Cruise of the ‘Joan’: Peterhead steam drifters, 1927

'Cruises of the Joan' by W E Sinclair, published by Lodestar Books
‘Cruises of the Joan’ by W E Sinclair, published by Lodestar Books

‘Cruises of the Joan’ is from a delightful series, the Lodestar Library, featuring ‘interesting, the unusual, and the downright eccentric in nautical writing’.

In this extract from ‘Cruises of the Joan’ by W E Sinclair we hear about the skipper’s arrival into Peterhead amidst the fleet of steam drifters returning with their catch of herring.

The Londoner decides to sail in amongst them, finding their Scots instructions incomprehensible, and then share his pleasure from mixing with the fishermen. The description provides a fascinating insight into life aboard the herring fleet in the late 1920s.

The series is published on ‘Sailing by’ with permission from the publisher, Lodestar Books.

Arriving in Peterhead

From Berwick we made Peterhead, a weary passage of three days. As we drew near we saw a number of steam drifters making for the harbour. We thought we should do well to let them get in out of our way. But as we sailed and looked, their number did not seem to diminish. As fast as one dozen entered the harbour another dozen came up from the horizon and maintained a never-ending line.

I don’t like steamboats of any kind, speaking from a yacht-sailing point of view, but steam fishing-boats are the kind I like least. They are so dirty and tarry and fish-oily that a touch from one of them will slime a good-looking boat forever. We did not want to go near one in the ‘Joan’ and yet judged that we should have to enter the harbour where they lay so that we might get ashore.

We sailed into the outer harbour with the arriving drifters to take stock of things. It was plainly a waste of time to anchor there. There was nobody about on the quay or shore, there were no dinghies. The only boats were the drifters going into the inner basins. Each of them circled round the harbour and aiming at the entrance to the basin shot in as close behind its predecessor as it could. The inner harbours appeared to us to be chock-a-block. When we asked the crew of a drifter what would happen if we went in, nobody understood us and we understood nobody. Spoken Scotch was incomprehensible to us and in despair we decided to run in and find out for ourselves what would happen to us.

We went in slowly to the disgust of the drifters and to the dismay of a harbour official. He shouted his loudest instructions, but we did not grasp a word he said. He waved his arms and we went in the direction of his waving. Getting a couple of lines to a quay wall, we tied temporarily in a corner which seemed too small and awkward for drifters to trouble about. But we were mistaken. We had to shift our position continually. The fishing boats crowded into that corner while waiting to go out and we became horribly filthy. Fish oil and tar covered our ropes and we never got rid of them. Dust, grit, stones, soot, and fish scales covered our decks and were blown into the cabin. It was an ordeal and we were glad when we were able to get away.

But there were compensations. We filled up with fresh food and water, we got several jobs done in the town, and we could get ashore whenever we liked. These deeds were, however, what we had come to do. There was another compensation even greater. Yacht harbours are clean and respectable, but although I have to be somewhat clean and very respectable, and although I have to keep my boat as near that standard as I can, I hate to turn so-called cleanliness and respectability into objects of existence. As a means of attaining some real thing that you desire they may be efficient. But a deal of work and life is more interesting and exciting than being clean and respectable.

The work and life on a fishing boat is an example. We hobnobbed with a few of the fishermen, looked over their boats, learned a little, a very little, of how herrings were caught and what the herring-fishers’ life was like, and accepted with thanks their offer of fresh fish. Herrings were cheap in Peterhead at the moment, so cheap that nobody thought of paying for them and as a result I fancy few people ate them. Any drifter would give you a bucket of fish for the asking and I ate my fill of fresh herring and Jackson ate his. Although Jackson is so much bigger than I, his appetite for fresh herrings was far smaller than mine.

One boat that we went aboard was a two-masted vessel of about sixty feet length. She was fitted with a powerful motor. The masts had been reduced, but lug-sails were still kept aboard in case of a breakdown. The vessel was immensely strong, fit to stand any knocking about she could get. The cabin sleeping  bunks, dining-room, and engine were all lumped together in one compartment. Engines are good things to have, but I thought this was having too much of a good thing. But then the crew were Scotchmen.

The harbours were empty by five o’clock and the ‘Joan’ had the water and quays to herself. Next morning the drifters came in again with their night’s catch and until the afternoon boat after boat unloaded its herrings into barrels. These were all cleaned by girls who sometimes cleaned off fingers and thumbs in their speed. Then the fish were salted in barrels and shipped at once to Hamburg and other continental ports. The only Londoners who got any were Jackson and I.

One day Jackson got yarning with the blacksmith and found that he had forged many a harpoon for the old Peterhead whalers. He was still so much interested in the work that although nobody wanted harpoons he was teaching his son how to make them. He desired that the tradition should not be lost. The mate was all agog at once to go whaling and after he had examined the old man’s specimens and listened to his tales he returned to the yacht and told me all about it.

‘So far as the ‘Joan’ is concerned,’ said I, ‘you’ll think yourself lucky if you even spot a whale; or if some people’s stories are true it might be unlucky. As for harpoons aboard this boat, don’t think of it. I couldn’t bear the sight of any more cargo. Buy more matches instead.’

‘Cruises of the Joan’ Lodestar Library
North East Folklore Archive