Travel writer Redmond O’Hanlon climbed aboard a deep-sea trawler hoping to ride headlong into a Force 12 hurricane. In the two weeks he spent on the Norlantean, he battled sea-sickness, sleep deprivation and ridicule from the ship’s crew, who thought him mad for even volunteering to sample their way of life. In the end, O’Hanlon got his story and his storm. He recounts the claustrophobic and very dangerous life of a trawlerman in his new book, “Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic.”
GELLERMAN: To call Redmond O'Hanlon a travel writer would be like calling Evel Knievel a guy who rides motorcycles. O'Hanlon's adventures and misadventures have taken him to the underside of natural history - on treks through jungles and swamps, hot on the trail of a rare rhino in Borneo and Africa's version of the Loch Ness monster.
On his latest journey, he takes passage on the trawler Norlantean to see if he can hold his own as it sets sail for the deep sea, headlong into a Force 12 storm. He lived to tell the tale. His new book is called “Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic.” Redmond, hello.
O'HANLON: Hi, it's wonderful to be here.
GELLERMAN: You know, in your book we quickly learn that you can't hold your own. You're not even out of the harbor and you're praying to the god of porcelain.
O'HANLON: Absolutely right. The idea for this book - it seemed wonderful at the time. And in that presumptuous way I thought, “Well, I'll go out at the worst time of year.” And I knew a young man who eventually found me a trawler that had to go out even if there was a hurricane coming in - as there was - because the young skipper, of 32, owed two million pounds to the bank, so he couldn't afford to stay in harbor.
GELLERMAN: But you had a choice. I mean, you're not a seafaring guy. Why leave a loving wife, two young kids and tierra firma for a trawler full of fish and some very, very strange men?
O'HANLON: Well, I think the real answer to that question - I mean in part, of course, you want a wonderful adventure story. But the real answer is that when I was eight years old, I was brought up in a vicarage so we had no money for holidays. But my dad, he could swap his parish with a minister in the Church of Scotland, so we'd go on our holidays to Scotland. Now, this particular afternoon, I remember, was on an island in Orkney and looking out over the sea. It was August, but there was a big swell running. And there was a trawler out there.
But I could see that to my father this was a solemn moment, and he actually handed his binoculars down to me, which before then I hadn't been allowed to touch, they were sacred objects. And he said to me, “Those men on that boat, they don't know it but they're brave. That's what courage is. I admire trawler men almost as much as I admire the spitfire and hurricane pilots at Bigan Hill.” He'd been the padre right through the Battle of Britain and nothing had ever lived up to that in his life from that moment on.
But the seriousness with which he talked about these trawler men, he said, “I want you to remember this.” And I looked through the binoculars and this little blue trawler spookily close, but one moment she was on top of a wave and the next, even the masts had disappeared. And so instead of taking away from that afternoon an image of courage - I mean, of course, it was abject fear - I thought, “That's what fear really is.” And it took me until I was well over 50 to confront it. I knew I'd have to go out on a trawler sometime.
GELLERMAN: But you head right into a storm. I mean, that's your goal, to head into this Force 12 storm.
O'HANLON: Yes. And I very soon realized that, well, I couldn't stand up. Not just that, but I never got the hang of how you sleep in a bunk. They sleep with their hands clenched, you know, like the feet of a bird on a bough. They somehow or other stay where they're put. And I wasn't prepared for the quality of the fear that comes at you.
See, in the Amazon, even if you see an (inaudible) with an eight foot long arrow, and you're looking up the shaft, and his face is impassive - part of you is thinking, “My god, these are the real people!” And another part of you is thinking, “How flattering. This is man to man. He's actually going to take the trouble to kill me! How classy to be lifted up with the kinetic energy of this thing, pinned to the bark of a tree. What a great way to die!” And of course, well, then you shake with fear, but it's all romantic and personalized.
But out there, this vast ocean that really couldn't give a damn about anybody, that sort of fear, well, it's intolerable, or I thought it was. I was only on this boat for two weeks but all the same, I've never had such a vivid, packed experience.
GELLERMAN: What is a Force 12 storm?
O'HANLON: Well, that was really what I was looking for. Now I have to admit, it's a baby hurricane - that's the first time you're allowed to call a storm a hurricane, when it hits Force 12. And they're actually quite common in the northeast Atlantic in January and February off the UK coast.
GELLERMAN: Let me ask you to read something. At the bottom of page 126, that says, “It was black night.”
O'HANLON: I've got you. This is just as the storm is building up.
