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My Life at Sea

Deckie at 16 was a big achievement in them days


Photo of young Willie Jack aboard fishing vessel

A young Willie Jack aboard ship ©

I left school at 15, in 1963. Straight out of school I joined the Ben boats as apprentice, just a schoolboy. First trip, steamed down to Faroe. Never forget it, as long as I live. Hailstones as big as pancakes bouncing off my head. Conditions absolutely atrocious, but them little things stick in your mind. Anyway, done a few trips in the Ben boats, and then William Purdy’s offices in North Shields and I joined a ship called the Noblesse.

I served my time with a man called Eddie Ridley, from Hartlepool, which was an excellent trawlerman skipper with a few trawlermen from Hartlepool aboard the ship at the time. In them days you didn’t go to sea school, anything like that. You learnt the hard way; you learnt on the deck. So, I think I done 6 and a half months as a trainee and we come in, I think it was just before the Christmas trip and I’ll never forget, Banjo was on the Quay, Banjo Legge. He says to Eddie Ridley, he says, “Eddie, they tell me you want a Deckie for the Christmas trip?” He says, “No, Banjo,” he says, “I’m turning the young lad, Deckie.”

I was just turned 16, I think then. And to go Deckie at 16 was a big achievement in them days. Going straight onto full money. And then, with mam being a single parent, I’ll never forget, run all the way to Tyne Brand where my mother worked. She brought me and my sister up and I told her, “That’s what’s happening, I’m going on full money for the Christmas trip,” and she was over the moon. So, I always looked after my mother. It was good money them days. I split my money 50/50, half for my mother and half for myself, which was the best I could do the way she brought us up. And from then, I sort of got into the life of being a trawlerman. Every trip you’d buy a new suit. Money was no object, just a young lad, fancy free, ‘til I met the girl in the paper shop. We’ve been married nearly 50 years, but that’s another story.

Anyway. I worked sidewinders, stern trawlers and factory ships, factory ships being the Ranger boats, of course.

Photo of the Noblesse trawler in harbour

The Noblesse trawler in harbour

I was in the Noblesse for quite a long time until she did get selt, she went across to Norway as a hydrographic ship. And she was a brilliant ship, great crew. Anyway, we scattered. I think I went back to Richard Irvin’s, sidewinders again. I think I’d just done over five years on the deep-water trawlers, going to Faroes, Iceland and them places.

I was in a ship called the Ben Arthur, Aberdeen trawler, and we were down at Iceland one day. I think it was early May and I had a pretty bad accident, and I went through the after sheave. Took my thumb off, nearly took me left arm off, all the ligaments and everything was smashed up on my left arm. I was put into Iceland for a couple of months to get myself sorted. Got home, cleaned up and I was ashore nine months and then went back to sea on a ship called the Ben Glas.

And Richard Irvin’s offered me a job for life as engineer, down below, third engineer for life. I never really wanted to go down below. So, we went away, I think it was just in the middle of the summer. After being ashore nine months, couldn’t gut, just sort of starting all over again. The skipper was called Stanley Shearer from Hartlepool and then we went to a fishing place called the Scope. She was well known cod grounds in them days, and then lo and behold, we filled the Ben Glas up with 1500 units of cod in eight days. Well, to say the least, my hand was up like a pudding. Well, you couldn’t believe the size of it, but I could gut. It was the start of my career back again. I could gut, I could mend a little bit, so I was getting better and better like and so, I was quite happy with myself. And then as the trips went on, my hand got stronger. I went back, but it never interfered with my career as a fisherman, losing my right thumb.

Book cover "Three Day Millionaires"

We worked the sidewinders, the stern trawlers, for five years, then I left to go seine netting. I heard that’s where the money was, in the seine netting. And a very, very good friend of mine to this day, still a top skipper, close friend and family, Cliff Ellis, he gave me the opportunity to go seine netting with him. I never knew what seine netting was, coming out of a trawler. Most lads would tell you that it’s a different ball game completely. Left the seine netting and went in the small boats trawling and doing little jobs again. I think I’ve done the rounds anyway, but I always finished up with Cliff, for some reason. I did Lindisfarne, Christian Nielsen, The Contessa. One year, The Contessa, 1972 I think, we were top ship of the year with 65,000 pounds. The three of us, we’ve still got the tankards to this day; they bought us all tankards. Had a big do up in I think it was the Park Hotel. In them days it was quite posh, it was a right fancy do. A lot of money, there was some big pay packets.

