First published in August 06. Requested by my Dutch friend, Jan, in Holland
In the sailor’s induction course we were taught to handle a whaler, a thirty-foot, double-ended, clinker-built life-boat,. We rowed in unison with cries like ‘Give way together’. Our instructions were laced with colourful language by, the Coxswain, or ‘Chief’, and there was swearing in the body of the boat as the blisters began to build. Tethered in Butlins’ swimming pool, the oars with holes in the blades, instead of us passing through the water, water swirled past us and we were rock still. We were preparing, for abandoning ship – a worrying thought – not for shopping for fish,
The rank of the Captain decided which Naval ship in a convoy was Flotilla Leader, a cache which carried privileges, not least the convoy Doctor. The other ship, or ships were the sheep dogs of the convoy – in Naval terms ‘tail-end Charley’, the canteen boat – whipping in the stragglers. When our Captain was promoted, we inherited a Scottish, ex-Merchant captain, RNR whose rank sent us to the rear of the convoys with all that entailed. There was considerable muttering aboard.
The new Skipper played the bagpipes, liked fish and when he played, usually in the small hours, his personal hound would howl like a banshee. The new Skipper was as popular as an outbreak of bubonic plague. However, fresh fish was a rare luxury, so his antics were a welcome respite. Sailing along in home waters in daylight, at six knots, if the Skipper spied a couple of trawlers plying their trade under very tricky circumstances, his attention could be distracted. The Bosun would pipe ‘whaler’s crew fall in’ and we, those who could be spared, would climb into the whaler and were lowered over the side of the ship, which by now had swung away from the convoy and was heading at a rash 20 to 25 knots for the trawlers, with us clinging to the boat and the boat whacking against the side of the ship. Who needed a fairground ride when we had him to guide us? Approaching the trawlers, the engines reversed to bring the ship almost at a standstill, when we would be dropped onto the waves, literally, with the sudden release of the falls, and then we would be rolling in the ship’s wash as it shot off back to the convoy. We, alone and abandoned, rowed sedately over to the fishing boats bearing our cargo of cigarettes, tobacco and rum from the Lower Deck Messes and the gin and cigarettes from the Wardroom. There was banter with the fishermen while we were passing up our bribes and they were sending down baskets of fish which we stowed in buckets, the surplus had to find a place at our feet. With a final flourish of cross-talk, the fishing boats would rapidly head off, not wanting to be associated with the convoy and within minutes they were over the horizon. We, out of sight of anything, wallowing in a rolling sea., would one minute see the horizon, the next we were beside a huge wave which seemed to be falling down on us, but actually rolled under us. With a full crew plus the fish, our gunwales close to the water, time past slowly.
With the sea empty, the look-out would ultimately see smoke on the horizon, the ship would be steaming towards us with a bow wave like a typhoon, a greyhound of the sea.. Momentarily it came almost to a stop and then, once we were hooked on to the lines and pulled just clear of the water, she would be off, accelerating back towards the convoy, while we were being hauled in foot by foot until we were swung inboard and lashed in place. Meanwhile the Messmen had been gathering in the waist of the ship. The skipper left the bridge and came to the well to inspect the prize emptied on the deck, and always said, ‘All flat fish into the Wardroom bucket.’, hence his nickname, ‘Fishcake McKay’. Then he would march off back to the bridge because we were in sight of the convoy once more; The Wardroom Steward collected flatfish for his bucket, but while he was gathering more, others would be taking then out of his bucket for their own, As a member of the boat’s crew I was not involved in divvying up so I was well placed to stand and watch this hilarious pantomime.