(READING) “It was black night, but the Norlantean's main stern searchlight was on, and the black night was a white-out of spray, a chaos of whirling streaks of foam—in patches so thick that at first the lines and spirals seemed almost stationary in the inverted cone of the fierce rays of light. And then, as I withdrew my mesmerized gaze from the furthest penetration of the beam (which was not far—just enough to give me a glimpse of the Norlantean's starboard gunwhale, now rolling down, down, digging in to the waves I couldn't see, and would she come up? How could she come up? And why did she have to move her whole stern like that, a fast side-to-side rear-end waggle like a cat about to pounce, and then wallow deep down in, and slew obscenely left-to-right in a movement I'd certainly not felt before..as I focused on the very brightest patch of spray and bunched foam a yard or two out from the searchlight, I realized that all this torn-up water was moving so very shockingly fast, and I felt sick, but it was not seasickness—no, it was far worse, it was entirely personal, hidden, the steely stomach-squeeze of genuine all-out fear, that sharp warning you get before you panic and disgrace yourself to yourself forever…”
GELLERMAN: You have these periods of sheer terror that are punctuated by these long periods of boredom when you're gutting fish. How did you get through those periods of terror?
O'HANLON: I think—well, of course it's all perverted if you know you're going to write about it afterwards, but it was more difficult to get through those periods of terror than anything I've ever experienced in the jungle. And sobering, and humiliating, and humbling, really. I mean, to think that that's how these young men earn their living. They have a week or two weeks rest, and they go straight out again. I don't understand how they do it, really.
GELLERMAN: Redmond, how would you describe the relationship of these men on the ship as opposed to when they're on land? Different?
O'HANLON: Oh, utterly different. They can't help it, but as you have no sleep—it's just part of the brain mechanism—tremendous talking goes on. The minute you're ashore, conversely, you are really silent and you don't talk to your wife about your inner feelings. Indeed, I was told the only reason that they weren't fooled by me pretending to be a scientist—they knew I was going to write about it, I told them—the point, why they wanted me there, was that even if my book was, well, a piece of shite is actually what they said, but even if it was nonsense, maybe I would be able to describe their lives so they could give this book to the women they loved, who would then understand that they hadn't been away having fun with their friends. She'd understand what the conditions were. She'd let them get home, sleep for 36 hours, and then they'd go shopping, and then they could have sex. (LAUGHS)
GELLERMAN: Well, they say you can trust a trawler man if he's got a wife. Why is that?
O'HANLON: If he's got a wife at home. I mean, so many things surprised me on board this boat, but they just want one woman who'll be there to meet them. And as they said, “It did not matter what she looks like as long as she's there for ya! And there for ya when you're away and no bracknin' the bed with the strongest gravedigger!” The strongest gravedigger must be some macho horror, I think.
GELLERMAN: Well, your book is really driven by dialogue, and sailors are, well, pretty salty.
O'HANLON: Yes, but it was strange. First thing nobody tells you, you don't about, is the sleep depravation. So you have blocks of sleep of one hour which is not even enough for one normal 90-minute sleep cycle so the brain never has time to dream itself back into some kind of sanity. So I think it tries to organize itself by talking instead of dreaming. You talk incessantly. Your subconscious is suddenly right out there for everybody to see. So you come ashore, all you think is “If I could have a drink, I could stop my brain racing in this terrible way.” I could restore myself to myself. So, they go, this particular crew, go to a little bar in Stromness in Orkney called the Flattie, where you have your first drink. Then you go have a minivan, you go into the capital Kirkwall, a little town on the island, and there's a bar there that has enough space for scrapping. Then you go fighting, and it's all in pursuit of you just want your brain to stop. But these guys, none of them had their own front teeth. Not just that, but they had a spare dental plate in the oilskin pocket. They knew they were going to have their next set of teeth buckle. (LAUGHS)
GELLERMAN: Redmond, how much can a trawler man make on a voyage? A two week voyage?
O'HANLON: The value of this catch—now you have to remember, it's a new fishery, and they're deep-sea fish, and their eyes are starting out of their head and a lot of them look horrible, and their English housewife won't touch it, she wouldn't even go into the fish markets if these things were on display. So they all go off to Madrid and Paris and Berlin, they go off to Europe in these big transports. Naturally, the Scottish driver, as one of them said, “I wouldn't feed it to the cat! It's for the foreigners!” (LAUGHS). But it goes into fish soup and it goes into paella, so it doesn't matter. But the value of the whole of this catch was 75,000 pounds.
GELLERMAN: So, about $110,000, something like that.
O'HANLON: Yeah, yeah. So in terms of their communities on these little islands in the far far north of the UK, they're rich; trawler men are rich. But it doesn't seem to me to be worth it for a moment—facing that kind of injury rate, that sort of death rate, those conditions, having no sleep. I'm full of admiration. A fat old landlubber I shall remain, I think. (LAUGHS)
GELLERMAN: Redmond O'Hanlon is author of the new book, “Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic.” Redmond, thank you very much. I do appreciate it.
O'HANLON: Well, thank you, that was fun.
[MUSIC: Sharon Shannon “The Mighty Sparrow” A Celtic Collection (Putomayo) 1996]
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