Early one summer morning, we went shark-fishing.
That’s not quite right . . . my dad went shark-fishing on a friend’s boat and I was taken along.
The friend’s boat, Sanu, was large, 62 feet large – a very solid wooden boat – a wartime-built tender for the Admiralty.
This was 1960. I was twelve years old. I had no idea what I had let myself in for.
There were several men and women on board. I was being allowed into the world of adults and I felt pretty good. This was a world where to be grown-up was to drink alcohol and to smoke cigarettes and to tell jokes that I didn’t really understand and where people used swear words when they thought I wasn’t listening. I liked my dad’s friends. They dressed casually, laughed a lot, were easy to be with. They were certainly different from my teachers and the other parents from school.
The fishing-ground was out of sight of land and took a while to reach. All was well till we got there. However, there are one or two things to remember about shark-fishing. Firstly, when the engine stops, the boat starts to go up . . and down . and up . . . and down in an unending, uneven rhythm. Somewhat disconcerting. Then there are buckets of rotting fish called rubby-dubby that are poured into the sea to attract the sharks. They have a disconcertingly distinctive smell about them. None of this is conducive with inexperience and a full breakfast.
Very, very quickly I started to feel clammy, my eyes failed to focus, my head spun. It must have shown because the next thing I remember, my head is being directed over the rail and my breakfast has been presented to the sharks. I must have been taken below to a small cabin smelling of paint (yes, really), a bunk with a large bucket on the floor. There were several times during that day when the bucket became a gaping hole that I would willingly have disappeared down. The sweat, the tears, the smell, the motion, the nausea. Death would have been a relief. I had nothing left inside to give the world. It went on and on.
At various times during the day, there was unappreciated sympathy – female only, and the occasional offer of a hot drink – “no thanks”. But for most of the next six hours I suffered alone, incapable and humiliated.
Late in the afternoon, I heard the engines start. The motion changed and we turned for home. The boat throbbed comfortingly. Dad came down to the cabin to see how I was. He got me to come on deck into the fresh air. I put on someone’s woollen sweater, several sizes too large, and a large oil-skin jacket which reached to my knees.
We sat together, him and I, behind the wheel house, out of the wind. We watched the evening sun catch fire to the waves and the seagulls wheeling and crying as they followed the fishing boat hoping for an easy meal. He told me about the fishing and the catch and there was no fuss – not once did he berate me for being ill. I loved him for that. I accepted the offer of hot soup – “It’ll do you good.” We both had a mug – mushroom soup and crusty bread. Looking back now, I don’t know what my dad and the others thought of me during the time I was below. They left me to get on with it and then talked to me as though nothing had happened. In my turn I have got older and passed through the age they were then. I became an adult in a different period of political correctness but an adult nevertheless. I would have treated me the same. I recognise the rite of passage they allowed me and thank them for it.
And the soup? Never, ever has anything tasted so good. It wasn’t the sea sickness I remember, it is the post sea-sickness – the happiness I found in spending that time with my dad.
As a post script, the last I heard of Sanu was a couple of years ago. She was high and dry on a beach in North Cornwall. The current owner was unlocatable and she was being sold off by the owners of the beach – the National Trust. This was the first time I learnt a little about her history. Now I hear she has been broken up. She was a special boat for a number of reasons, one of which was very personal to me. The story of Sanu’s demise can be read here, here, here and here.