Happy New Year! Following a long(ish) tradition on these pages I will start this first post of 2021 by tempting fate and stating that this time next year I should have finished Leg 8 (and probably the longest yacht race in history (Clipper 2019-2022), with the Race having sailed from Bermuda just before New Year’s Eve 2021 and arrived in London this weekend 2022. Given that this time last year my predictions for what 2020 may entail were hopelessly off the mark, it’s probably time to change the subject immediately. I’ll come back to the possible 2021 programme in a future blog.
A number of people have asked me ………… ok, some people have asked me ………… oh alright, a few people have asked me ………… now you’re just being pedantic …….. a couple of people have asked me, after the previous blog post, why I don’t write more about my Fishery Protection exploits? My standard response of, “this is meant to be a blog about my Clipper adventures” is generally met with the response that, “you haven’t bothered about deviating in the past!” Hmmmm. While I will admit that I might have strayed a little off-piste in the past – baking, bees and beards spring to mind – I’ve tried to make a link with Clipper, tenuous perhaps, and it’s hardly my fault I find myself having to write a Clipper related blog for (potentially) 18 months longer than I had originally planned.
Ok, if you insist. Some recollections about Fishery Protection follow with a tenuous Clipper link to begin and the latest “postcard from Jeronimo” in the Philippines to finish. If all you really want is Clipper News then please skip to the final paragraphs.
Way back in July 2018 I wrote about Level 1 training impinging on normal life in Blog 10: “You know you are “hanging on too tight” after Level 1 training when ……….” published 11 July 2018.
Well old habits die hard and with the onset of Storm Bella in late December I decided to put Clipper Leg 2 experience to good use and put 3 reefs into the Christmas lights!!!!!
“You mean to tell me you have a flagpole …… in your garden!!???? “Well actually…………. I prefer the term “mainmast” but suit yourself.” 😉 Tenuous Clipper link thus established, some paragraphs about Fishery Protection.
The Fishery Protection Squadron used to claim to be the oldest continuously serving front-line Squadron in the Royal Navy, or at least that is what we always used to claim when I was a part of it. It can be traced back to at least 1481 although some sources, including the Royal Navy, date it to 1379. Its long history boasts a number of distinguished and illustrious (and some not so distinguished and illustrious) commanding officers, including the 23 year old Horatio Nelson (as Captain of HMS ALBERMARLE in 1781) and the 27 year old Keith Winstanley (as Captain of HMS UPTON 1988-1990)!
I served in the Squadron twice. First, as the Navigating Officer and Operations Officer of the Offshore Patrol Vessel HMS SHETLAND from 1984-1986 and then as the Commanding Officer of the Minesweeper HMS UPTON.
That latter appointment is already over 30 years ago and while my memory is very good and I have my Captain’s Night Order Books and various reports and signals to fall back on, much has changed since then. The personal reflections that follow do not reflect current operations and, it could be argued, are as relevant today as tales from the age of sail!
The modern Overseas Patrol Squadron (the title replaced Fishery Protection Squadron last year) comprises 8 ships, none of which is more than 10 years old and, as the Squadron title suggests, their duties take them beyond UK’s fishing waters. Back in 1988 I re-joined a Squadron comprising 11 ships (HMShips LEEDS CASTLE, GUERNSEY, LINDISFARNE, SHETLAND, ANGLESEY, ORKNEY, JERSEY and ALDERNEY of the Offshore Division and HMShips BLACKWATER, SOBERTON and UPTON of the Coastal Division. “Coastal Division” was something of a misnomer and I certainly never felt operationally constrained to the coast. My operational constraints largely revolved around keeping a weather eye on ….. the weather … and on the levels in the fresh water tanks as we only had enough fresh water for 4-5 days on patrol before we needed an alongside berth to replenish. Consequently our patrol pattern generally involved 4-5 days on patrol and then 24-36 hours alongside in UK ports quite literally anywhere we could fit, and even some places (Penzance!) where we almost didn’t fit! In two years we visited Blyth, Newcastle (including a rather memorable New Year’s Eve and once when we had to throw our berthing hawsers to passers by when our berthing party hadn’t turned up), South Shields, Sunderland, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Grimsby, Hull, Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Harwich, Ipswich (for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day one year), Dover, Newhaven, Shoreham, Portsmouth, Poole, Weymouth, Portland, Torquay, Dartmouth, Millbay, Devonport, Falmouth, Penzance, Swansea, Milford Haven, Holyhead, Liverpool, Fleetwood, and Douglas plus informal visits to Emden, Amsterdam and Antwerp. Douglas was my first “alongside” as a CO.
