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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: 2nd Chapter

The Purple Maiden:
Chapter 2: Dangerous trawling
Falmouth Coastguard Centre, Cornwall. March 1998.
James Skinner

Stan Bullock had been on morning duty for almost three hours when the first mayday call of the week came through on one of the emergency radio channels. It was Wednesday, just past 09:00 and although the weather was cold and rainy, there were no signs of a storm within hundreds of miles south of the Cornish coast. ‘Mayday! Mayday! Help! Sinking! Maruxa! Maruxa…this is captain of Maruxa! Mayday…’

In broken English, the captain of a Spanish fishing boat was hollering frantically into his radio mike repeating over and over again the name of his vessel and that it was sinking fast. ‘Maruxa, this is Falmouth Coastguard. We read you.’ As per procedures, Stan’s first reaction was to check on the originating signal’s position and type it into the rescue network system. The screen soon brought up the coordinates and the satellite map locating the stricken vessel’s exact position. Whilst maintaining conversation with the captain, registering further information on its status, he sent out rescue requests to all shipping in the area. The response was immediate. The nearest ship was the ‘Saint Vincent’ an 80 thousand ton container en route to Dublin from Miami whilst another two other fishing vessels were some 20 miles further away. Stan was about to ask the container to send out a rescue craft when an unexpected answer came in from yet another ship in the vicinity.

‘Falmouth, this is Commander Sheppard from HMS ‘Piper’. ‘Maruxa’ distress noted, please confirm.’ Stan immediately tuned in and responded on the two-way radio, ‘affirmative Piper. This is supervisor Stan Bullock, Commander, have you received all info?’ ‘Affirmative. Will advise once we’ve picked up the survivors.’ Commander Sheppard went quiet for a few seconds and then added, ‘please advise all other shipping to restore normal routing.’ Stan acknowledged then switched the output of the phone to the centre’s loudspeaker to continue monitoring the rescue operation. As a last thought, he checked on HMS ‘Piper’s’ position. It was within 5 miles of the ‘Maruxa’. The British registered fifteen-foot trawler, based in Vigo, Spain supposedly operating in the Irish Box fishing area had reported an explosion in the engine room causing sufficient damage to the vessel’s hull for water to pour into the area and two of the adjoining compartments. By the time the British warship reached the area, the ‘Maruxa’ had sunk and its crew located adrift in the vessel’s only lifeboat.

Stan smiled as he signed off yet another shipwreck salvage operation. He knew that the Royal Navy had its own classified reasons for responding to the distress call from the trawler and taking over the rescue operations whilst avoiding further assistance from other ships in the area. His experience had hinted at the suspicion that there was more to the sinking of the Spanish trawler than a reported engine room fire. ‘Caught again!’ He thought, ‘these sods will never learn.’

Later that evening, Stan was playing his usual game of darts with a couple of friends at the ‘Cheshire Cat’ pub in one of the side streets that led straight into the entrance to the arts college when a group of students turned up for the evening’s Karaoke session. His fellow dart players, Robin Baker and Jerry Walton, worked at the town hall and were members of the Cornish RNLI that operated the Falmouth lifeboat. ‘Guess the game’s over guys, the rockers brigade has arrived,’ said Jerry. The pub usually held two evening sessions of amateur would-be rockers per week, one on Wednesday that lasted a couple of hours and the other on Saturday that extended till one a.m. in the morning. Stan completed his throws and walked over to the bar where the other two contestants were sipping their pints. The dartboard was tucked away in one of the corners of the pub but well within range of the limelight and noise of the mock up stage. ‘Hear the Navy sunk another Spanish trawler!’ said Robin smiling, ‘spared us a call out, right Stan?’ Stan looked sternly at his friend, ‘you know that’s uncalled for! Illegal fishing is one thing but human lives are another.’ ‘Come off it Stan, you know bloody well the bastards were screwing us yet again.’ Jerry chipped in, ‘what was the final outcome anyway, or are we again playing the confidential bit?’ Stan explained that as far as the official records were concerned, the mayday signal was taken care of as per normal procedures and that the vessel unfortunately sank but that the crew were all rescued and taken ashore, safe and sound. ‘End of story!’ said Stan. Jerry was not convinced, ‘Stan, we’ve been playing this cat a mouse game for years with the Spaniards. Their own bloody government supports all the tricks their fishing fleet gets up to whilst ours sits with its finger up its bum waiting for the scrap heap! Yes or no?’ Stan knew that they were both right, but he had a duty to perform and whether or not he agreed, it was not up to him to comment or discuss the ongoing rift between the United Kingdom and Spain over different allotted fishing quotes and who was allowed to fish where and when. The sinking of the ‘Maruxa’ did hit a chord that reminded Stan of his childhood and why he had decided to become a coastguard officer rather than follow in the family footsteps of a fishing career.

