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The International Writers Magazine: Life At Sea

Fishing Explorer – a life at sea and a mystery put to rest
Quentin Bates

It’s been a good few years now since I met Ernie Suddaby. Someone mentioned to me that a former fisherman had a story to tell and had written a book about fishing that he was trying to get published –maybe we could help each other out?

A couple of weeks later I was in Hull on other fishy business and found myself sitting in Ernie’s front room. Ernie had recently retired from the sea, having finished his career skippering oil industry standby vessels in the North Sea and clearly wasn’t entirely comfortable with being ashore.

The book itself was fascinating, in the form of a folder full of typed sheets containing a lifetime’s worth of reminiscences from the heyday of Britain’s distant water fishing industry. But this was a lot more than a collection of nostalgia from the good old days.

This is where I might need to backtrack and throw in a word or two of background. At the beginning of the 1970s, Britain was a major fishing nation with a fleet of distant water trawlers that fished across the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to the White Sea. We in Britain were – and still are – big fish eaters and at that time, instead of importing the bulk of supplies as we do now, British trawlers caught much of what was needed to supply the British appetite for cod, haddock, plaice and coley.

But in the early 70s the Cold War was still uncomfortably hot. Relations between east and west were less than cordial and Perestroika wasn’t even a dream. A major war, nuclear or otherwise, was seen as a very real possibility. Western and eastern bloc nations spied on each other constantly and unashamedly, from ships, aircraft and any other conceivable means.

At the time, Ernie Suddaby was an ambitious young trawler skipper with a successful record of good catches in an industry where you’re only as good as your last trip and there are plenty of men ready to step into the boots of a skipper who has just finished two bad trips in a row.

The Ranger Fishing Company was a fairly new company with a small fleet of modern ships, with four new, modern trawlers on order. The fourth of these, Ranger Castor, was handed to Ernie Suddaby and over the next year he fished off Newfoundland, Iceland, Greenland and finally the White Sea. But during his final trip at the end of 1973 the Ranger company was taken over by British United Trawlers and the fleet was renamed en masse, taking the names of BUT’s tribal class ships. Ranger Castor became the Gaul – a name that has a familiar ring to it.

Ernie had already arranged to spend the first trip of 1974 ashore and when the Gaul – new name, new colours – sailed from Hull in January 1974, it was under a relief skipper who took the ship along the Norwegian coast to begin the task of filling the fishroom with fillets processed and frozen on board.

The Gaul disappeared with all hands, almost certainly on the 8th of February 1974, in Norwegian waters, but not too far from the vast Soviet naval base at Kildin Island in an area that was one of the centres of the Cold War at sea. Under appalling weather conditions that also damaged several other ships, a short search was called off and the fate of the Gaul and its entire crew remained a mystery for 30 years. No bodies were found. No wreckage was washed ashore. The ship had vanished.

The media latched on to story that would sell of the Gaul having been on a spying mission and ever since then, the press and TV have relentlessly dragged the story up, even though the original inquiry in 1974 concluded that the Gaul had been lost in bad weather. But that didn’t stop a series of articles, films and some dreadful books appearing at intervals drawing on the mystery, frequently with some wild and ludicrously far-fetched theories of how the Gaul had been sunk by a submarine or taken to Murmansk and the crew sent to a Siberian Gulag.

Ernie Suddaby has never hidden his opinion that the subsequent media frenzy over the Gaul has been misplaced, steadfastly sticking to his guns in maintaining that the Gaul had not been involved in any kind of spying and that the ship’s loss could be explained.

Like many fishermen familiar with those fishing grounds, Ernie had a pretty good idea of the Gaul’s last position. One day he showed me a piece of paper that he kept in his wallet, showing the latitude and longitude of the wreck of the Gaul. Another time we were talking to a Norwegian skipper on the quayside in Hull, who said: ‘We have had the Gaul on our plotters for fifteen years.’

When a TV crew finally chartered a survey vessel and found the wreck, it wasn’t a great surprise that the position was within a whisker of the one on the scrap of paper in Ernie’s wallet.
"There was a bloody good crew on the Ranger Aurora," Ernie said one day of the trawler he had skippered before the Gaul. "It’s a shame most of them followed me into the Gaul."

By the time the wreck of the Gaul was located, we were already well into work on Ernie’s book. The typewritten sheets of manuscript, hammered out on typewriters and word processors on board various support ships, had been turned into computer documents, checked, reread, checked again.

