In memoriam

I think it was 1979 or maybe 1980 when the scalloper Dawn Waters went down with all hands. I painted this picture shortly afterwards. It hangs in pride of place on our living room wall. In a moment I'll tell you why.

The boat was skippered by a man they called French Louis, famous then in commercial fishing circles around the south coast of England, the Channel Islands, the French ports and the Irish Sea for his sheer toughness, his great store of knowledge and his skill and his boat's exceptionally high earnings. I think he had a crew of six, including our seventeen years old 'deckie learner' son Stuart. For reasons not germaine to this account Stuart had grown up through his teens in domestic waters nigh on as stormy as those on that night off Jersey when Dawn Waters' heavy steel boom came back to pin him to the cabin wall, almost tearing out his shoulder. He was helicoptered off in a force eight and delivered to the Seaman's Hospital in Greenwich. The surgeons there did an amazing job of mending and knitting and he came home to recuperate. The boy / young man had always been exceptionally strong in body as in mind and still was, praise be; bloodied but definitely unbowed - until he got the news. Some say Dawn waters was taken down when her gear become impacted by a submarine. The authorities deny it. Anyway our young man had had an escape little short of miraculous. Today he has a lovely wife and our two lovely grandaughters, lives in Spain and commutes to a very responsible job as driller in Angola's oil industry. We are of course very proud of him and of his. I wrote this poem a few years later, nothing to do with Dawn waters but very much with Stuart in mind.

Ballad for a young fisherman

Caught up by the tide is the Jessie McBride with the rocks on her keelson now grating
And her anxious crew know not what to do and the seas nowhere near to abating,
But she’s built from old oak and there’s nothing too broke and it’s time is the answer, that’s clear
So hold on you men, she’ll float once again, soon be landing more fish on the pier.

There’ll be many a morn with the sky painted dawn and her wake a cream vee on a mirror,
When the seabirds call, there’s a fry up for all and you all have forgotten this terror
Skip’ll be at the wheel, you’ll be sharpening your steel ahead of the catch that’s to come
Yes, he’ll drink up his tea, wink, grin at the sea and sing to her engine’s sweet hum.

The fishing grounds reached, far from where she beached, your gear out and bumping the bottom,
The otter boards wide trawling into the tide and everything into slow motion,
You’ll wonder if God ever made things this good for folk who spend their lives ashore
who have never a chance to see sunlight dance with the ocean, know freedom, risk more.
Then one night in the pub with the loud hubbub and a pocket of notes if you’re lucky
There’s the girl with the eyes opened wide unsurprised when you eye her and ask the disc jockey
To play the old tune all about a blue moon, distant lights in some harbour aglow
Then you’ll take her home and swear not to roam - and one day she will not say no.

As you may have guessed I have enormous respect for those who go down to the sea in ships, especially those who go there in search of the shoals. Those who have ever a chance to see sunlight dance with the ocean, know freedom, risk more.

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