The nights are drawing in. The equinox is here, with huge tides, gales, rain and other seasonal accompaniments, and the herring are beginning to shoal. That is why this issue spends some time talking about inshore fisheries.
Jonathon Green writes about slang: Slush on land is melted snow and/or ice. It seems to come from sludge or slutch, both of which can be mud, liquid mire or indeed slush. Slush at sea is something else. It was used in the Royal Navy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the waste fat from boiled meat (less euphemistically described in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1756 as ‘the rancid fat of pork’ and presumably the by-product of salt horse, the on-board staple of salted pork, beef, and in extremis, penguins). It sounds repellent and almost certainly was, but it gave the sea-cook his nickname: the slushy (otherwise known as the slush, slusher or slushyfists), and selling it on was one of his perks.
Jim Ring relishes the skulduggery of the recently-surfaced ‘Perseus’ mystery: This is a story that starts with a mystery and ends with a surmise. The only incontrovertible facts are that His Majesty’s Parthian class submarine Perseus was lost on patrol in the Ionian on or around 6December 1941, and that John Hawtrey Capes survived. The story surrounding the boat’s loss makes one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Royal Naval Submarine Flotilla’s record during the Second World War. HMS/M Perseus (Lieutenant Commander Edward Nicolay DSO, RN) was attached to the British Mediterranean Fleet based in Alexandria since the entry of Italy to the war in June 1940. As part of the 1st Submarine Flotilla, Perseus’s duties included ferrying supplies from Alexandria to besieged Malta and attacking the Axis supply convoys to Rommel’s forces in North Africa. On 26 November 1941, Perseus left Malta for a patrol in the Ioniany.At about 23:00 on 6 December, the boat was patrolling on the surface in the busy sea lanes between the Italian-occupied islands of Zakynthos and Cephalonia. It was a wet and windy night. There she hit a mine or, perhaps, was attacked by Royal Italian Navy surface vessels. She plunged one hundred and fifty feet to the sea bed, settling on the bottom upright with an eighteen-degree list to starboard…
Roger Taylor and his tiny boat ‘Mingming’ find themselves at the centre of an enormous crowd of whales: Squads of whales, each group close packed and synchronised in its undulating pattern of breathe and dive, were homing in on us from a wide arc across the north-eastern horizon. Their goal was unmistakable; they were heading straight for Mingming. The lines of bulbous, leaping heads spread across nearly a mile of sea were converging on a single point as accurately and as purposefully as if directed by some well organised mission control. Perhaps they were. I had never, ever, seen anything like it…
Tom Cunliffe gives the last word on East Coast smacks, workboats built with the sweet lines of yachts:
One early example of yacht building in oyster-dredging country took place at Wivenhoe, a village well up the Colne, in 1820. After taking stock on his return from the Battle of Waterloo, the Marquis of Anglesey decided he wanted a yacht of one hundred and thirty tons. The Marquis was a phlegmatic character, as can be deduced from the tale of his ‘dismasting’ in the great engagement. It appears he was astride his charger beside the Duke of Wellington when a French cannon ball took off his leg. Without flinching, he turned to his general and remarked, ‘By God, I’ve lost my leg!’ Wellington, no doubt with other matters on his mind, is said to have glanced his way and responded, ‘By God, Sir, so you have!’ Quite why this old warrior came to the Colne for his yacht rather than Cowes or the Clyde is not told, but he clearly had inside knowledge because on arrival he promptly demanded an interview with one Philip Sainty, the leading builder of the town. Despite his name, Sainty was well known locally for the stimulating criminal combination of smuggling and polygamy. When his patron arrived he was doing time in Springfield Jail. The Marquis secured his release in return for a considerable sum, but Sainty refused to be ‘sprung’ until his brother and brother-in-law, likewise detained at King George’s pleasure, were also set free. The result of this infamous manipulation was the Pearl, described by a reliable commentator as ‘one of the finest vessels of its kind in the kingdom.’
Mike Smylie suggests a new age of zero-carbon fishing: Stephen Perham of Clovelly has been using a small punt to drift-net for herring for many years, following in the footsteps of his father before him, and other fishermen from the ancient North Devon harbour have been following his example. But it was not until the owners of the village, the Clovelly Estate Company, purchased the new picarooner Little Lilythat interest in zero-carbon fishing methods began to attract commercial attention outside this small, cliff-perched community.