We would land small parties by our Gemini inflatable boat (later upgraded to a “Tornado” rigid, inflatable boat) to buy bread, milk and papers when our operating pattern allowed and anchored in countless bays and interesting places around the coast. The Navigating Officer and I tried to find “amusing” places to drop our anchor and my Night Order Book records that we spent the night of 15 September 1988 sheltering in “Abraham’s Bosom” Sadly, 33 years on I can’t remember where that is, or quite how comfortable a bosom it was! It was not uncommon to spend months away from our base port of Rosyth with long patrols broken with a two-week maintenance period in one of the south coast Naval bases. HMS UPTON was already 32 years old when I took over. She had been launched 5 years before I had been born and I was to be her penultimate Captain.
Throughout my time with the Squadron I had nothing but the utmost respect for the fishermen I encountered, both afloat and ashore. It was, and probably still is, one of the most dangerous maritime activities. Although somewhat “after my time”, a research project for Swansea University in 2007 showed that the fatal accident rate for UK Fishermen for the decade 1996-2005 was 115 times higher than that of the general workforce of the UK, 81 times higher than in manufacturing and 24 times higher than the construction industry. We shared some (but not all) of these dangers, particularly when it came to the weather. UPTON was 152 feet long, 28 feet wide and had a draught of only 8 feet. She had no stabilisers to damped her motion and could, I have heard it claimed, “roll on wet grass.” I have written previously about being at sea in HMS UPTON during the so called “Burns Day Storm” (actually Hurricane Daria) – hurricane force winds that battered the UK South Coast on 25-26 January 1990. See Blog 22: “Florence, Mangkhut and Helene …. with memories of Michael Fish, Daria and Luis”, published 17 September 2018.
I also recall a 5 day period operating in the North Sea where a continues easterly gale (on shore) meant we could not safely enter any East coast port nor anchor off exposed shorelines and therefore had no option but to pound slowly into the seas to make sufficient room to then turn (across the seas!) and run downwind and down sea for meal times. Back and fro for 5 days during which time we could only leave the relative safety of our bunks to eat or go on watch – and in my case climb the internal ladder to the bridge to check on the weather and the navigation. I also recorded a three week period in March 1990 when the weather was “out-of-limits” for boarding operations on every single day.
Somewhat earlier, on 4 December 1988, we left the Belgian port of Antwerp for the 5 hour passage down the Scheldt and out into the Scheldt estuary in the teeth of a severe gale. There was nowhere to shelter and it was not safe to anchor on a lee shore in the prevailing or forecast conditions. The weather was so bad that the Belgian and Dutch authorities had “suspended” pilotage by the time we exited the Scheldt and, having given our stranded Belgian sea pilot the use of my cabin overnight, we adjusted our plans to make a rather uncomfortable overnight passage to Dover in order to safely land him. Just as I left the Bridge around midnight we picked up a rather garbled and broken Mayday call and thought we saw distress flares in the distance on our port bow. We streamed down the bearing – clutter on the radar from the storm hid any obvious contacts – and shortly we could smell fuel in the air. Extracts from the 39 page Report of the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents published by the UK Cabinet Office tell the bald facts better than I can:
“During the night of 4/5 December 1988 the suction dredger BOWSPRITE (3000 tons, 264ft long, 44ft beam, 17.5ft deep) was bound from a position off Nieuwpoort, Belgium towards the River Thames with a cargo of marine aggregate. Just before midnight, when about 15 miles NNW of Nieuwpoort, the bottom shell fractured. The weather was severe, with strong gale (force 9) westerly winds and very rough seas. The fracture occurred at about midships (half length). The initial MAYDAY was acknowledged by Ostend Radio and logged by them at 0007. Ostend broadcast a MAYDAY relay at 0013 which was received by North Foreland Radio at 0017 and relayed to Dover at 0018. At approximately 0020 or a few minutes later, the BOWSPRITE completely folded in two with both sections going nearly vertical. All lights now went out and the ten crew members were scattered. The forward part of the ship quickly sank and the aft part remained afloat.