Stan was born in Falmouth on the 15th of November 1966 and came from a once proud and ancestral sea-fairing Cornish family. He was the eldest of the Bullock household with two other sisters, Pam and Cynthia, four and two years younger. His father Christopher, grandfather and two of his uncles had all been long serving fishermen whilst his mother Francis, ran one of the local fishmonger stores in the town centre. From an early age his parents had taught him all about the sea from rowing and sailing boats to the different types of fish and seafood caught and sold by his family. As a child he spent hours scrambling along the rocky shores and the beach, searching for crabs, cockles or clams, studying their habitat, taking note of the seasonal changes that affected life along the coast. He was fascinated by the tides and the behaviour of the sea during the summer calms and the winter’s menacing storms. On weekends, weather permitting, he would go out with his father in their dingy and sail for hours around Falmouth harbour. During mid school breaks, and despite his mother’s reluctance Chris Bullock would occasionally take Stan out to the allotted crabbing zone off the Cornish coast and help him hall in the crab pots. Whenever his uncle Bart was in town, enjoying long leaves after months aboard a trawler fishing in the Norwegian Sea the family would set sail in his uncle’s ten-footer coasting along the English Channel all the way to the Isle of Wight and back. At school, Stan was active in sports, academically sound and popular amongst his fellow students and teachers alike. Despite his young age, he’d made up his mind to follow in the family tradition. However, when he turned ten years old, a tragedy occurred that would alter the lives of the Bullock family and change the course of Stan’s life.

A couple of weeks after Easter, whilst his mother was about to close her store, his father burst into the shop and cried out, ‘Bart’s been killed…up North! The bastards rammed his ship.’ Chris was still wiping his face as he stuttered, ‘he fell off the bridge onto the deck…broke his back and cracked his skull.’ Young Stan was standing behind his mother. Chris Bullock kept walking around the shop with his hands tucked firmly in the back pockets of his jeans, muttering obscenities over and over again, ‘bastards, bloody bastards!’ Francis Bullock looked round at Stan and said, ‘go upstairs and wait for us.’ Stan stood silent. ‘Go on!’ She said. He obeyed. She then went over to her husband who was now sitting on a stool behind the counter. Standing behind, she slowly placed her arms around him and began to cry. Hundreds of Cornish fishing families attended the funeral to pay their respects to the Bullock family. Although life returned to normal a sombre air had settled amongst the Falmouth community. It was not until years later when Stan was approaching his eighteenth birthday, readying himself for the outside world that his father once again brought up the subject of his late uncle and the family’s background.

