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Wednesday 3 February 2021

Ray Stephens, a Maritime Media Volunteer for the project takes a deeper look at one of paintings identified and sent away for conservation.

Here's the tragic story of the FV Gaul, the worst peacetime disaster to befall a single vessel in the British commercial fishing industry.

Recently I was able to observe a number of well-known paintings in the Maritime Museum being taken down, carefully wrapped/crated and then transported to the University of Lincoln to undergo restoration work.

Busy Packing Paintings In The Court Room
Contractors wrapping a painting in The Court Room, Hull Maritime Museum

One of the paintings that caught my eye was that of the FV Gaul about which I knew very little, so I decided to find out and learned of its last tragic last voyage.

Stathis And Riannon With The Painting Of The Fv Gaul Before Being Packed Resized 09Ec73D45F50F11Ff616F09Bea65514D 248Ed78B6649D6Cda0Fcadc1Ac9Bc23E
Stathis, HYMC Conservation & Engagement Officer, and Rhiannon, Conservator University of Lincoln, holding the painting of FV Gaul.

The Gaul was a stern freezer trawler operating out of Hull. It was designed especially to fish for long periods of time in the stormy waters of the Arctic. Apart from fishing it also processed, froze and stored the fish the vessel caught,

On 22 January 1974, she set off from Hull with a very experienced skipper taking charge for his first trip on the Gaul. In total 36 men headed for the fishing grounds of the Barents Sea where they fished continuously from 29 January.

In the early hours of 8 February, the weather in the Barents Sea deteriorated rapidly and developed into a Force 10 storm with waves 8-9 metres high. Despite the weather the vessel coped well and made radio contact with another fishing vessel and, at 11am, made contact with the area staff in Hull.

On 10 February, concern began to mount as the vessel had failed to report, as required by regulations, and then did not respond to radio messages, The next day an alert was issued to look out for the Gaul. A Royal Navy frigate began the search and was joined by Norwegian rescue authorities. No trace of the Gaul or its crew were found and the search was called off on 15 February.

Over the years many conspiracy theories emerged as to the Gaul's fate, including it being a spy ship caught or sunk by the Russian Navy, but no evidence of this has ever come to light.

In 1997, Channel 4 TV commissioned a documentary into the tragedy. With the help of a Norwegian ship, and submersible cameras, the wreck of the Gaul was located on the sea floor. A TV series then ensued, but this still left unanswered questions and uncertainty as to what had caused it to sink.

In 2004, the government undertook a second survey followed by a formal inquiry, which included analysis of underwater footage of the wreck. Its findings found that the hatches had been open allowing sea water to flood into the vessel causing it to capsize and sink rapidly before a distress signal could be sent. Sadly all 36 on board were lost and the remains of only 4 men have ever been found.

In February 2014, the bell of the Gaul, which had been recovered, was rung at two services held to commemorate the 40th anniversary of its tragic loss.

The sinking of the Gaul remains the worst peacetime disaster to befall a single vessel in the British commercial fishing industry.

Along with the return of the painting to the refurbished Maritime Museum, one of the hatches recovered from the wreck and donated to STAND will also go on display in the new Arctic Corsair visitor centre.

***We endeavour to make sure all the research and facts we present by staff and volunteers is accurate and checked with rigor. However, we are only human so please let us know if you spot any errors and always cross-reference your research.***