There were, by now, a number of vessels standing by including the ferries PRIDE OF BRUGES and OLAU HOLLANDIA who were illuminating the area with their searchlights. The British minesweeper HMS UPTON was acting as “On-Scene Commander.” The first Belgian helicopter arrived on the scene at about 0045 and quickly lifted the Chief Officer and the Master from the still floating stern of the ship. They also winched to safety two crew members who had made it into the only life raft launched in time. The rest of the crew had, by now, gone into the water.
The Second Officer slid on his back into the water, going completely under and then bobbing to the surface. He saw the bow section sink and then drifted away. He was subsequently picked up by HMS UPTON at 0055. He suffered a broken right leg and damage to his right knee, plus extensive bruising to the body. The Third Engineer was picked up by HMS UPTON at 0126 having been in the sea for about an hour. The bodies of the Second Engineer and one Able Seaman were picked up by HMS UPTON. Both had slipped out of their lifejackets and were hanging about a foot underwater. The body of the Extra Mate/Training Master was washed ashore near Ostend on 8 December. The body of the remaining Able Seaman was never recovered.
At about 0130 a further Belgian helicopter winched down a doctor to the deck of HMS UPTON who assisted the warship’s medical team in treating the Second Officer and the Third Engineer. At 0210, while manoeuvring inside considerable flotsam from the wreckage and still searching for men in the water, the starboard shaft of HMS UPTON was fouled by a mooring rope from the wreck forcing her to shut down the starboard engine. She continued to operate on one engine. At 0250 the Second Mate, Third Engineer and the Belgian doctor were lifted off HMS UPTON by helicopter and flown to hospital in Bruges.
The Search and Rescue operation was well handled and had it not been for the sudden violent folding together of the two halves of the BOWSPRITE all ten crew would have probably been rescued, despite the severe weather. Special mention must be made of the Belgian helicopter crews who showed skill and courage in lifting the survivors to safety and also of the Belgian doctor who was lowered on to the deck of HMS UPTON to give treatment to injured survivors. The British minesweeper HMS UPTON assumed the roll of on-scene commander and was handled with great skill by her Commanding Officer throughout. Four of her crew entered the water in extremely hazardous conditions to recover the exhausted survivors. The Master and crew of the BOWSPRITE conducted themselves in exemplary fashion, and the Search and Rescue operation was carried out with skill and courage in very adverse conditions.
The reports key conclusion was “It has not been possible, despite extensive research to establish positively the reasons for the fracture. The most probable explanation is that the ship, heading almost directly into the weather, encountered two successive very large waves so that she was momentarily severely sagged: the concentration of the weight of the cargo amidships acting with inbuilt stress upon an aging hull, led directly and immediately to catastrophic failure.
Of course that actually only tells part of the story. The sinking was actually witnessed by a nearby merchant vessel, M/V WHITEBURN GIRL who first relayed the position to Ostend Radio. She was about one mile to the South. The ferry PRIDE OF BRUGE and UPTON both arrived on the scene at approximately 0035Z to be joined shortly thereafter by the NORDIC FERRY and the OLAU HOLLANDIA. The weather was too rough for any of us to put boats in the water and UPTON was clearly the only ship manoeuvrable enough to get close to the wreck. and we recovered men from the water at 0055Z, 0109Z, 0126Z and 0140Z. The bigger ships were used to illuminate the still floating stern section of the wreck, warn other shipping to keep clear and to assist in the visual search for men in the water. Recovery of the casualties involved manoeuvring the ship and stopping upwind of the men in the water with the starboard beam to the wind and sea. The swimmer-of-the-watch then entered the water on a line and with a recovery strop, rescued the casualty and, once alongside the ship, placed him in the recovery strop to be manually hoisted by members of the crew tending the appropriate line and all standing in the port waist of the ship. The system was only designed to lift one man at a time. While the casualty was being hoisted inboard, the ship picked up considerably leeway (drifting downwind onto the swimmer, who was forced to keep swimming away from the ship to avoid disappearing under the hull. Throughout the recovery of the casualty and then the swimmer we were stopped in the water and rolling viciously.
Not surprisingly this was dangerous and exhausting work and three separate swimmers were used. The oldest was 29, the other two were both 19. During the final recovery the swimmer, on his second rescue, was so exhausted he could not put the strop around the casualty and it was all he could do to stop himself and his casualty disappearing beneath the ship. Realising there was a real danger of losing both men, Lt Paul Haycock, the First Lieutenant, entered the water himself and saved both men. Helicopter operations – winching down to the stern of the ship amongst all the minesweeping gear was pretty tricky at the best of times. Even years later I continue to be impressed that we did it four times that night in those conditions.