‘You’ll be finishing school in a few months time, and I know we’ve never had a chance to talk about your future, but have you given any thoughts as to what you wish to do?’ Chris felt a bit sheepish as he muddled through the dreaded speech between a father and son at the threshold of his offspring’s manhood. The tragic event years ago came back to mind. He went on, ‘you know how we all suffered with your Uncle Bart’s death…’ he couldn’t find the words. He was about to break down when he just burst out, ‘I pray to God, son that you never ever follow in our family footsteps. Fishing is a deadly business that has only brought grief to our family!’ A few seconds later Chris calmed down. He chose his words carefully and began, for the first time, a serious discussion with his only son. ‘It’s time you understood how we felt when…you’re uncle… my brother died up north, in the Atlantic and how and why he died. Did you know he was involved in a war?’ He saw the look of bewilderment on Stan’s face. ‘Yes! A war! Would you believe it?’ Chris Bullock went over to a cupboard and from the bottom drawer pulled out a brown folder. He opened it, took out and placed a number of press cuttings on the table. They dated back to 1976. He began to shuffle through them until he found the one he was looking for. It was the front page of the Daily Telegraph. It read: ‘FIRST CASUALTY IN THE COD WARS’.

The infamous wars also known as ‘the wars of territorial waters’ were a series of confrontations between the United Kingdom and Iceland that started back in the 1950s and continued until the 1970s. They all began because of unilateral decisions taken by the Icelandic government over fishing rights in their territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean thus accusing the British fishing fleet of ‘poaching’ whenever a trawler attempted to ‘invade’ the area. Britain on the other hand, regarded the ocean as a ‘free for all’ and Iceland’s laws as illegal. With the protection of the British Navy, the British fleet continued to fish causing serious scuffles such as the ramming of ships, firing of near miss warning shots plus sabotaging fishing nets by both sides in the conflict. Despite the intervention of the international bodies such as the Court of Justice in The Hague and NATO, as wells as two attempts at reaching a peaceful settlement, the wars continued. The crunch came in May, 1976 when a British trawler, the ‘Pimpernel’ was avoiding the gunfire from an Icelandic warship, the ‘Agar’ that she accidentally crossed the bows of a tugboat, the ‘Odina’ that in turn was trying to snap the ‘Pimpernel’s’ nets. Bart Bullock was on the bridge busily trying to distract the warship when he suddenly sighted the ‘Odina’ about fifty yards off the port bow on a direct collision course. He rushed out onto the deck frantically waving his hands at the oncoming vessel. It was too late. He tried to go back into the bridge to warn the rest of the crew but slipped and fell down the stairs to the lower deck. The ‘Pimpernel’ survived the ramming and was eventually towed to port. Bart Bullock died two days later in an Icelandic hospital. That was the last event of the war as Iceland eventually achieved its goal; the confirmation of a 200 mile exclusion zone for foreign fishing vessels. It was not the last of Britain’s fishing woes.

Muros fishing village, Galicia. May 1998
Percy Robertson and Nigel McNeill were in the shed next to the beachside bungalow, a couple of miles inland from the coastal town of Muros, busily washing down all the diving gear after another unsuccessful dive off the coast of Galicia. They were part of a team from the deep-sea diving company, St. Edmond Explorers Ltd. in search of a WWII German U-boat scuttled in November 1944 and supposedly still in an intact condition. The company had been given an eight-month contract by a German firm that in turn had obtained all the permits from the Spanish Navy to find the submarine. The permits expired at the end of October.

The records given to the divers had traced the loss thanks to personal exerts and documents from an historical institution in Dusseldorf that supposedly confirmed the wreck of U-532 ‘within a few miles off the coast of Northwest Spain’. According to the Germans no cross-reference was ever found from any British equivalent records at the Admiralty’s wartime archives, suggesting that no battle engagement or enemy casualties had been reported on that specific date of the war. The Germans were interested in salvaging a unique maritime relic in apparent ‘mint’ condition to be restored as a museum piece and another historical reminder of the Second World War. The suspected coordinates of the location extended along approximately fifty miles of coastline. ‘Like looking for mackerel in a sea full of cod!’ Nigel had muttered when the deal was signed by all parties in Madrid, ‘but the money’s good!’
Eric Fuller, another member of the team was inside the bungalow preparing the evening meal when Percy walked in and placed a small piece of broken crockery on the kitchen table. ‘Percy; take a look at this. I found it just before we surfaced. What do you think?’ Eric turned the gas cooker down and placed the lid back on the pot full of boiling cabbage. He wiped his hands with a paper towel and without a word walked over to the table. Nigel had also finished with the daily equipment mop up and was standing alongside the other end of the table. Eric picked up the relic, looked it over for a few seconds and said, ‘about XVIII century I’d say. Definitely Spanish.’ He smiled, placed it back on the table and went back to his culinary chores. Eric looked at his watch. It was just past eight o’clock. ‘Bernie should be back soon.’ He once again picked up the relic, placed it to his lips and gently kissed it, ‘I guess he was right after all!’ They all burst out laughing.