Then came the first survey of the wreck, which Ernie and the Gaul’s first mate George Petty were inexplicably not invited to join. A year or two later came a second survey, which they did join, and during which a great deal of evidence was collected on the fate of the ship, establishing that she had not been fishing when lost and recovering some human remains from the wreck.

The surveys produced tantalising glimpses of the ship in its ghostly grave, seen through the grainy black-and-white underwater footage shot by the unmanned submersible that threaded its way into the guts of the dead ship. The evidence from the deck, the wheelhouse and the area around the wreck showed that most likely a series of unlucky coincidences combined with horrendous storm-force conditions sank the Gaul so quickly that there wasn’t a chance to send a mayday signal. The mysterious undersea cables that a TV programme had made much of were quickly shown to be nothing more sinister than old trawl wires, and the old myths were dispelled one by one.
This was followed by the second inquiry into the loss of the Gaul – the first had been held in 1974 – and Ernie and George attended every minute of both, right up to the final findings that Ernie does not fully agree with, although his claims through the years that the Gaul was not a spy ship and was not sunk by a Soviet submarine were finally and fully vindicated.

But that’s only part of the story. Although the book deals with the Gaul, the surveys and the subsequent inquiry, there’s plenty more to it. Much of the book is also centred around Ernie’s time fishing in the Falkland Islands as the skipper of a Spanish factory trawler where he learned a respectable command of Spanish, although with a strong Yorkshire accent and peppered with the terms you’d expect to hear on the Hull dockside.

The book’s title, Fishing Explorer, comes from the trawler he skippered in the Southern Ocean, fishing for squid and hake.
The book’s third thread is Ernie’s looking back at an industry that has all but disappeared, yet which supported thousands of livelihoods up until the Cod Wars that ushered in 200 mile limits and the UK’s entry to the EU that brought about a series of body blows to the fishing industry. These days the docks at Hull are deathly quiet as the area that was home to every trade supporting fishing is redeveloped into a labyrinth of Chinese restaurants and DIY stores.

Publishing is an odd business and completely at odds with the way fishing works. As work on the manuscript progressed, we reached a deal with a small maritime publisher who was encouraging but delayed repeatedly before finally letting us know that, no, he wouldn’t be publishing the book as he was on the point of retiring. Oh, well. It took a few years to get to that decision and after a lifetime of taking instant decisions in the wheelhouse, Ernie finds it very hard to understand how people who work in centrally-heated offices ashore could take so bloody long to take simple decisions on anything.
So the search started again and other publishers flirted briefly with us. Some were interested. Some pretended to be. Many didn’t even reply to proposals. Nautical publishing isn’t a big business, and fishing is only a small part of it, but even so, with the national press taking notice of the Gaul inquiry, it was perplexing that there was so little interest.
But then we found Norwegian nautical publisher Bjørn Atle Johansen, an absent-minded bear of a man with an interest in all things fishy who makes his living by publishing yearbooks, but who likes to broaden his list with other titles as well.
With hindsight, it was probably for the best that the original publisher dropped out, as the delay means that book covers the whole Gaul saga including the surveys and inquiry.

Again, it’s taken a while. In publishing not much seems to happen fast and much happens unbelievably gradually. But Fishing Explorer rolled off the presses in Bjørn Atle’s home town of Larvik in December, just in time for the first copies to be shipped to England in time for Christmas and the launch party in the Hull Maritime Museum.

It’s been more than ten years since I first sat in Ernie’s front room and leafed through his folderful of pages, before taking it all home and starting the long job of tapping everything into a word processor and embarking on the long process of writing, editing, proof-reading, re-writing, coaxing more words out of Ernie here and there, the page make-up sessions of getting words and pictures into Quark, plenty of scratching of heads and wondering it the book would ever really see the light of day. Then, all of a sudden, everything came together and Bjørn was standing there with a glass of wine in one hand and a copy of Fishing Explorer in the other, telling the assembled guests what a great job we had done and what an important historical document Ernie’s book is. I had to pinch myself and wonder if it was really happening.

Fishing Explorer (ISBN 978-0-9557913-0-7) by Ernest Suddaby is published by Maritime Info UK.
The book is available in the UK from
email:, or tel: 00 44 7958 625 254.
It is also available through the Shipping Publications’ website at

© Quentin Bates is a journalist specialising in nautical subjects. He is also studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Portsmouth University.

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