The Price of Fish

15 February 2014

 It’s forty years ago this month that the Gaul disappeared and the controversy over what happened to the ship and its 36 crew still isn’t over.

The Gaul sailed from Hull in January 1974 for the Norwegian coast. The ship was a factory stern trawler, only a few years old and one of the most modern and sophisticated in existence at that time, one of four sister vessels built at the tail end of the British distant water fishing industry before it all came to an end; finished off not by any shortage of fish, but partly by the 200-mile limits that coastal nations imposed in the 1970s and partly by the oil crisis that saw the price of fuel rocketing to unheard of levels.

But in 1974 that was all to come. There was no reason to imagine that any harm would befall the Gaul, even though it was fishing at the darkest time of the year when the sun barely rises over the horizon at those latitudes and the worst weather can occur – as it did at the beginning of February that year.

Nobody quite knows what happened to the Gaul, but whatever it was, there was no time to send a distress call. It should take a matter of seconds to click the button on the VHF and say as calmly as you can ‘mayday, mayday, mayday. This is fishing vessel Gaul. Position 72°03’5N, 25°05’0E...’ But whatever happened, it was too sudden for even that.

A ship like the Gaul shouldn’t disappear off the face of the earth, even under the atrocious weather conditions off northern Norway at the time. The last sighting of the Gaul had the ship maintaining headway with its fishing gear on board, doing what its crew had done many times before under similar circumstances and doing what the dozen or more other trawlers in the area were doing, dodging through some ferocious weather and waiting for it to drop away.

The Gaul is assumed to have vanished on the 8th of February, going by the radio traffic between the trawlers. Last week a memorial service was held on the dock in the British port of Hull to remember the 36 men who vanished with the ship, virtually all of them leaving families and dependents behind them. It was nothing new for Hull, one of the largest fishing communities in the world. But a ship like the Gaul, a modern, self-contained stern trawler? Surely a ship like that couldn’t just vanish?

But it had. The search didn’t last for long. Any survivors would have lasted a matter of hours at best in a liferaft, a matter of minutes in the water; and there was nothing to be found.

An inquiry had scant evidence to consider, but eventually decided that the weather conditions were to blame. But it didn’t stop there. It didn’t take long for the theories to start circulating. This was at the height of the Cold War and the Gaul hadn’t been that far from Soviet waters. One theory was that the ship had been boarded by Soviet marines and taken to Murmansk. Another was that it had been sunk by a torpedo or been the victim of an undersea atomic explosion.

None of the theories held water, certainly not the hijacking one. In weather like that just holding on to eat your breakfast is enough of a struggle, and boarding another ship is out of the question. There were repeated allegations that the Gaul had been a spy ship – all refuted by the skipper, who was on a trip off when his ship disappeared, and the chief mate, who had been invalided home early in the same trip.

None of this stopped the media from latching onto every fanciful story and running with it. This wasn’t just the red tops, but the quality papers took part in this as well, and the media’s role in all this can hardly be seen as anything other than disgraceful. The families of the crews wanted explanations that they were unlikely to get, while newspapers filled column inches with wild stories about how the Gaul’s crew could be prisoners in some frozen Gulag.

It was years before there were any answers and it was a TV company that finally located the wreck in 1997, in precisely the position that Norwegian fishermen had marked as GAUL on their plotters for years after a new seabed obstacle appeared there in the winter of 1974.

Two official surveys followed, uncovering no evidence anywhere to substantiate any of the wild claims. There was no damage, no spying equipment and a mysterious cable turned out to be a discarded trawl wire. The ship was intact. Even the remains of some of the crew were recovered.

The ensuing inquiry examined the new evidence and the blame was placed on a a faulty waste chute letting in water, although that isn’t something everyone agreed on. The ship’s regular skipper feels that the Gaul was swamped by a series of extraordinarily large waves that also damaged another trawler dodging close by, and as the timing fits, I have the feeling he may well be right. The waste chute theory would have allowed water to accumulate gradually and it’s unthinkable to my mind that nobody could have noticed the unmistakeable change in the vessel’s behaviour. The sudden swamping is the more credible theory as the door at the stern to the engine room had been hooked open, and the heavy fish hatches were unsecured, allowing them to fall open as the ship rolled far enough and water to flood in – by which time it would have been game over within seconds and no hope of sending a distress call.

Not that the skipper’s opinions ever carried much weight with the less responsible end of the media that much preferred to spin wild tales of spying and high seas skulduggery to shift copies off the newsstands.

But sometimes the obvious solution is the right one. There never was a spy story there and the Gaul wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary off the Norwegian coast other than looking for fish. The Gaul really did founder very suddenly with all hands on the 8th of February 1974. Not that this is any kind of a consolation to the families of the Gaul’s crew as the newspapers returned repeatedly for years to the story on slack news days to keep the log rolling and maintain forlorn hopes that could never be realised.

Quite a few years ago I got to know Ernie Suddaby, who had been the Gaul’s regular skipper. I got to know Ernie well, visited him many times and we stay in touch. He’s an old man now, and still haunted by the loss of the Gaul all those years ago. It was a pleasure to help him write his book, Fishing Explorer. It’s just a shame that the book is now so hard to find.

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