Three Day Millionaires: Stories From The Golden Age Of Deep Sea Fishing

During its height, six times more men died at sea on trawlers then down the mines. Mutilations and limb amputations were common. No wonder the trawler men were known for their hedonistic lust for partying.
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During its height, six times more men died at sea on trawlers then down the mines. Mutilations and limb amputations were common. No wonder the trawler men were known for their hedonistic lust for partying.

Jack weighed up his rather limited options. Shouting for help was no good; the rain was battering the ship like machine gun fire, the wind was shrieking like a demented banshee and besides, every time he opened his mouth to scream it was flooded with salt water. His freezing fists wrapped themselves grimly around the first solid thing to hand as Jack lay there, buffeted around like a rag doll, every last ounce of decreasing strength in his body straining to avoid certain mutilation. Jack wasn’t a religious man, but praying for dear life seemed like the best idea by default. God, or Neptune, must have been listening on that squalid November night somewhere in the Northern Arctic Waters. Eventually, after what seemed several life-times, another mallet blow of water knocked his hands open and the trawler reared up in the booming waves, sending Jack sliding back down the deck towards the aft and the galley entrance, where he’d gingerly emerged, clutching his bladder, some forty minutes previously.

The cook looked up from his pan of stew as the trembling young lad collapsed through the door and started spewing up bellyfuls of salt and bile. “Jesus bloody Christ!” he yelled. “Yer little bastard! Not on my clean floor!” And, to his utter horror, Jack found himself booted back out onto the deck, the galley door slammed firmly shut behind him, the cook’s curses ringing in his already pounding eardrums.

Welcome to deep sea trawling, 1947.

Sixty years later, Jack Nelson recounts the first night of his first trip to sea with a bemused chuckle over tea and biscuits in his small but comfortable West Hull bungalow. “I suppose you could say we were thrown in at the deep end,” he says, with no hint of irony.

"The wind was shrieking like a demented banshee and every time he opened his mouth to scream it was flooded with salt water."

Deep-sea fishing was the only career that Jack Nelson had ever considered. His dad had gone to sea, as had all his brothers, cousins, friends and neighbours in the tightly knit community of Hessle Road, Hull, where he was born and raised. After signing on with a ships runner on St Andrews Dock, he set off on the 120 foot long coal burning trawler St Arcadius to Bear Island, on a three week trip in search of the cod and haddock that provided a living for an entire city. His first position was that of Cook’s Assistant, and, after a few days being violently seasick (and learning to navigate a deck slippery with salt water and fish guts without getting maimed), Jack soon acclimatized to the life of a fisherman. Or rather, a fisherman’s skivvy; the Cook’s Assistant was less concerned with cooking than learning all the ropes and routines attached to getting fish on board – general labouring, net mending, cleaning the quarters, laying out the waterproof gear, carrying and fetching for the older men.

Although there was hard work and plenty of it, the 56 hour week of a Cook’s Assistant was like a Sunday stroll through the park compared to the subsequent trips Jack found himself on as a fully fledged Apprentice Deck Hand, or “Deckie Learner” as the local parlance had it. Deep sea trawling was freezing, perilous and relentless graft - eighteen body-numbing hours on deck, “shooting and hauling” the nets, cleaning and packing the fish in ice, often in blizzard conditions, when the only thing that separated you from the vast inky depths of the freezing Arctic Sea was a waist-high rail and the sturdy hand of your ship-mate. And then, after your watch had finished, six hours of attempted sleep, crammed in like stinking sardines with men who hadn’t changed their clothes in two weeks.

“It was just hurry up, hurry up, hurry up, y’know” recalls Jack. “No time to be frightened. But time is a funny thing at sea, it’s like elastic – it seems to stretch. You could be woken up at any time on your watch, and be chucked back out on deck. So you got used to being warm in kip, and then, two minutes later, blasted by wind and ice. The skipper’s main priority was keeping the nets in the sea. No fish meant no money. And money was the only reason we were out there.”

If life at sea was an exhausting non-stop cycle, then the 72 hours ashore were actually not that much different. Among the Hessle Road community the trawler men were known as the “Three Day Millionaires”, displaying a hedonistic lust for partying that made the Gallagher Brothers look like shy and retiring library assistants. Once on terra firma, the “fisher kids” would don the latest American zoot suits, exotic coloured silk shirts and snappy snakeskin shoes, and hit the local hostelries. Three weeks wages would be blown in three days.

Jack recalls: “The first thing you did was treat the wife and the bairns. All the kids from the neighbouring streets would gather round the fisher kids and shout “are you gunna do a scramble mister?” and you’d pelt all yer spare change up into the air and they’d all scramble around after it. Then you got yourself all slicked up and hit the pubs, clubs and dancehalls. The thing to do was hire a taxi for your time at home, keep the meter running for the entire three days and just basically keep going while they ferried you about – drinking, y’know. Shake all that salt from off yer boots.” With no drink allowed at sea apart from a daily medicinal tot of rum, the trawler men made up for lost time with a thirsty vengeance. “Flashy drunken louts, they called us,” recalls Jack with a sly grin. “And I suppose we were. But by Christ, we earned our money.”

After thirteen years of twelve yearly trips away, punctuated by three-day shore binges, Jack had graduated through the fishing ranks to the coveted position of Skipper. This is where the real money was made; a decent trip away could, after expenses, net a good Skipper about £600 for three weeks work, after expenses. Bearing in mind that the average weekly wage in 1961 was around £16, it becomes starkly evident why men like Jack kept going back to risk their lives on the bleak freezing waters of Iceland, Newfoundland and the Norwegian Coast.

