Western Approaches

By Mike Bell

I was not happy at the time: not happy with my job; more to the point, not happy with myself.  There had been a TV programme about life in the Mountains of Mourne.  It had finished in a farm kitchen, with a young girl singing in Gaelic, unaccompanied.  I have always been easily moved, and it certainly was beautiful, but I was helpless with tears – a bad sign.

Two days later I was to go to sea for a couple of weeks, in charge of a cruise surveying crab larvae in the English Channel.  I always had mixed feelings about research cruises.  On the one hand I hated being away from Bernie, and home.  On the other, cruises offered time-out from the pressures of the ‘real’ world: on board was an ordered bubble of existence, warm with companionship.  A colleague remarked to me that a month-long cruise had been, almost literally, a life-saver for him at a time when his marriage had just disintegrated.  There were also extraordinary experiences to be had, quite outside the run of everyday life.  Like hauling scallop dredges at night, attended by gannets plunging for scraps in a pool of light.

The cruise started badly.  This was partly because of storm-force winds that rose up as we passed through the Dover Straits.  Being at sea in heavy weather can be exhilarating, but only once one has acquired the legs for it after a day or two at sea.  Heading straight out into it is a miserable experience.  The Scientist-in-Charge’s cabin on the Cirolana was situated forward and on an upper deck.  I soon found out why it was nicknamed ‘the lift’!

The other bad start to the cruise was that the ship’s Master and I did not take to one another.  He seemed to me to make a swift judgement that I was not one of the boys – part of the ‘club’.  The First Officer also seemed not to be classed as ‘not one of us’, and the Master took delight in driving this normally courteous man to shout “Fuck off!” at him during a moment of tension in a safety drill.  I think that the Master considered, at least at first, that I did not know what I was doing.  He had a point.  I was SIC by reason of seniority rather than expertise in this particular task, and I relied on other staff to deal with the technicalities.

Nevertheless, as always happens, the cruise settled down into a reasonable routine, and relations between SIC and Master improved.  The survey work was not demanding, but there was satisfaction to be derived achieving the perfect dive profile for the tin-tow net at each station.  Sights of marine wildlife were also a frequent pleasure, such as the 100+ common dolphins feeding just off the port bow, presaged by an immense turmoil of gannets plunging on a large school of fish.

What really changed my mood, however, was something that happened about ten days into the cruise, in the far westerly waters to the south of Ireland – the Western Approaches to the Channel.  I was leaning over the rail on the fishing deck, waiting as the ship turned before shooting the survey gear.  As the water was churned over by the ship’s screws it seemed just the purest, clearest thing I had ever seen – bottle glass shot through with tiny bubbles, a product of sunshine and the clean, clean waters of the far west.  Suddenly, I felt better about things.  Self-pity receded.  What changed I do not know.  Perhaps it was just the realisation that the world is a beautiful place – a commonplace observation, but one which comes fresh and new to each individual as he or she experiences it.


scallop dredges being deployed on another research cruise in the Western Channel M Bell

scallop dredges being deployed on another research cruise in the Western Channel. Credit: M Bell


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