The actions of the marine engineering teams in rapidly shutting down the starboard engine when the starboard shaft became fouled undoubtedly saved the engine from damage. That they then quickly hacksawed through the hawser and recovered both ends into the ship and secured them inboard so we could continue operations on one shaft was impressive. It would only be later that day, safely in Dover, that we could be sure there was no damage to the shaft, the A bracket, and the starboard propeller. It was that kind of night.
PRIDE OF BRUGE, OLAU HOLLANDIA and NORDIC FERRY were instructed to proceed between 0315Z and 0335Z and the search continued by UPTON, the Belgian tug SEA TIGER, a Belgian pilot vessel, two lifeboats and helicopters. Although two empty lifejackets were located by helicopter at about 0430Z no one was recovered from the water after 0140Z. UPTON was released to proceed to Dover to land our bodies and effect repairs to our starboard shaft at 0800Z. The stern section of the BOWSPRITE was still afloat and as we left the scene Belgian authorities were preparing to put divers onto the stern section to search for the missing men.
Between 0026Z on 5 December and 1115Z on 6 December I sent 5 signals directly relating to the incident. The second one, at 0102Z was particularly succinct. It merely read “AM RESCUING SURVIVORS IN MY PRESENT POSITION 5122N(0) 00236E(1).” My final signal was equally brief:
“TWO BODIES AND ITEMS OF CLOTHING AND LIFESAVING EQUIPMENT RECOVERED FROM M/V BOWSPRITE TRANSFERRED TO DOVER CORONER 051530Z FOR FORMAL IDENTIFICATION AND SUBSEQUENT INQUESTR. HAWSER FOULING STBD SHAFT FINALLY CLEARED 052330Z. CARRIED OUT SUCCESSFUL BASIN TRIAL 052359Z AND SAILED DOVER TO RESUME FISHERY PATROL 060800Z. THE STERLING EFFORTS OF THE PORTSMOUTH AREA CLEARANCE DIVING TEAM IN DIVING WITHOUT BREAK 1700Z-2330Z WERE VERY MUCH APPRECIATED.”
It was some time afterwards that I discovered that in the midst of all this chaos the Belgian sea-pilot enjoying the comfort of a cabin I hadn’t seen for quite some time, awoke, roused by the sound of a helicopter overhead, and appeared on the Bridge expecting to be going ashore. I didn’t see him but I have it on good authority that he was “requested” to leave the scene of action forthwith! He wasn’t seen again until we arrived safely alongside in Dover. In the subsequent weeks I couldn’t help wondering if we could have done more to find the missing men? Could we have got to the scene any quicker? Could I or should I have risked putting a small boat in the water? I can’t remember the first time I was aware that the second and fourth men we recovered from the water were dead. With the noise and motion and all the action that was involved it was not as obvious on the night as it now appears reading the official narrative in the cold light of day. A few days later, alongside in Poole, I found myself drinking late at night with one of the 19 year olds who had gone into the water that night. We were recounting our own perspectives on events of the previous week. At one point he turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “I didn’t know he was dead.” It turned out that throughout his herculean efforts in the water he thought “his casualty” was struggling to stay afloat. He watched him hoisted clear of the water, awaited his own recovery, and then, exhausted, went below himself to recover before returning on deck to “have another go.” It turned out that the first thing he saw when he returned to the upper deck was the body of the man he thought he had just rescued.
As late as 7 weeks after the incident we were still providing information to assist inquests and enquiries and even in locating the precise position of the wrecked bows, Belgian divers having dived on a wreck on 18 Jan to discover it was, as they put in their signal, “not, repeat not, the BOWSPRITE.” The wreck was ultimately found and marked by buoys. Commander-In-Chief’s Commendations for bravery were received for the 4 men who entered the water that night in September 1989.
That particular patrol started on 28 November 1988 and finished on 5 January 1990. In addition to the BOWSPRITE incident it also included 3 foreign fishing vessel arrests, and subsequent court cases, in the space of a week from 13 December and assistance to the merchant ship GIENY S in the early hours of 21 December. GIENY S had developed a 45 degree list and lost all electrical power when her timber cargo shifted at night in the English channel. We put a boarding team onboard, restored electrical power, and escorted her to Dover harbour. We took “Christmas” leave between 6-22 January and went back to sea on patrol on 30 January, this time remaining away from our base port through to 10 March. This sort of routine was typical.
