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25 September 2022

Ron Wilkinson is a former trawlerman, he worked on trawlers for many years working his way up to skipper. Here is his account of 'a day in the life of a trawlerman'. Ron is now Chair of STAND - St. Andrews Dock Heritage Park Action Group.

After having just slept solidly for about five hours, I climbed wearily out of my bunk and fumbled my way into my moleskin trousers, shirt, jersey and hob socks, put my feet into my clumpers and passed the bathroom where I splashed my face with cold water then made my way to the Mess Room.


It was just 00:10 hours; the start of my next 18 hours on deck at 00:30 hours.

The Mess Room was empty, an indication that the crew were working on deck; the cold supper left out by the Cook had been ‘attacked’ with only half a tin of corned beef, some scraps of cheese, bread and cold fried fish remaining.

I was joined by my watch mate John and we sat in silence with a cuppa while he smoked a cigarette and rolled a few more in preparation for the rest of our time on watch.

Normal conditions with ice all over the trawler


At the same time John and I made our way to the drying room, donned our oilskins and thigh boots and proceeded along the starboard side of the ship to the fore deck.

The trawl was down and the weather and sea were reasonable, but cold. Hundreds of seagulls swam in the ships wake, fighting each other to feed off the innards washed overboard from the deck where the crew were gutting.

Awaiting us was the watch going off for their six hours below. As soon as we climbed the aft deck boards they knocked out their gutting knives and made their way aft to the Galley before having a quick cuppa, a swill (wash) in the bathroom before going to their bunks.

There were about sixty baskets of fish still to be gutted, washed and sent down the Fish Room, with around forty minutes to the next hauling time, so the deck should be clear before we hauled the trawl again.

Gutting fish

There were six of us gutting on deck with the Fish Room Man, and Deckie Learner down the Fish Room. As it was early morning there was very little conversation from those working except the usual grumbles voiced by cold tired men at the most unsociable time of day.

The only voice came from the Bridge, with the Skipper complaining that some of the fish we were throwing back were big enough to save; a usual grumble from most Skippers.

The fish washer perched on its rails was sending down clean fish into the Fish Room with each movement of the ship as the continuous stream of water from the hose pipe (donkey) poured into the washer and propelled the fish around, finally sending them down the chute and through into the open Fish Room hatch.

I settled down in the aft inside pound and began gutting the remaining fish; mainly good sized cod with a sprinkling of haddock, some ling, tusk and monk and catfish.

Catfish were always kicked down from the forward pounds by the men working there as they would, given the chance, take hold of the heel of your sea boot and hang on grimly; it took some time for them to release their bite.

Fishermen on deck

When the last fish went down the Fish Room and the liver baskets were tipped into the hopper to be blown aft to the liver house, the deck pounds were washed down, causing hundreds of gulls to congregate to fight over the remains of the fish guts as they were swilled through the scuppers into the sea.

The Mate shouted out the Bridge window that there was ten minutes to go until hauling time, just enough time to make a brew (mug of tea/coffee).


Right on time ten minutes later, the tannoy from the Bridge announced it was hauling time and as John my watch mate and I were on watch, we downed the remains of our cuppa and went on deck. I went to the winch and the John stood by aft at the towing block.


The Mate now in charge on the bridge, began to bring the towed gear (warps) away from the ship’s side by altering course to starboard and then gave the order to ‘leggo aft’ at which point John released the warps from the towing block, allowing the individual warp to be hove in through their individual sheave attached to the gallows.


The complex and dangerous process of hauling the fishing gear then began.

The starboard cable drum was then engaged and both warps were then hauled in simultaneously. Each warp had a rope mark inserted within the strands of the wire to indicate each 25 fathom and, on this occasion we had been towing a total of 14 lengths equal to 350 fathom of warp attached to the individual otter boards (doors).

Prior to the final length of warp being hauled in, a warning mark of three rope insertions came clear of the water; at this point I slowed the winch down and, as the final length mark of two rope inserts came inboard, the Bosun, Charlie, who was now in charge on the deck, took over.

I left the winch and went to man the aft gallows with John and in a very short period of time the aft otter boards emerged from the sea. The Bosun stopped the winch as the otter board (door) reached the sheave and John put the heavy duty restraining chain between the two towing brackets then hooked it up onto the gallows to allow the door to be detached.


With the aft otter board detached the manoeuvre was repeated with the fore door thereby disconnecting both doors which allowed the ground cables to be hove in and the hauling process to continue. In a short while the two Dan Leno’s emerge from the sea to be secured in the gallows sheaves. At this point the cable drums were disengaged as all the lifting/heaving is done using the whipping drums on either side of the winch.

The otter boards function is to create the horizontal spread to the fishing gear.

The Dan Leno attachment i.e. the butterfly, has wires that connect the ground gear (bobbins) and the headline (top of the trawl) which is fitted with aluminium spherical floats which provide uplift and therefore the vertical spread to the trawl net.