One of the Germans had handed the British team a sealed envelope in Madrid that contained another map of the area. It had ‘extra’ information; with more exact coordinates.

A peculiar transfer took place in Spain once democracy had settled down after Franco’s death in 1975. The long-standing civil guards, the police section of the armed forces took over the centuries old costal surveillance from the Spanish Navy. They were equipped with helicopters and coastguard vessels; specially trained guards in maritime law were stationed and spread along the Spanish coastline. Whereas the navy was ultimately confined to activity in support of national defence in international waters, the civil guards’ responsibility was more concerned with criminal activity within the shores of the country. Once again, the 200-mile limit came into play and formed part of the overall judiciary system of Spain. There was however a grey area in the civil sector involving commercial and contractual activity that overlapped national and international boundaries. The navy could issue work and other commercial permits but could not enforce the law. St. Edmond Explorers’ contract fell between the cracks. There was a clear definition of responsibilities when it came to the war on drugs. The civil guards of Spain were in full command. Twenty four year old Corporal Sergio Quiroga was one of those guards.

After graduation as a young officer his mentors had recommended he be seconded to an intelligence unit due to his sharp brain that complemented a unique skill of computer programming. He was eventually based at their headquarters in the famous city of Santiago de Compostela, heart of the regional government of Galicia and assigned administrative work investigating and recording all drug dealing activities in the region.

Ever since the early days of the Franco regime, following the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, Galicia had emerged as a smugglers haven for prohibited contraband products such as tobacco and coffee not forgetting the ‘extra’ food supplies that bypassed the ration system enforced in Spain at the time. The river Mino divides Spain from Portugal in the North-western part of the Iberian Peninsula and all along its banks dozens of smugglers operated on either side of the river’s border with hardly any hindrance from the authorities that were too busy trying to control the citizens of the newborn dictatorship. The illicit trading continued through the fifties, sixties and seventies until eventually democracy took over. After the death of the Generalissimo Franco, a new constitution was designed and approved by a transition government lead by President Adolfo Suarez and by 1982 elections were held heralding in a new era freedom and liberty for all Spaniards. Hashish traders took over from the cigarette mob and cocaine and heroine from the coffee bandits. The stakes were now at a higher level as Spain graduated into the European network of drug users, peddlers and pushers. Galicia became the gateway to the rest of the continent particularly for the cocaine barons of Colombia. Corporal Sergio Quiroga was an expert on the criminal set up on both sides of the Atlantic.
For the past three years he had built his own comprehensive database including a sophisticated cross-referencing network of all criminal activities involving drugs dating back to the early 80’s that had any connection with Galicia. Apart from the names and details of the known gangs, his system recorded all uncovered transport routes, map locations, types of craft, concealment methods, dates and above all a good communications linking system with other national, international and European law enforcement drug administrations. Sergio could pull the file on any drug baron caught and convicted within the Spanish autonomy and trace and crisscross the criminal’s roots from the actual cocaine plantation involved to the confiscated batch as well as the date of his son’s graduation.