We had a fair share of “adventures” like BOWSPRITE/GIENY S and, primarily because we were often the first warship on the scene, we appeared to have more than our fair share of incidents as “Scene of Action Commander.” Not all had successful outcomes and I vividly remember a particular search for a “missing” fishing vessel in the southern North Sea and the waters off East Anglia. We coordinated the search of a number of other vessels and helicopter – many of which came and went – over a 3 day period in excellent visibility and pretty good weather. This included HMS BROCKLESBY, RAF Nimrod aircraft, the Lowestoft and Aldeburgh lifeboats and a USAF Jolly Green Giant. We never found a thing. In addition to carrying out boardings there were many occasions where we (and other ships in the Squadron) went to the aid of fishing vessels in distress.
We provided all sorts of assistance including, on one night, the transfer by small boat, of a portable generator to a French fishing vessel taking on water (sinking!) in the middle of the English Channel. As a Captain I often dreamt of going to the assistance of a fully laden 200,000 tons diamond carrier inboard for Amsterdam and claiming my share of the “prize money” from a successful salvage operation. “Prize Rules” were suitably archaic and the Captain’s share most definitely larger than anyone else’s (we were, you must remember, defending democracy, not practicing it!). There was, however, a tacit understanding that ships of the Fishery Protection Squadron never submitted a “salvage claim” after assistance to a fishing vessel, no matter how lengthy or complicated the assistance.
The Commanding Officer and the First Lieutenant of each Squadron ship were both qualified British Sea Fisheries Officers (BSFOs) having completed a training course under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), and taken a MAFF BSFO to sea to be assessed, observed, checked out and “passed fit for service” – all; this before being turned lose on the fishing community writ large. My own course was undertaken in London, Lowestoft, Grimsby and Rosyth and covered everything from the complexities of the regulations for fishing within the UK’s EEZ – the so called “Blue Book”, a rather large , thick and complicated tome unimaginatively blue in colour – containing different regulations for different areas within British Fishery limits – to logbook and quota recording rules (again different for different areas) – to the correct way of measuring nets and the legal (and illegal) use of net attachments, the details of reporting procedures, arrest and court procedures, and finally fish recognition training! Fish recognition training included practical exams at the MAFF Fish laboratory in Lowestoft – a collection of rather old samples which was quite as unpleasant an experience as it sounds. More fun was had in the early pre-dawn hours hours at Grimsby fish market onboard a recently arrived trawler, knee deep in the fish hold moving fish around and calling out “cod”, “haddock”, “saithe”, “pollock”, “pint fish”, “whiting”, “monk fish” ……. “pint fish” being the accepted cry for a species you couldn’t identify as, by that time on the course, failure to identify a fish cost you a “pint” for the course instructor! My practical assessment took place after I had joined HMS UPTON and was conducted over a 10-12 day period in the Irish Sea and the Lundy and Fastnet sea areas.
Getting on (and off) a fishing vessel making way was always hazardous, even more so at night, and there was not always anyone on deck to assist the first amongst us making the effort. There were plenty of bruises and the odd cut, numerous slips, falls, tumbles and “near misses” but only one (as I recall) man overboard (safely recovered). It wasn’t me but to the delight of some (again not me!) it was the Coxswain!
We always respected the fact that these men were earning their livelihoods and made every effort to have the minimum impact on the way they conducted business. I do not recall EVER ordering a fisherman to haul his nets ahead of when he had planned. If necessary (and sometimes it was) the boarding teams would simply wait. The FV would, more often than not, be engaged in fishing with her gear in the water, while we boarded. This required considerable skill on the part of our small boat coxswains and boats crew and a fair mix of courage and agility on the part of our boarding teams. It wasn’t necessarily much safer to board after nets had been hauled (depending on the fishing vessel type) with the boat stopped and several tons of equipment swinging around and wires all over the place. It was a young man’s game and thankfully most of us were! When conditions and sea room allowed we would endeavour to give the boarding teams a down-sea run to the fishing vessel and, in due course, a down-sea return to UPTON once the boarding was complete. An “average” boarding would take between 45 minutes to an hour, not including transit time to and from HMS UPTON, and include inspection of the fishing vessels logbook, checking of nets and attachments, and checking of the quantity, sizes and species of fish in the hold. We did carry out some boardings at night but rarely, if ever, did we conduct more than 5 or 6 boardings in a 24 hour period. The vast, vast majority were legal, honest men going about their lawful business often in extremely dangerous and arduous conditions. The majority were friendly, gregarious, and generous – sometimes with their “hospitality.” We were not permitted to accept anything, other than perhaps a cup of coffee, until the inspection was complete and no infringements were found. On some occasions, as we disembarked, we would be offered fresh fish. In these instances “first call” went to providing a meal for the ship’s company with anything left over being offered, in the first instance, to the boarding teams. You had to “prepare” the fish for freezing yourself so, over the space of two years, I became a dab hand at filleting fish.
