International Writers Magazine: Life At Sea
Explorer a life at sea and a mystery put to rest
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?
of weeks later I was in Hull on other fishy business and found myself
sitting in Ernies front room. Ernie had recently retired from
the sea, having finished his career skippering oil industry standby
vessels in the North Sea and clearly wasnt entirely comfortable
with being ashore.
The book itself
was fascinating, in the form of a folder full of typed sheets containing
a lifetimes worth of reminiscences from the heyday of Britains
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 wasnt
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
At the time, Ernie Suddaby was an ambitious young trawler skipper with
a successful record of good catches in an industry where youre
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 BUTs 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 didnt 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 ships loss could be explained.
Like many fishermen familiar with those fishing grounds, Ernie had a
pretty good idea of the Gauls 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 wasnt a great surprise that the position was within a whisker
of the one on the scrap of paper in Ernies wallet.
"There was a bloody good crew on the Ranger Aurora," Ernie
said one day of the trawler he had skippered before the Gaul. "Its
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 Ernies 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
Then came the first survey of the wreck, which Ernie and the Gauls
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 wasnt 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 thats only part of the story. Although the book deals with
the Gaul, the surveys and the subsequent inquiry, theres plenty
more to it. Much of the book is also centred around Ernies 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 youd
expect to hear on the Hull dockside.
The books title, Fishing Explorer, comes from the trawler
he skippered in the Southern Ocean, fishing for squid and hake.
The books third thread is Ernies 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 UKs
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 wouldnt 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 didnt even
reply to proposals. Nautical publishing isnt 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, its 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 Atles 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.
Its been more than ten years since I first sat in Ernies
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
Ernies book is. I had to pinch myself and wonder if it was really
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 http://www.maritimeinfouk.com/
email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or tel: 00 44 7958 625 254.
It is also available through the Shipping Publications website
© 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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