At this point the main body of the trawl is streaming out to windward of the ship and a medium haul of fish surged up breaking the sea surface and spread out inside the codend, the closed off end of the trawl, often referred to as ‘the money bag’.


The heavy footrope is then hove on board and the stage to bring the net onboard begins: initially manually and then in a series of heaves using rope beckets passed around the body of the net. The initial heave gathers together the bulk of the net followed by several heaves until the fish are contained within the codend.

Once the fish are contained within the codend the bag of fish is transferred from amidships to forward where the heavy lifting double sheaved block and tackle, situated on the main mast, is used to heave the weighted bag of fish inboard onto the deck where the catch is released. The Bosun releases the codline which frees the contained fish allowing them to spill within the gutting area of the deck. This particular haul realised approximately 70 baskets of good sized Cod with just a few red fish (bergalts)

The codends were then hove back overboard and the process of shooting the gear began.

Initially the measures taken when hauling were reversed. The main bulk of the trawl had by this time streamed away from the ships side due to the wind and weather conditions.

During this time the vessel was stationary and the Dan Leno’s and the ground cables were lowered into the sea from their stowed position by reversing the winch cable drum.

Once the ground cable is fully lowered the otter boards are re-connected and are ready to be lowered when ordered by the Mate during his shooting of the gear. Initial manoeuvres at half speed while turning to starboard are made to stream and spread the trawl net. He will then stop the engine and order the otter boards to be lowered. The Mate will then pause until the otter board have settled.

The engines are then increased to full speed while the ship is steered on a straight course, he then instructs the men at the winch to pay out the warps from the cable drums. Once the required length of warp is reached the vessels speed is reduced while the two warps are hove together and secured in the aft towing block. A few minutes elapse until the Mate is sure the gear is settled correctly, he then sets the speed to complete the tow at a regulated speed of 3-4 knots.


With the fishing gear now being towed again, all hands began the process of gutting and cleaning the catch once more. From commencing hauling to the completion of shooting of the gear again, due to the short delay for mending the net, the time taken was around one hour.

As the last haul contained about seventy baskets of good sized fish we should be clear on deck again after 90 minutes so if we towed three hours as in previous tows we would have a good hour of rest which meant that if you were not on watch, which unfortunately I was, you could have a short nap.

After clearing the deck we could now enjoy a cuppa and a cold fish sandwich, which most fishermen were used to. Those men not on watch slipped away to their bunk leaving just John and I to keep watch on the gear being towed in case either of the warps pulled out making the gear tow unevenly. This often happened especially if the area being fished was rough ground with obstacles and quite often an extremely muddy seabed where the otter boards might dig into.

The main thing we had to be alert in case the gear became ‘fast’ to a major obstacle, such as a wreck which would probably stop the vessel’s movement through the water and the warps to be dragged out.

Sometimes these ‘fasteners’ could cause one warp to break or, in really bad circumstances both to break whereby the whole set of gear would be lost. This type of incident would be expensive and time consuming as a whole new set of otter boards, Dan Lenos, footrope and trawl net would need to be assembled. This operation, depending on the proficiency of the crew, could take as quick as three hours or as long as six or seven hours.

The rest of the tow passed without incident and we were made aware of the fact that it was hauling time once again by the Bridge ringing down to the Engine Room indicating that the Mate was ready to haul the gear again. We quickly roused the sleeping men and then John went to stand by the winch and I stood by the towing block ready to release the warps when instructed from the Bridge. If things went according to plan we should be hauled and shot again by breakfast. This time the whole process went smoothly and resulted in another slightly larger catch of approximately ninety baskets, again mainly cod.

The three crewmen due to go below next stayed gutting while the other two watches went to the Mess Room for the first sitting of breakfast; this included John and I.

The food served up was porridge, fried eggs and beans, freshly baked bread and the usual fried fish. Large mugs of hot tea and or/coffee was also served by the Galley Boy who brought the food from the Galley to the tables via a serving hatch through the Mess Room bulkhead. His role at all meal times meant he was in attendance and cleared and washed all the utensils after each meal. The oncoming Engine Room staff – the Chief Engineer, was eating in the Officer’s Mess and the Fireman, was in with the crew.

The oncoming watch of the Third Hand, Charlie and his watch mates, Frank and Eddie sat with bleary eyes after their six hours off. They all tucked into the breakfast food as their last proper meal had been at 18:00 hours the previous day, with only the cold supper table to keep them going.

At 06:25 everyone finished their cuppa and prepared to go on deck or, in the case of the Engineers, to the Engine Room. The Deckhands arrived on deck to continue gutting and those going off watch – the Bosun, Deck hand, and the Deckie Learner, trudged their way aft to the drying room to get out of their oilskins and seaboots before entering the Mess Room for their food, followed by a quick wash and then the comfort of their beds for five hours.

Back on the deck now was the full complement of six men gutting as quickly as they could in order to clear the deck before the next haul. With still about thirty baskets of fish to gut, the warps started to pull out with the brakes screeching in protest. The Skipper, who was now back from his watch below shouted down that we had snagged a fastening. He stopped the engines and gave an instruction to haul the gear.

