into his pint of mild on the overnight ferry to Holland.

‘It’s going to be a struggle,’ he’d sigh, as if he’d already decided it was going to be yet another two lousy trips.

This time we did our twelve days, made a good landing at an indifferent price and sailed again, back up to the Norwegian sector, a long way at eight knots with the wind blowing right in your face.

A week into the trip, the light in my berth was switched on halfway through my watch below.

‘Tow job.’

‘Who are we towing?’ I asked, still more than half asleep.

‘We’re not. Fuel pump’s fucked. It’s us needs a tow.’

It was only then that the absence of the accustomed roar of the main engine registered and in the galley there were plenty of morose faces. The crew trooped onto the deck and we slowly hauled the fishing gear, dropping the beams on deck before dealing with the half dozen baskets of plaice. Then it was back inside to wait for the Liliane, one of the other company boats, to arrive and tow us back to IJmuiden for repairs, all with the deadline of a Friday market that we’d both have to make.

It was a dreary couple of days jogging southwards, taking turns to take a watch and adjust the steering to keep us behind the Liliane ploughing ahead in front. It was bumpy weather and the quarter a mile of tow line, half trawl wire and half nylon rope, would disappear into the water before springing up and spinning drops of water off it. It parted a couple of times, so that meant everyone on deck for the hour of colourful swearing it took to get going again, all the time with the skipper fretting that we’d miss the Friday market.

‘It’s going to be a struggle,’ the old man said. ‘But we’ll have to finish the trip.’

‘What? We’ve been away more than a week, we’re not changing crews?’ I asked.

‘No. There’s a trip to finish. But it’ll take a while.’

We were due in IJmuiden on the Thursday night. That meant Friday, followed by a weekend, followed by a Bank Holiday on the Monday, with little chance of an engineer even looking at the misbehaving fuel pump until Tuesday the following week. The prospect was the best part of a week in IJmuiden, not earning anything while the boat wasn’t fishing.

‘Sorry, skipper, I reckon I’ll be going home,’ I decided.

I’d expected him to explode in fury but instead he just looked sad.

‘They won’t have you back, you know,’ he said.

It would have been a tougher decision if the boat had been earning well, but a series of bad trips and bad markets made the decision a lot easier. In IJmuiden and were shunted onto the dock by the auction and as soon as our week’s worth of fish had been landed, we were moved across the harbour to wait for the engineer. By this time, a couple of the others had decided to follow my lead and the decision was taken to change crews after all – thanks to the troublemaker. Steve got a flight to somewhere in the Midlands. Kenny’s flight was up north somewhere. Old Ernie and I caught a ferry for a night crossing to Harwich.

We brooded over our pints in the ferry’s bar. Ernie would be going back, no question. I wondered what would come next, after having got myself as good as sacked.

Two days later I was on the road, driving truckloads of insulation around the south of England. It was lousy work, but it paid better than the boat did. Then, after two weeks of crawling around the home counties, there was a call one evening.

Cromer’s on its way in. Can you be in Holland tomorrow night?’ The secretary asked.

‘What? I thought I’d been given the boot?’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that. Can you be there?’

Like an idiot, I went back. As I got on the ferry at Harwich for the night crossing, I knew it was wrong.

‘It’s going to be a struggle,’ the old man said mournfully.

It didn’t last long. After a few more bad trips, I’d finally had enough and packed it in. Not long after I found a berth on a Newlyn boat, so the ferry trips to Holland was replaced by the train to Penzance every few weeks.

A good few years later I was in IJmuiden and saw a familiar looking boat at the quayside. The Cromer looked terrible. It had changed hands in the intervening years and looked like it hadn’t had a lick of paint since. The deck was awash with junk and when I went on board, the skipper – not Steve, who had long since gone to the relative comfort and regular money of the offshore supply boats – was sitting in the wheelhouse chair with a gloomy look on his face. It turned out they had been forced back, all the way from the Norwegian sector, with engine trouble.

‘I hate coming in here,’ the skipper complained. ‘We come in here and I’ve lost the crew for two days,’ he said, as two of them climbed unsteadily on board through the headchains and the whiff of spliff wafted in through the open window.

Down below was no better. The galley looked as if a thin film of grease had been sprayed over everything, there were cold chips in the fryer, the table was piled high with ashtrays and cans, and there was a drunk snoring in what had once been my bunk. It was a far cry from the spick-and-span boat I’d been used to, even if we never earned much money.

A year or two later I heard the Cromer had changed hands yet again. The new owners struggled briefly, having bought a diesel-hungry beast of a beamer just as fuel prices started to climb following the second Gulf War, and then the boat was decommissioned and scrapped. A sad end for what should have been a fine ship but never was.

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