But the camaraderie with the fishing; to be honest, the seine net and the trawler men were completely different men in them days. When you were on the trawlers, a young lad, you would never sit at the table with your hat on, otherwise you’d get your head knocked off. And I know it was rough and ready, but you were taught manners, and you were taught a lot of respect in them days and you had the utmost respect for your elders. Hard, hard old men, really, you know, tough as old boots. But they took you for a pint and they showed a bit compassion. I had so much respect for them men and it will never, ever leave me ‘til I die, I’ll think of them men, really lovely men to work with. Seine netting is completely different where the lads, maybe they’re younger and that but in them days you were taught respect. When I was 18, I was an old man, I had that many old men’s ways ‘cause I’d worked with old men for four or five years ‘til I come into the small boats and then it’s a different ball game. But still all hard grafters. I still met some lovely people on my way, and I carried on fishing ‘til 1987. I was on the blockades, of course. Imported fish from Iceland all over the country, stood on the picket line. Got run down by the Jevington, put a hole in us. That’s another story.

I left the fishing in 1987 and I went into the oil industry in standby ships. From standby ships I worked my way up into supply ships. Got my tickets and that. And then from there, supply ships. And from there I went into diving support vessels, which was unbelievable. If you go on a diving support vessel, and the steward brings a menu to the table and asks you what you want. Can you imagine, going from a trawler and sleeping with your clothes on for two to three weeks, maybe longer. Twenty-one days in Iceland and you know, you would change your clothes. You were only allowed to wash every 10 days because you’ve got to watch the fresh water, you know. You sleep with your gear on, you’ve got a sleeping bag. You’re up every three hours, you work round the clock. And to go on a diving support vessel where you’re getting the three meals a day, you’ve got a washing machine, you’ve got your own cabin.

Two boats moored at the Quay with fishermen aboard

Boats and fishermen at Fish Quay-Newcastle Libraries

Never leave fishing, it’s in your blood, loved every minute of it. Loved my friends I met, still do, meet them every Wednesday. The camaraderie is absolutely brilliant. It’s more or less the fishing and the friendships you make along the way. You’re speaking good money in the trawlers, but by hell, we’ve made some poor trips in the in the small boats. I’ve had a couple of packets been in the red, stuck in for bad weather and what have you, I never had it a bed of roses. But trawlers, you didn’t ever stop for weather. I can remember in the early 60s right through, I don’t think I was ever stopped for weather. Force easterly gales, northerly gales, you’ll go through it, you’ll sail. If you’ve got to dodge all the way to Iceland, you’d never stop for weather, whereas the small boats, you can be stuck in for two to three days.

But, when I was a young lad, bad weather days, we could sign the dole. We used to sign while we got repairs done to the engine, we would go to sign the dole. It was a little help, because you got your allotment of £12 for your wife and if you had your few days bad weather days it would sort of help line your pocket for a pint for yourself and that. But the government put the block on that, didn’t they. There’s not such a thing for these lads, you know. They stopped that years and years ago.

These lads down there are having a rough time now, you know, there’s nothing left for them. But I think if fishing is looked after, there is a future for the young lads nowadays. Where we, in the early 60s and 70s honest, you’d never think it was going to come to an end. And you know what, it was big, fishing, in them days. Everybody was catching fish.

There’s one man I sit with every Wednesday and it’s Cliff Ellis. When he says to me 30/35 years ago, he says, “If we don’t look after this, get bigger meshes,” he forecast this would happen, the decline of fishing. He forecast that years and years ago and his word has come true to this day. But that’s the way things go, I suppose, and look at it now, the only people catching fish now are those big Scotsmen, twin rigs, treble rigs, you name it.

Time ashore, if you had time ashore with the lads and that, it was brilliant. The only downfall I’ve ever had, I wish I’d had this head on I’ve got now, as an old man. I just wished I had went for my tickets, you know. I was harum-scarum in them days, you know. The only thing I finished up with was Bosun in the supply ship, but still enjoyed it anyway.


Willy Jack provided this memory for the North Shields Herring Girls Project

Fish Quay photo is from Newcastle Libraries collections on Flickr
Thanks to Willie Jack for other images

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