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Geoff Abbott – Holyhead Trawler Man

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

I’d been a civilian for a week and was starting to have concerns for our finances. I’d been an aircraft technician in the UK Royal Air Force for almost 11 years. From 16 to 27, I didn’t even know how or want to sign on for unemployment. Seven of those years were spent as a member of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service. It filled my soul with a great deal of adventure and something I still crave to this day. During my time at RAF Valley, I’d befriended a group of fishermen in Holyhead, North Wales. They’d always said I should give them a call if I was ever stuck for work.

Beaumaris looking across the Menai Straits to Snowdonia and the playground of my youth.

They were the type of people who wouldn’t go back on their word, and we’d become good friends over the last couple of years. I thought I could take them up on their offer. I walked down to the fish-dock, deserted except for a battered dark blue trawler called the Cadno unloading a catch of stinking grey fish.

The Cadno was a tough little French crabber built of larch on steamed oak ribs oak in Les Sables d’Olonne in 1968. She was 45 feet long and powered by a single 6LXB Gardner. Fish boxes on her deck were full of ropes, racks of anchors, and huge bamboo poles lashed to the side of the wheelhouse. They had orange buoys at their bases, topped off with black flags.

Cadno 1968, credit

A catch was being hauled up from the fish room in orange plastic baskets and dumped on the back of a tipper truck which oozed a watery red slime from its tailgate. The winch whined and hummed as the baskets appeared from the bowels of the boat. The crew under it tried to dodge the dripping slime and blood. A man in green boots (wellies) and a tweed jacket was checking the load. He peered over the harbour wall to make sure there were no more fish on board and told the driver to move off. I asked him if he needed any crew, but he said it wasn’t his boat. He was the merchant and offered me a lift to “the fish factory,” where the crew watched the weigh-in.

The fish was a shark-like species called spurdog. The Cadno had landed about 500 stone (7000 lbs), or just over three tonnes, which they had caught over three days at sea. The catch was dumped on the factory floor and was being graded into small-medium-large by two crew. The whole place reeked of fish and ammonia. A guy with dreadlocks was the nearest to me, I asked him if they needed any crew? This was Trevor Thomas from Holyhead, and his jeans were covered in blood and slime from the catch. Bits of fish clung to his hair which was tied back in natural dreadlocks. “We are looking for crew,” he told me, in a gruff Holyhead accent, “but that’s the man you need to speak to over there,” he noted, pointing across the loading bay. “Gerald,” I was told and hurried over to see if I could get the job.

Gerald Lewis was the owner and skipper of the Cadno. He wore a trademark short peaked, dirty blue skipper’s cap in his late forties or early fifties. He was walking out of the offices so I cut him off and said nervously, “Excuse me, mate, I’m looking for work. Do you need any crew?”

Gerald looked me up and down and could see I was physically fit but asked, “Been to sea before?” I replied, “yes but only on yachts.” “Yachts, yachts?” he asked, with disbelief in his voice and I could see he was getting annoyed with me already. “I’ve just left the Air Force,” I said, hoping to redeem myself, “I was in the mountain rescue team at RAF Valley.” “Ever get seasick?” Gerald asked. “No,” I replied genuinely, “I love being at sea.”

He grabbed my left hand and looked at the hard skin caused by years of manual work and rock climbing. “Okay, I’ll take you on as a tripper,” he said as my hand dropped to my side, and my heart leaped in my chest with the thought of a brand new adventure. “When do I start?” I asked.

Mackrel – fish bait by another name.

“Start?” He said, looking surprised. “You start right now. Help the lads sort the catch out,” he replied and walked away. I couldn’t believe it had been that easy and the “interview” had lasted less than sixty seconds. I walked over and introduced myself to the two crewmen Trevor and Don Peers and told them Gerald was taking me on a tripper.

We shook hands and they showed me the sizes of fish they were looking to grade and I mucked in. As we worked they explained what they expected from a tripper and it was more about seeing if I could fit in. I quickly got used to the smell of ammonia which was caused, I was told, by the spurdog urinating through their skin. They were like small sharks and the lads pointed out two nasty spikes sticking up precariously from their dorsal fins and showed me how to pick them up without being stabbed.

Menai again – I just like this picture.

The Cadno was geared for longlining and each fish had been caught on an individual hook baited with mackerel. Longlining was a more sustainable method of fishing compared to stern or beam trawling and was more selective because it could target more mature fish. Each dogfish had a gaping tear in its mouth where the hooks had been ripped out. That accounted for all the blood. With the three of us grading, we finished the task pretty quickly, and I was told to be at the dock at 8am the next morning.

I went home and told my wife Julie the good news. She looked doubtful but we agreed that it was, at least, a job. Her husband was going to sea, a Holyhead Trawler Man.

My lifelong friend, Geoff Abbott, died of leukemia shortly after we posted his article, June 2021. He is now on his final voyage.

If you want the adventure of a lifetime, save some lifetime for the adventure you want.

Geoff Abbott, mate of mine.

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