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How Trawler told the real story of fishing trawlers


The horror of coming ashore
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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When I came ashore, I mean, you just don't know who you are. You seem to have no past. You have no sense at all of a whole human being with memories. And of course, therefore you have no future. You're just, as it were, all in bits. Well, I suppose you are. But you can't get a grip on anything that will give you meaning. And the only thing you think is what normally works when you have that, sort of, very passing feeling in ordinary life. This is terrible. You think, well, if I have a drink that will put me back together. Well, you're far too far gone. It doesn't. You can drink great pints, and you still can't sleep. You can't sleep, because the brain's gone past the opportunity to sleep, and actually what happens, same with rats. If you deprive rats of sleep, their... eventually their fur falls off in clumps. And these guys, their skin goes red and starts to fall off. They look terrible. And I looked terrible. And I thought, well, at least I participated, but then that didn't seem to have no point to that.

And you can't sleep. And what they do... I mean, I don't blame them. Not Brian's wife, she's wise. A wise old trawler man's wife. But these young married, the youngsters... well, there's nobody over 25 in the crew apart from Brian and... they want to...they come ashore, they've got cash. They want to take them shopping, instantly. Don't even let them get out of their boots and gear, as Robbie was telling me.

So now the Co-op in Stromness, they used to have their baked beans up in pyramids. Well, not anymore, because when the boat is in, for some reason, a pyramid of baked beans really attracts a guy in your sea boots, and something cracks and he puts his boot into it, and it's tremendous, the way it'll fly through the air at the Co-op. And the moment there's a boat in, now but there's the little police panda car parked outside the Co-op. They don't understand. No judge understands, nobody understands the violence of a trawler man ashore. He's got to go to bed and you need to sleep for 36 hours plus. That's it. And then after a week or so, you've got to go back and do it all again. And no wonder it's dangerous. I couldn't understand the figures before I went. 1998, the figures were quite difficult to get from the Fisheries Ministry. Now the 26 vessels lost, 26 trawler men died, just a freak of statistics, but in that year, there 388 accidents. Now I now know what an accident means. After I left, the youngest crewman, Sean, he cut his thumb off on the gutting table. Now, you don't stop for that. That's not an accident. You don't report that as an accident. You just bandage it up, the thumb. And then, a few weeks later, the next youngest, Jerry, the cook, but everything else as well, he caught his hand in a hawser on deck. Just took off the thumb and all the fingers, so nothing left there. Now it's cold, nothing goes septic. It's very, very cold. So you bind it up and it heals surprisingly quickly, big first aid kits on board.

But you don't stop fishing for that. That's not reported as an accident. I mean, if there's an accident, you've got to at least lose a leg or an arm. 388 accident. Extraordinary. But all these people are self-employed. They can't... he'd never be able to work without his right hand, and so it goes on. Why? When I first went, I thought they were all going to be old salts. It's going to be a crew of old men, wonderful wise old guys, in my naivety, I thought, who loved the sea. Loved the sea, my arse. Certainly not.

Anyway, I was doing a reading in the Edinburgh festival, and Jerry was in the audience. So we had a... I took him out and we had a drink afterwards, and I said, 'God, Jerry, absolutely terrible that happened to you.' He said, 'Ah, well, you're quite wrong. Do you realise I can never go back to sea?' And it turned out he was working in the toughest school in the UK. It's a place in Glasgow where you can only go, I think, if you've broken a bottle and ripped your teacher's face to bits. Or burned down the music school. Or probably not burning down the music school, that would be perfectly normal. You have to be in there for something appalling.

And I said, 'But that must be really tough.' And he said to me, he seemed very happy with just a stump, and he said to me, 'Oh no, it's a piece of piss. If there's trouble, I can smell it coming. And I just stand up and I say: you stop it right now, and I shake my stump at them. And they sit down.' They obviously all love him. You can't get tougher than a trawler man with one hand. So that was a happy story.

British author Redmond O’Hanlon writes about his journeys into some of the wildest places in the world. His travels have taken him into the jungles of the Congo and the Amazon, he has faced some of the toughest tribes alive today, and has sailed in the hurricane season on a trawler in the North Atlantic. In all of this, he explores the extremes of human existence with passion, wit and erudition.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: coming ashore, sleep deprivation, trawlermen, fishing accident, trawler

Duration: 6 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009