Enduring "Mal de Mer"

We were based in Dunmore in the winter of 1983 for the Herring fishing but we returned home in the Reaper for Christmas, and along with all the other half-decker’s, manoeuvred inside Cheekpoint quay, where they could be moored without any concern for their safety. Once Christmas came no one wanted to be checking on boats, for the week we’d be off.  It would be over soon enough. Once there was a buyer we would be away fishing again, and with empty pockets, glad of it.

Cheekpoint village mid 1980's.  MV Reaper at the top of the quay,
Boy Alan and St Agnes amongst others.  Photo via Anthony Rogers
That January of 1984 a market came available on the Sunday after New Year.  The weather had been broken, with gale after gale blowing in off the Atlantic.  As we walked onto the quay that afternoon it was enough to just look at the boats in the harbour of Cheekpoint to know that the evening wasn't going to be pleasant.  Punts and half deckers alike were pulling on anchors and ropes, swaying in and out at their moorings, reflecting the restlessness of the river.

As we set sail there was a low scudding cloud and a fresh wind from the SW.  We were an hour or two from high water, which would mean a slower trip than usual down against the incoming tide.  At Ballyhack the seas were already a choppy, but by Creaden (the Waterford side of the harbour mouth) we were pitching and heaving heavily, the seas breaking in on Broom Hill (Wexford side) looking fairly ominous.

Deep down in my stomach I could feel the rumblings of upset and my head was starting to pound a little.  I had been there before, and knew that by keeping my head up and staying busy it had helped. As we kept moving out the harbour I noticed a change for the worst in the seas.  The wind hadn’t altered any but the seas were running higher and the trough that the Reaper went into became deeper and slower to climb out of.  Standing was difficult, and making your way round the deck took planning, attention and luck.

Although I didn’t realise it at the time, the tide was now running ebb and with it the change for the worse in the seas.  Try as I might, none of my tried and tested methods of keeping the sickness at bay would work.  Progressively I worsened, just like the seas and then I started to yawn, deep yawns which seemed to rise out of my belly.  Minutes later I was spewing over the side.  Immediately I felt better, and longed to believe that the worst was over. 

There was a small flicker of hope, maybe we wouldn’t find any fish and we could go in.  However this was dashed when we marked a sizable lump of herring and Jim shouted to set.  I was sick again and then it was time for the nets to go.  When we had the nets out and the tea brewed, I forced a cup of the hot sweet tea down.  Jim said it would help, but Denis was just grinning. I took one look at the sandwiches and cast them into the sea.  Gulls pounced on them immediately, screeching at each other and tearing away at the bread. How I longed to be like those birds, with feathered wings to take them above the relentlessly pitching and heaving seas.  A seal came into view, a giant, interested no doubt in the actions of the birds, and what they had found to eat.  If I jumped in and swam with him, would the cold of the seas and the shock of the water be enough to relieve me of the horrible sensation that seemed to make every fibre of my being ache.

I wondered how the other boats were faring, were others feeling as bad. I also realised my father was nearby in the Boy Alan.  I wondered what he would make of me. I said a quick prayer to our lady, asking for the strength to finish the job, not let myself or my father down. Again the sickness came, but it was a dry wretch, more painful and debilitating.  

Tea over, Denis checked the net.  Signs were good.  Jim and himself consulted and decided we better start to haul.  As the nets came in so did the herring, pile and pile of them and the back breaking work of dragging the fish filled nets across the deck, was like my own cross on Calvary.  I have no recollection of how long it took, but I know that I didn’t have anything left to vomit as we proceeded.  Over and back, stowing them safely, whilst the deck heaved, rolled and pitched and I staggered like a drunk.  At some stage the winkie came into view and it was like Christmas morning all over to me, to see it advancing towards the gunwale of the boat.

Once in I loosened to light to stop the winkie from flashing and last thing I remember was slumping onto the nets.  I awoke at the breakwater at Dunmore East, and was surprised that I no longer felt sick. But I was worn out, grey in the face, a spent force. We tied up at the quayside and I started to get the ropes ready for the shaking.  However a wave of relief washed over me when Jim said that we would go home that night and return in the morning to shake out the nets. 

I didn't sleep well that night.  The sense of shame I felt at and the expectation of the slagging I would get next day stopped my mind from finding rest.  In the morning I strolled over to the village to get a lift to Dunmore.  Calling in to my parents, I found my father lying on the couch.  My guard was up immediately, 

"How're ya today?" he asked.  
"I'm grand" I said "Although I'd be better if we had the nets shook from last night"   
"There was a lot of men glad to get home from Dunmore last night" he said, continuing "that was one of the roughest nights we had in many a year"
"No one else was sick" I said, 
"Oh they were sick alright" he countered, "You should have seen the speed of some of them going up the ladder in Dunmore" 
And although I doubted it, I still had a laugh, and started to feel a little better.

"Did I ever tell ya about the young scouser that shipped out of Liverpool with us on a trip to Gibraltar” One of my father’s traditional opening lines to a yarn. 
"No" I said, wondering where this was going
"Ah he was all mouth" he said, "There was nothing he couldn't do, or hadn't seen. We were in the Irish Sea when he started to grow green.  By the time we were in the channel he couldn't stand and when we reached Biscay he barricaded himself into his cabin and refused to stand his watch.  The bosun was another scouser and when he heard of the carry on, he grabbed a fire axe and splintered the cabin door.  He grabbed the young fella by the throat and dragged him to his watch.  By the time they got to Gibraltar the young land scurried down the gangway and as far as we know took a train home"

From outside I heard a car horn blowing, it was Robert Ferguson, come to collect me father in his white Hiace van.  I started towards the village via the knock, but as I walked I thought about my father’s story.  Did he just make that up for my benefit, or was it actually true and if so how did he recall it so fast.  Down the years I've often wondered about that ability he had.   Maybe now as a father I can properly understand, we show love in so many different ways, we constantly worry about and try to protect our children. Just like his ability to soothe away the blood and pain when we were in a fall, he also done his best to soothe away the pain of growing into adulthood. Whether the story was true or not, it was a wonderful ability he had.  And it at least meant I could hold my head up that morning as we journeyed to Dunmore and I continued my journey towards adulthood.

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