The men cleared from the pounds and the warps were released from the towing block; the winch man began heaving in, initially at speed as the slack warp was taken up and then much slower as the weight was taken up by being fast to the seabed or obstruction. The Skipper was manoeuvring the ship while the gear was been hove on and suddenly the gear became clear of the fastening and the winch speed increased. The hauling then took its normal routine and soon the otter boards were in the gallows and disengaged. The winding in of the ground cables went on without a hitch and the Dan Lenos were hove up to the gallows sheaves. As the gear had been down for more than two hours, a bag of fish was expected to float to the surface but did not materialise.

Once the footrope and headline was hove on board it became apparent why. The belly section of the trawl net was badly damaged with a large part of it missing which meant that any fish captured had swam out of the damaged area while hauling. In the codend was about twenty baskets of fish which had obviously found their way down to the codend prior to us coming fast and the damage being done. Once all the net was inboard the Mate, who was now in charge on deck started the process of examining the damage and arrived at the conclusion that a new belly section needed to be put in.

He shouted up to the Bridge to tell the Skipper, who told him to go ahead and to get a move on. The repair was completed in around 45 minutes and the shooting process was carried out in another fifteen minutes. This setback meant that about two and three quarter hour’s work had resulted in a catch of only twenty baskets of fish. Once the gear was down again we set about gutting the fish left from the previous haul and the latest catch of twenty baskets.

The decks were cleared and the fifty baskets or so we had processed were now in the Fish Room being laid out by the Fish Room Man. The remnants of the belly net was checked and trimmed, to use if we experienced damage again which might require some net to be replaced.

Time would be spent mending nets

A welcome relief at mid-morning was when the ‘busters’ (hot cakes) baked by the Cook were ready and, with a cuppa we settled down to a get together in the Mess Room with the usual chat about the horserace of the day. As a recreation, the Wireless Operator would bring the runners of a particular race taking place that day. The Skipper would act as the Bookmaker and stand the bets which had a very sensible limit so no one could lose too much. This activity gave everyone an interest, especially if the race was a big event such as the Derby or Grand National. In the Mess Room there was usually a ‘Timeform’ book which gave past information on horses form. To some of the crew it was their Bible. Some of the crew drifted away for a rest until the next hauling time which was due before dinner, which was normally held between 12 noon and 1pm consisting of the first sitting at 12 to 12:30pm, and the second at 12:30pm to 1pm.

Dinner was usually a three course meal – soup, main course and a sweet, often a ‘treacle duff‘. The most popular main course was meat and vegetables. This meal was always the busiest for the Cook and his assistant. Not only was it a large menu but change of watch both of deck crew, Engine Room staff and the Wireless Operator were present. The Skipper also came down, being relieved by the Mate, but many a Skipper had his meal taken onto the Bridge.

The next haul realised an excellent catch of five bags each containing sixty baskets were brought onboard. After shooting the gear away again we started the job of cleaning, washing the fish and put away as quickly as possible, but it may take longer than we have time for before hauling again.

Our deck crew were very quick at gutting and made good inroads into the three hundred baskets mainly because they were all good sized cod, but in view of the good fishing, the Skipper decided to only tow for two hours which left best part of one hundred baskets on deck.

The shortened tow realized another hundred and twenty baskets meaning that the amount to clear was now two hundred plus baskets which we quickly got into with a need to clear the deck before we hauled again. In order to clear teatime the Skipper gave instructions that we would haul again at 17:15 hours with the intention of the gear being shot away again by 18:00 hours allowing us to get tea on time.

The crew achieved this, speedily getting the gear up and the bag of fish; seventy baskets onboard and we had the gear down and the warps blocked up with five minutes to spare. As my watch was due watch below at 18:30 hours we stayed on deck making a start of the fish; our watch Officer, the Mate, took over on the Bridge while the Skipper went down for his meal.

John Day and I stood gutting and chatting in a good mood at the end of a weary day with the odd physical condition known as the ‘dippy giggle‘ setting in, but with the prospect of a meal and six hours off to look forward to. The condition was the result of long hours of hard work and extreme weather carried out throughout the twenty four hour period.

On deck

At 18:30 hours the rest of the crew returned and we made our way to the drying room to get out of our wet gear.

We entered the Mess Room and the lovely smell from the Galley of a ‘pan of shackles’ met us. For people who worked ashore, this dish was simply a really good wholesome meal of beef stew. This offering was a common one that Cooks made as it was reasonably easy to prepare and always went down well with most of the crew.

After a quick cuppa I made my way to my berth via the bathroom for a quick wash then to my bed. Fishermen in general slept only in their underwear which meant that in order to keep warm during their time below they had heavy duty blankets on their bed, some even had quilted covers, like today’s duvets. After eighteen hours on deck the type of bedding was of little consequence. Sleep came very quickly once the light was turned off!