Sergio however was bored. Computer games had little live action to offer and he dreamt for an opportunity to chase the criminals first hand. His superiors had considered him as too valuable to be wasted on patrols or other ‘hands on’ activities chasing bandits. He was still a bachelor and lived with his widowed mother. He was not into outdoor activities other than his pride and passion that was his 500cc Honda motorbike. He was a dedicated law enforcement agent and his main interest was always his work. Yet he nevertheless kept on trying for more action within the force.
‘Has my request for a transfer come through, Sonia?’ Sonia said nothing. ‘Has anybody seen any papers from HQ about me?’ he shouted across the office. ‘You only sent it a couple of months ago! You know how long these things take,’ said Sonia who continued with her PC. ‘You’ve go a hope!’ She mumbled to herself. At that moment, Colonel Pedro Lobeira walked out of his office, saw that Sergio was standing opposite his secretary and quickly asked, ‘Sergio, can you dig into that toy of yours a see if you can find this name.’ His boss handed him a scribbled note with St. Edmond Explorers Ltd. written on it. The Colonel walked back into his office. Once again Sergio’s inquisitive mind took over.

The ‘Cheshire Cat’, Falmouth. May 1998.
Apart from the fishing industry, Falmouth is also famous for its artistic community. The Falmouth College of Arts attracts young budding artists from around Britain and the world. Active and retired painters, writers and music lovers added to the college teaching staff help pave the way for future illustrious and famous personages. Over 1500 students pass through the college each year and although the main curriculum is based on the arts, there are other sideline courses for mature students wishing to improve on their own particular professional skills.

Stan was about to leave the pub when he caught sight of a new amateur singer having a go at hollering rock noises at the crowd as the Karaoke session was gaining momentum. She had a unique and mellow voice, just the right tone and level. ‘Abba!’ Stan muttered to himself. He walked back to the counter and raising his voice above the cacophony called across at the barman, ‘who’s that, Bernie? Haven’t seen her around here before?’ Bernie continued to pour another pint for a customer and then looked across at the stage. The female singer was a tall long-haired blonde in her late twenties, dressed in loose light blue slacks, flat black sneakers and a white t-shirt with an imprint of a large early century steam vessel with SOS written below and above the liner. Still pouring, Bernie answered, ‘sorry; never seen her before; must be another student from the college.’ Stan continued to stare and listen. After the usual clapping died down, the young woman stepped down and walked over to a corner of the pub, joining another bunch of students that were all seated round a large wooden table laden with beer mugs. A young woman jumped up and hugged the singer whilst the three lads just smiled and continued clapping. Stan couldn’t resist the temptation. He walked over to the group and introduced himself, eyes fixed on the young blond. ‘I’m Stan Bullock from the local Coastguard station; I presume you are all from the college!’ There were smiling nods from most of them. The blonde woman said nothing. ‘I give a lecture on maritime safety once a week. I don’t think I’ve come across your class yet?’ He suddenly realised he was jumping the gun, ‘what are you all studying by the way?’ ‘We’re all doing a MA in Creative Advertising,’ said one of the lads. ‘It’s the future. Oh! I’m Jim Stanbrook,’ said another offering a handshake. Stan, still trying to attract the young singer’s attention continued, ‘sounds fascinating. Mind if I join you?’ he suddenly realised that he didn’t have a drink, ‘anybody for a refill?’ The young singer spoke out, ‘I’d like a tomato juice please.’ Her accent was foreign. Stan recognised it immediately, ‘you’re Spanish, aren’t you? And what were you christened as?’ She just stared; didn’t understand the verbal twist. ‘Sorry! What is your name?’ She finally smiled and added, ‘I’m Yolanda Mauro. Yes I’m Spanish and come from a city called Vigo. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of it.’ Stan froze. His mind wandered back to the months and years of struggle involving the Spanish fishing fleets. Most came from Yolanda’s home area. He stared at her, and then slowly answered, ‘yes… I know of Vigo; and all the other ports around the area.’
Stan turned around and walked back towards the bar.

© James G. Skinner. August, 2009.
jameskinner at


The Purple Maiden - - Chapter Three - Wrong Wreck
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