Bygones: 'Trip to Iceland's North Cape was hardest I've ever known'
DURING the fishing heyday of the 1960s there were many fishing grounds that held danger for the men who worked on the decks of trawlers, writes Michael Sparkes.
Banks at the White Sea, Bear Island and Greenland were particularly dangerous.
But there was one place that all fishermen feared, that was the North Cape at Iceland in the winter months of December and January.
Many a ship and deck crew were lost fishing this treacherous place.
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This short story is about one such voyage...
"The Wolverhampton Wanderers was a big deep sea trawler that originally fished out of Hull under the name Saint Matthew, but had her name changed when she was bought by Consolidated Fisheries here in Grimsby.
"I signed on her during the Sixties after turning down several offers to leave the company and sail in other ships owned by rival firms.
"I didn't feel any regrets about staying with Consols because they had always treated me well, and I had made a reasonable living by sailing aboard the 'football ships'.
"The third voyage I did aboard the Wolverhampton Wanderers though would be one of the most memorable trips that I ever did while I was with the company.
"The thing I remember about it was the fact that we had a youngish crew, with an average age of about 28, although I was only about 21 at the time.
"But they were all good at their jobs on deck and worked very well as a team.
"That third trip, our journey up to the Arctic waters had been an endurance test in itself due to the adverse weather conditions, but upon our arrival a whole new set of adversities lay before us.
"In the early Sixties there were no restrictions about fishing at Iceland's North Cape, but later towards the end of the decade restrictions were put in place about trawling there in the winter months due to the amount of accidents and losses that occurred.
"This was December, and the skipper had decided to make an adversity of his own by trying to go around the North Cape with a severe gale closing in on us. I remember the attempt very well because I was elected to be on watch during the first spell. Before we got anywhere near half-way round the treacherous North Cape, the wind began to howl from a northerly direction, whipping the sea into mountains. It screamed and whistled through the ships rigging, testing the tenacity of the rattlings to the very limit.
"They began to ice up very quickly, until they became three times thicker than their original size.
"The temperature plummeted to minus 30 degrees and we were powerless to get onto the decks to attempt chopping the ice away, due to the fact we took so much freezing sea water aboard, causing the decks to be literally awash.
"The Wolverhampton Wanderers continued to roll heavily over the mountainous seas that bore down on us from the north. The waves had great white tops that were sometimes known as white horses, which came roaring past and every now and again came crashing aboard to fill the ship's starboard side level to the rail.
"Combined with this we had to endure a full blizzard that came down in a blinding swirl, blotting out all vision on deck. There is no doubt that the North Cape at Iceland was a fearsome place in mid-December and there is no wonder that many a ship has met its fate trying to negotiate it.
"Eventually, after a severe battering, we managed to get round it and find some calmer waters, and like a big tiger that had just been in a fight for its life, we licked our wounds and began fishing.
"The only thing that did not change was the temperature – it remained at about minus 30 degrees of frost, which meant we stayed iced up from stem to stern.
"The only positive thing I remember was that we had a good cook aboard who could knock up some grub that combated the cold.
"His name was Tommy Burton and his speciality was curry and rice, as hot as you could eat it.
"Often he would leave a pan full of this wonderful concoction out at night so we could have it when we came off deck after hours of gutting. As I remember, it hit the spot perfectly!
"The fishing on the east side of the North Cape remained good, with us putting below some of the best jumbo haddocks I have ever seen. So being satisfied with this good fishing we stayed where we were, working around the clock to secure a good trip of fish.
"But of course this was Iceland, and nothing ever ran that smooth up in Arctic waters, and we experienced an accident aboard that took us all by surprise.
"It started by us experiencing a full blizzard again after being ordered to chop the ice away from the ship.
"Each of us had been given an area of the vessel to clear and one chap, a Polish man named Joe Podonski, climbed onto the bridge top to try and clear the ship's radar scanner.
"Somehow he lost his footing and fell off, crashing down to the deck on the port side, breaking his ribs, arm and injuring his back. To say he was lucky might seem silly, but the fact was, he was. Had the ship rolled to port at the moment he fell, he would have finished up in the freezing sea, meaning he would have more likely than not have had only minutes to live due to those sub-zero temperatures.
"We had to take him into the nearest port at that time, which was Akureyri, where he was detained because of his injuries. So when we left, we found ourselves a man short on deck which meant more work for us all.
"Later we heard that his injuries were worse than we thought. He had done some serious damage to his spine and it would be months, rather than weeks, before he could walk again.
"We felt sorry for the poor chap, knowing he had a family back home, so we all donated our short-hand money to Joe Podonski and his wife. Plus he was paid his share from the trip we made, which was unusual back in those times. Very often the owners would say an accident at sea was just an act of God, a cold way of saying that they weren't interested in paying compensation to men who suffered injury at sea. Personally, I sometimes wondered how they slept at night.
"We landed about 1,700 kits of top quality fish that voyage with our jumbo haddocks selling like hotcakes back on Grimsby fish market. So it became a very profitable trip all round in the end.
"My memory and diary recalls it was a very hard trip to get through, where we had to really put out backs into it in order to accomplish what we did, given that we worked short-handed for the latter part.
"But then Grimsby trawlermen were no strangers to hard work. In fact, they were some of the hardest working men that I ever met. God bless their memory."