East meets West, a Herring Fishermans Christmas

I've covered the Herring Drift Net Fishery in several parts these last few weeks, and today in the run up to Christmas, I wanted to recount an incident that made Christmas a little more poignant for me in the mid 1980's.  We were selling directly at the time to Polish luggers that moored off Passage East in the harbour. These were fishing boats themselves and I've covered their activities before.

Part of the process of selling to the lugger was that we had to go aboard to agree the tally and get a docket to ensure we got paid.  Stepping out of the half decker and onto the ship was entering a very different world.  All ships have a similar smell; food, diesel oil, humans living in close contact.  They also have a familiar look, bulkheads, narrow passages, small cabins with smaller bunks, men trying to pass each other in close proximity.  The first thing I noticed was the solidness of the deck, it felt like land when compared to the half decker.

A squat burly man, the bosun, stepped forward.  He had a woollen hat on his head and a padded jacket on against the cold and damp, but no oilskins.  He held a tally book in one hand and he extended to other and gave me a firm handshake, then a gesture to follow him, into the superstructure of the vessel. 

Once we reached his cabin, he sat down at the table and indicated I do the same.  He had a book of dockets, upon which the evenings catch per boat was listed.  I wrote the name of the Boy Alan above and he stated the number of cran taken aboard.  I was, frankly, bricking it in case t'was a lesser amount than what Robert Ferguson (Skipper of the Boy Alan) had stated.  With a wave of relief I agreed with his tally and this was entered into the book.  He took out a glass from a shelf, filled it, and his own stained glass, then he beamed at me, toasted me Slainte and we both downed the shots.  The rum struck the back of my throat and I could feel the redness in my cheeks.  But I managed it without a cough.  

As my eyes glanced around the cabin, it was obvious to me that it was its own self contained unit. The table was adjoined to the wall and at its best could seat four, but only if the papers, docket books, glasses, bottle and a number of other nick knacks were tidied away.  There was a small wash stand, that doubled for washing drinking glasses and a regular shave, judging by the items set beside it. There was wood panelling around the bunk and I could see some photos within easy sight, as the bosun lay at rest. I could see a family group, but too small to distinguish and some individual photos of children.  The porthole was on the outer wall and as the Lugger swung with the tides would have given him a view of the New Line in Passage, or Seedees bank on the Wexford side. Behind me lay a metal bulkhead, grey and unyielding.  In all it was probably a ten foot long by five feet wide rectangle and it was the bosun's only space for privacy.  He was luckier than most crew aboard I guess.

The Polish deep sea fleet numbered about 80 vessels at the time and they fished from the North Sea across the Atlantic and as far as Africa. Mackerel was the top catch, followed by Herring and Cod.  The fishery was centrally planned by the communist government and was managed by three state run companies Dalmor, Gryf and Odra.  The bosun was one of 16,000 employed in the deep sea fishing.
   
I was still sitting, as he moved to get back on deck, and slightly embarrassed I moved to join him.  I'd forgotten how tired I was, it was the first chance I got to sit in hours.  He ripped the page he had been scribbling in off the docket book and placed it in my hand.  “Good Business” he said and clapped me on the back and pushed me out the door.

Returning to deck was like running a gauntlet.  At several cabin doors, seamen were offering produce; fags, spirits, beer or clothing.   Each came at a price, but it was buttons compared to what we would normally pay in Irish shops.  Half of Cheekpoint, and all the other villages in the harbour were dressed as Poles, drunk on questionable spirits and sweet tasting beer and coughing up tar from foul smelling fags.  They traded their eastern European produce, in the hope of making enough western currency to buy sought after goods.  These could be then sold at huge profits at home or given as gifts.  Levis jeans seemed to be a favourite western purchase, branded jackets, clothes, perfume and watches were also sought after.    

The bosun walked me to the ladder, and as I turned towards him to descend onto the halfdeckers below, I wished him a Happy Christmas and said I hope he made it home to his family. He must have grasped what I was saying because he beamed at me, and said yes, but that we needed to bring more fish!  There would be no trip home without a full hold.  Although Poland was firmly behind the "Iron Curtain" and had been since the end of the second world war, the Communist party had turned a blind eye to the country's deep religious beliefs.  Christmas in Poland was a festival with as much meaning and custom as in Ireland. To be home for Wigilia would be important to any family man.  

Heading upriver that evening I realised the Poles who worked so hard both to fill the fish barrels and to trade with us for hard currency were no different to ourselves in the run up to Christmas.  Most of them, just like the bosun were probably family men.  Working for low pay in a dirty and dangerous job, they wanted no more than ourselves; a few bob in their pockets and some nice gifts for their families once they made it home.  I as much as anyone knew what it was like to have my father away. I could appreciate just how hard Christmas was on fishing and sailing families, many of whom, particularly in the previous generations, were lucky to get a parcel with some hand made gifts or foreign purchases and a letter.

We would continue fishing for another few days, and although this was governed as much by the weather, as the market, I was happy for the lugger crew when we were notified that it was time for them to set sail for home. We had whatever we were going to have for Christmas now, and so did the Poles.  

In the preceding days I followed the progress of the lugger on her journey home, at least in my minds eye.  I wondered would they head up the Irish sea and over Scotland, or go via the English Channel and then slip across the North sea.  Days later they would steam over the tip of Denmark and into the Baltic. They would probably welcome the air getting denser and colder and surely their hearts would lift their chests as they slipped into port at Gdansk, Hel or Kolobrzez.  They would take a bus or a train home, and arrive into the arms of family and greetings over would unpack their bags and widen the eyes of their children.

At least that's how I imagined it would be.  Free of the routine of fishing, we could turn ourselves now to Christmas shopping, house calling, drinking beer and making merry.  Christmas was only starting and it would soon enough pass, and just like the Poles we would grow weary and perhaps even bored of the festive routine, and would long to be back on the water.

Postscript.
The glory years of the Polish Deep sea fishery was coming to an end.  3 factors were crucial in the demise, and even as the luggers bought Herring in Waterford harbour, the storm clouds were upon them.  The first impact was the extension of 200 mile limits on national fishing grounds and related restrictions, the second, was the changing of the guard in Poland and the move to private enterprises and finally the third, was joining the EU.  From being one of the largest deep sea fishing fleets in the world the Polish fleet is now decimated.

some figures:
in 1988 total catch was 628,000 T approx. in 2008 it was 179,000
in 1990 there were 77 deep sea fishing boats.  By 2009 there were 4!
in 1980 there were 16,000 people employed in deep sea fishing alone.  by 2008 there were 2991

All the details on the Polish fishery are taken from an EU report on Fisheries in Poland IP/B/PECH/NT/2011_02 

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.

My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
F https://www.facebook.com/whtidesntales  T https://twitter.com/tidesntales

Comments