Henry Rinker goes to sea with the lobstermen of Maine:The evening I arrived I walked to the pier and told the man in the office that I wanted to go and haul lobster traps. He looked at me from under the bill of his baseball cap as if he was wondering whether I was sane or not. Finally he said that if I was sure I should come at six the next morning and the guys would be here and maybe one of them would take me. So at six o’clock the next morning along I went. It was still dark, and somewhat foggy, and cold enough to fill me with an intense nostalgia for the Ace Motel. I pushed open the office door. A man was kicking a coffee machine, producing a steady, violent crashing. Four other men were sitting in burst armchairs drinking coffee out of paper cups. A sign on the wall said NO SMOKING. The man sitting under the sign said ‘Yeah?’ without taking his cigarette out of his mouth. I said, ‘I’d like to go out on a lobster boat.’ Ten eyes rested on me, not very interested. ‘He could try Rodney,’ said one of the men. They all laughed. ‘Who’s Rodney?’ I said. ‘He’s on his boat,’ said the smoker. I thought he was changing the subject. It was only later that I realised that this was the answer.
Fiction by Sam Llewellyn tells of a deadly rivalry among the shrinking shoals of the North Sea: Alexander Rourke was born in a place with no name close to Stiffkey in the county of Norfolk. The baby had a full set of teeth. Those who knew him later laid his nature at the door of his first meals having been of blood and milk mingled. It is remembered that Alexander Rourke when six would sit on the wooden shedding of the creek, fishing. David Jordan from the cottage next door would be there too, running around catching gilly crabs on bits of mussel so he could put them in a bucket to watch them fight. Alexander (he suffered no abbreviation, no dear little Sandys or good old Alexes, not even then) was different. Alexander had scrounged himself a hook and a line and some rabbit guts, and what he was catching were the fat eels that lived in the holes under the pilings. These he would put in a bucket of his own and sell to the man on the fish cart. As time went by, David made himself a rod and went after the sea trout that streaked into the river in the black of the night. Rod fishing was too slow and stupid for Alexander. Alexander got himself an old herring net, studied its construction, mended it carefully, and cut it down to six foot deep and fifty yards long. This net he used to seine up the sea trout, thirty and forty fish in a night. David complained that Alexander had caught all the fish, leaving none for him. Alexander broke his nose for him. He knew that this was a stupid explanation, depending on imagination, not logic. Alexander knew that there were infinite numbers of fish in the sea. It was just that by the time lazy David got to the river the shoals had moved on.
A reminder of the great Leo Walmsley, and an excerpt from ‘Three Fevers’:
Within a space of less than ten minutes the entire aspect of the seaward horizon had changed. From the extremity of Low Batts, as far as eye could reach to the south‑east, it was as though that inert mass of low-lying cloud was being rolled up from the line of the sea in dark, horizontal, moving folds, from which drooped folds of paler colour, trailing like an immense opaque curtain over a sea that was dark furrowed and flecked white by the advancing wind…
A true story of terror and affection from Craig Brown: On the night of 25 August that year, U-176 encountered convoy ON-122 midway across the north Atlantic. Dierksen’s crew fired two torpedoes at the 7,457-ton cargo steamer Empire Breeze, en route from Manchester to Baltimore, carrying ballast and a crew of forty-nine. Both torpedoes struck the vessel amidships, killing one man and pitching the ship into a severe list as the engine room, stokehold and number one hold filled with water. My father, Joseph Brown, was First Radio Officer on board. He immediately began sending Morse distress messages from the wireless room.
Claudia Myatt points out that women went to sea well before Ellen Macarthur: Lady Rozelle Raines, an ex Wren, was well known on the East Coast for many years in her folkboat Martha McGilda. She sailed singlehanded, or with her female friend Winkle, in that time after the war when ladies still didn’t do that kind of thing. In her book The Sea Bird she describes an early passage in her first boat, a motor cruiser called Imp. Running into difficulty with a broken rudder in the Dover Straits, she did what any normal girl would do and made a temporary lashing with her suspender belt.
We hope this will be enough to keep you happy by the stove while the rain clatters and the gales moan in the shrouds. If not, there is always the Clovelly Herring Festival on 20 November. Or, of course, the herring themselves, making the corks bob as you lie to your nets in a black northwesterly. Unpowered boats don’t need licences. See you out there.