Sadly, not all fishing vessels were this generous nor, as HMS UPTON’s arrest record will attest, all this honest. Failure to accurately record the amount of each species caught meant that the excess amount did not come off a country’s quota for a specific species in a specific area. Estimating fish quantities was never an exact science for fishermen or boarding teams and we always gave the benefit of the doubt to the fishermen. That said, I arrested a number of fishing vessels for significant under-recording including the “runaway” French stern trawler I mentioned in Blog 125: Advent, Nautical Flashbacks & Happy Christmas, published 24 December 2020. In my experience fishing with deliberately undersized nets was a fairly rare occurrence but fishing with illegal attachments, in some cases fitted with quick release mechanisms – effectively restricting net size was rather more common and provided an interesting degree of additional fishery protection challenge.
My very first arrest was a large Dutch beam trawler encountered on the edge of British Sea Fishery limits, and the boundary with Dutch limits, at 0645Z on the morning of 1 November 1988. Conditions were pretty good and, giving “conduct” of UPTON to my First Lieutenant, I decided to do this boarding myself and boarded the vessel prior to him hauling his nets and recovering his catch. At the time we were about 40 miles ESE of Lowestoft and some 4 nautical miles inside British Sea Fishery limits. So far so good. In the course of the boarding I came across a number of irregularities including illegal and undersized attachments to both nets. Communications with MAFF London were not good but eventually, following discussions with London and the Dutch authorities, the First Lieutenant relayed to me that UK and Dutch authorities also suspected that this fishing vessel had a false (and hidden) fish room. I was therefore tasked with finding it! The more the boarding party and I searched, the less cooperative the skipper and his crew became. Without the ability to take his existing fish hold apart – an impossible task for a three man boarding team at sea – the search for hidden compartments proved fruitless and I was ordered to arrest the skipper for the more obvious offences and order him to accompany UPTON to Lowestoft for further investigation. He refused. Not just once either. He even refused when I reverted to the use of cards specifically printed in Dutch. He refused THREE times. He was big, burly, bearded…. and at least twice my size! His crew outnumbered my boarding team three to one. Tricky. Unfortunately, in the course of a rather protracted boarding, I had allowed the Dutchman to leave British Sea Fishery Limits and pointing to his position on his chart systems he ordered me to leave his boat. Even more tricky. I say “I allowed” because I accepted full responsibility. As I put it in my official report some days later “Responsibility for failing to order the fishing vessel to remain within BFLs and for the failure of the Bridge team to appreciate the situation must ultimately rest with the Commanding Officer. An objective reconstruction of the incident leads all involved to the conclusion that during the course of a protracted boarding, aware not only that he had committed offences but also that a search for a false fish room was in progress, the skipper made a deliberate, and in the event skilfully executed, attempt to leave BFLs before being ordered alongside for further investigation. None of the boarding team noticed any movement.” As this was being reported to various HQs in London and Rosyth consideration was given to ordering me to return to my ship lest the Dutchman hightail it for home with a Royal Navy Commanding Officer onboard, HMS NURTON (not a Fishery Protection vessels) was ordered to my assistance “with all despatch” and I was ordered to “consider” trying to take the fishing vessel under tow. When that particular advice was relayed to me I remember thinking that maybe sending the First Lieutenant to do this boarding might have been a better idea after all!
Eventually, after increasing pressure from Dutch authorities, the skipper relented and came into Lowestoft where, the following day in the local Magistrates court he pleaded ………. Not Guilty to all charges and claimed illegal arrest. The term “piracy” was used. It was an interesting court case. Made more interesting because, if truth were told, his modern navigation equipment was far superior to the kit we carried. Nevertheless he was found guilty on two charges and fined £4000.00. As I put it in my official report, when the term “piracy” was used in court “it was reassuring to note that at the moment critique Lowestoft Magistrates Court was prepared to remind the defence council that it was the skipper of the JORIS SENIOR and not the Commanding Officer HMS UPTON who was on trial.” I suspect it had been a couple of hundred years since an RN CO had been accused of piracy!
