25th October 2001
I think I’m starting to get my sea legs!
I still feel tired and a bit queasy, but I’m over the moon to feel some semblance of normal again. It is well timed too, because for whatever reason the Inspectors have changed their minds about which boat I should go on and are putting me on one which is much closer – I’m being deployed today!
My boat is called the Santa Maria; a Portuguese stern trawler of some 2000 tons GRT and 80 metres length over all. Peter raised an eyebrow when I told him.
‘They are putting you on that!’ He said.
‘Yes, but why do you say it like that?’ I asked him.
‘Well, it’s renowned for fishing illegally,’ he paused for a second considering if he should go on, but decided to continue ‘It was suspected of fishing illegally a few years ago and the fishery patrol ship chased them from here to Africa where she hid in some African port. The patrol vessel had no jurisdiction. They played cat and mouse for months and the observer was stuck for the whole time. But I hear they have a new captain so I’m sure it will be fine.’ he ended on a positive note.
I was speechless. Peter went on to reassure me that they had a new captain (presumably the last one was in gaol) and after all that attention, they would likely be fishing by the book from now on. I wasn’t convinced, and I don’t think he was either.
I packed up ready to go but we were still some way from my ship and wouldn’t be able to do the transfer until the night. Although I wasn’t being sick now, the effort of packing exhausted me and I had to have a nap to recover. I slept for three hours and woke up groggy, my mouth felt like a cat litter tray.
I went up on the bridge at 20:30 UTC to listen to the ‘radio show’. Every observer in NAFO checked in each night on the radio show, for safety, information and just for a chat. The senior observer coordinated the radio show, and called up each vessel in turn making sure everyone was OK. The bridge of the KA was dark except for the warm glow from the instruments and a low light over the chart table. I listened to the show, thinking that tomorrow I would be taking part from my ship.
George sat silently near the chart table, listening to the observers on the radio. Dougie came on. He had been deployed that morning and had settled in to his new ‘home’. Dougie thanked George for the food while on board. George didn’t flinch but I think if it was light enough to see his face there would have been a smile, why else would he come up and listen in on the radio show each night?
After a long day of waiting, I got given a 30-minute warning at 21:30. I got into my immersion suit and dressed like a Michelin man I hauled my gear up to the deck. It was hard to carry because I’d wrapped it all meticulously in black plastic bags to ward off the worst of the spray. It was a pitch black night but the sea was even darker. Pete and the German Inspector turned out to wave me off and helped me with my bags into the RIB. Once stowed safely, the RIB was swung out over the side of the ship and lowered into the inky water below. Suddenly the KA seemed very big and I felt very small.
Transfers at sea are dangerous; there is a lot that can go wrong, especially at night. I remembered the statistic from my sea survival course that without a survival suit you would last less than 5 minutes in the icy water, about 30 minutes with the suit.
Soon we were coming alongside the Santa Maria in our tiny RIB. I looked up and the crew had turned out for the spectacle, all peering over the side. I tried to take in their faces and commit the moment to memory. The bilges were running and as we came alongside they pumped gallons of water into the RIB. My bags were well wrapped but that was ridiculous. A rope was thrown down and the boatman tied the end to a bag for it to be hauled aboard, which it duly was, and smashed against the side of the ship several times during its ascent. This was repeated until each bag had been thoroughly drenched and smashed against the side of the ship. Then it was my turn.
We rode a large swell, and as we approached it’s peak the coxswain shouted ‘jump’. Ileaped onto the rope ladder as the RIB, and the Atlantic, fell away beneath me. Had I of mistimed it I would have been squashed by the RIB and received a thorough dunking in the icy water. I scrambled up the rope ladder onto the floodlit deck. It was bedlam. There were crew everywhere staring at me like they had caught something unusual in their trawl, I guess they don’t often have visitors. They looked wired. A couple of them ran off with my bags so I followed through a maze of passageways and up two flights of stairs. They delivered my bags to what would be my cabin, and then ushered me up a final flight of stairs onto the bridge where I met the Captain and the observer Simon.
Simon had about 60 seconds to tell me as much as possible while I took off my lifejacket and gave it to him for him to put on. The boat was waiting for him and so there was no time to spare. Before I knew it he was gone, back down the ladder into the waiting boat. It wasn’t much of a handover. I stood on the bridge wing with the Captain and Chief Engineer to wave Simon, the Kommandor Amalie, and the last remnants of my known world goodbye. Now I was alone.
I returned to my cabin and read the note which Simon had left for me:
“Careful of the ship’s nurse – he is a bit too touchy feely if you catch my drift. Don’t believe the figures the Captain gives you – he’s making them up, and go careful around the crew – one of them was killed 2 weeks ago when he got caught in the winch was cut into 3 pieces. His brothers and cousins are onboard, and they are pretty cut up about it! Have a good trip! – Simon”
It was late, but for the first time in days I couldn’t sleep.
I have changed some of the names of the people and vessels to protect the identity of those involved, but this is otherwise a true account of my experience. If you enjoyed reading this diary extract please feel free to share it. If you haven’t already done so, you can subscribe by clicking here, and ensure you never miss a post.