"Deep sea trawling was freezing, perilous and relentless graft – eighteen body-numbing hours on deck, often in blizzard conditions."

I ask Jack if he was ever terrified. “Terrified?” he says, and turns the word around in his mind for a while, as if considering a brand new concept that had never occurred to him before. “Well, I don’t know about terrified … but there was one time when I thought I was gunna die. We were caught by a right bad storm off the coast of North Iceland. We’d just hauled the nets, and all the gear was on board and it was whipping up bad - and I mean really really bad. When you’re fishing you face the ship into the weather so as not to tilt over, y’know, and this trip hadn’t been a good un, so we’d kept shooting and hauling up til the point where we thought we’d better pack up and turn in for shore. Only thing was, we daren’t turn the ship side-on to the storm – and it was a proper driving bastard of a storm by now - without the engines to get us to shore. And we daren’t turn the engines on in case all the gear and that went over into the sea. You can’t have the nets getting caught in the propellers obviously, else there’s a good chance the ship’ll, y’know, go over like. And all this gear was sloshing about on the deck. So me and the mate and a couple of others decide to go back out and chain all this gear down, so we could get the engines on.”

Jack pauses and takes a sup from his mug of tea.

“Only thing was, there was these two massive bastard icebergs just off the shore – and we were getting pulled right into them. So for about two hours we were trying to get a grip of these nets and hauling gear, trying to get ‘em chained down in all this snow and blizzard so we could power up and get between these icebergs before they smashed us to bits.”

So it was a race against time, I say. “Oh aye,” agrees Jack, nodding sagely. “I didn’t even have time to take me slippers off. But we managed it, like.”

It’s worth mentioning at this point that despite Jack’s seemingly casual attitude towards episodes of life or death, deep sea trawling was by far the most hazardous industry a man could be involved in. Six times more men died at sea on trawlers then down the mines. Mutilations and limb amputations were common. No wonder they drank like fish once they were ashore.

The golden age of fishing finally drew to a close in the late seventies, after the Icelandic Cod War had presented Hull’s fisherman with a brand new set of challenges. One of which was being shot at by Icelandic Gun Boats. “Oh aye, they’d let you have a bastard across the bows,” says Jack. “And try to ram you, of course, y’know, or else get along aside you and cut your nets. I remember one time the call came over the VHF radio form a mate of mine, a skipper named Georgie Brown, he had this Gun Boat fire a few shots at him and then chase him round y’know, trying to put a hole in him. So he was calling for back up. Course, we went steaming over there and tried to bash this bastard Icelandic boat from behind. So he was steaming after Georgie and we were steaming after him and the three of us of were going round and round in a circle like summat out of Laurel and Hardy.” Jack slaps his thigh, throws his head back and laughs. “Aye, a good laugh that was, by Christ. But by then, y’know, the writing was on the wall. All these exclusion zones and what have yer, it was all coming to a finish. You couldn’t catch fish and you couldn’t make any money. And the British Government just gave in to ‘em … well, we thought they did, anyroad. But I’m glad I did it. It was summat to be proud of, what we did. We were the last of the hunters. But it was all over with really. So in 1977 I packed it in and signed up to skipper Spanish boats, fishing out of the Mediterranean and all round there. Not bad. But not the same. Do you want another mug of tea?”

"The trawler men were known as the “Three Day Millionaires”, displaying a hedonistic lust for partying that made the Gallagher Brothers look like shy and retiring library assistants."

Jack disappears into his kitchen and I hear the sound of running water and the clatter of mugs. I stand up and peruse his walls; maps and shipping crests, black and white photo’s of huge iron boats, grim faced men on board looking like Randolph Scott in an ancient War Film. Men from a different era, with different ideas about what constituted bravery. The last of the hunters.

“Hey, I’ll tell you a funny story,” says Jack, coming back through with two steaming mugs of tea. “One time, about 1986, I was Skipper on this Spanish boat and we were out in the Bay of Biscay fishing out of French waters. Well, we weren’t supposed to be there, like, cos they had their own arguments going on at the time. And we had this secret fish room under the deck where we’d stashed all this fish. Anyroad, we’re anchored out there when we see this French Army Boat coming. It put this flag up, this signal, y’know, STAY WHERE YOU ARE sorta thing. So of course I gets the engines sparked up and gave the order to vamoose pretty sharpish. Well, this Navy Boat comes like the clappers after us and eventually draws alongside and gives the order over the radio for us to go to shore, y’know. So we gets in, and of course I’m responsible ‘cos I’m the Skipper, like. But I reckoned I could just plead ignorance. So we gets into this court room and the judge says to me, in French like, “You ignored the flag to stay still” so I says, “No, I couldn’t see it, the sun was in me eyes your honour” And then this judge gets a bit upset like, he stands up and points at me – YOU RAN AWAY FROM A FRENCH NAVY BOAT!” I says now hang on just a minute – do you know what my name is? And this judge looks at the records all confused and says yes; your name is Jack Nelson. Exactly, I says. Nelson. Do you really think I would run away from a French Navy Boat with a name like that?”

And Jack laughs again. “Made me chuckle, it did. Here, do you want a drop of rum in that tea?”