For the record, during my time in UPTON we carried out 258 boardings (75 British, 64 French, 76 Belgians, 23 Dutch, 17 Danish, 2 Irish and 1 German. We issued 5 formal warnings and carried out 22 arrests (9 British, 2 French, 10 Belgians and 1 Dutch) If “success” is measured in “arrests and warnings” then I do not believe any other ship in the Squadron was as successful. What do I put that success down to? Well, in short, I kind of cheated, although I prefer the expression “operated at tactical advantage.” So it is true that I did, on occasion, operate at night with “deceptive lighting” rigged to make my identity as a warship less obvious. We did perfect the skills of “long range boardings” i.e. launching our boarding teams from a range in excess of the 6 mile radar limit on which most (but not all) fishing vessels operated their radar and we did, on occasion, board fishing vessels without telling them by radio that we were coming. This latter tactic could even be successful in daylight (the visibility from a fishing vessels bridge can be quite restricted) but at night is obviously fraught with additional risks and difficulties. It was not a task I asked my team to undertake without, from time to time, doing it myself. There was a period when we achieved a “hat-trick” of arrests – three arrests from 3 consecutive boardings, at least two of these from the use of “covert” procedures.
These tactics arose out of necessity rather than as a pre-meditated ploy. On a number of occasions we came across otherwise “innocent-looking” fishing vessels who, in the face on our standard overt daylight approaches, would alter course to open the range and hurriedly haul their nets. This might have been fine had we not, on occasions, also witnessed frantic activity on deck and, on more than one occasion, the rapid ditching overboard of what appeared to be illegal net attachments. Following one such incident I chose not to carry out a boarding of the vessel concerned and, after boarding other vessels in the vicinity, withdrew over the visual horizon as night fell. Under the covert of dark, deceptive lighting and a non-direct approach, followed by a long range boarding, complete surprise was achieved and the same vessel boarded at first light. Surprise was complete. When told the boat was not planning to haul his nets for a number of hours, the First Lieutenant told the skipper than was fine and we would wait. Not surprisingly, when the time came, the skipper reported his winches as defective. We despatched an engineering repair party and offered to transport other fisherman in the area over to assist. At one point we even offered to haul his nets ourselves using our mine sweeping winches if he passed his wires over to us. From study of the fishing vessels drawings we identified the location of all the emergency stops on his gear and, surprise surprise, once we put sailors in all locations the winches miraculously cleared their defects and the nets were hauled. Imagine our surprise when both nets contained illegal “blinders” (effectively illegal nets within the normal nets) and both rigged with a quick release mechanism. In this particular instance Lowestoft Magistrates Court not only fined him on both charges of using illegal attachments, plus costs and an interpreters fee, they also ordered the confiscation of his catch, valued at £19,560.
When we weren’t enforcing fisheries legislation, coping with bad weather, assisting merchant vessels, yachts and fishing vessels, we kept “our hand in” as a minesweeper in both “mechanical” and “influence” modes. Mechanical sweeping used the standard Oropesa sweeps – a wire or wires streamed from the port and/or starboard quarter of the ship fitted with armed explosive cutters designed to “cut” the wires of moored or tethered mines. Influence minesweeping used a contraption called a “Combined Towed Acoustic Sweep and Loop” comprising a towed Acoustic Hammer, and Acoustic Displacer combined with a towed magnetic loop designed to combat acoustic and magnetic mines. Streaming this kit was a significant seamanship evolution in itself and involved deploying pretty much every piece of minesweeping equipment and float that we possessed. It turned a 152ft minesweeper into something like a super tanker in terms of length and manoeuvrability. I even managed to use an armed single Oropesa sweep once in anger against a submerged danger to navigation – but as we were responsible for putting the navigational danger in position in the first place that is probably best as a story for some other time!
There you go, the literary perils (your perils not mine) of having too much time on your hands (mine not yours) in which to blog during a third National lockdown.
Meanwhile, for Clipper devotees, the latest messages from Subic Bay, the second one received at the end of last week:
For Diabetes UK and the National Autistic Society see:
for UNICEF UK see:
Please take a look. Thank you