By Ian Cooper from his series Records of a Bygone Age and republished here with kind permission of The Stronsay Limpet.
The crews of the old sail or steam powered herring drifters were a hardy lot. Striving to earn a living by their pursuit of the ‘silver darlings’ in fair weather and foul, they tended to be a fairly philosophical bunch who took whatever came their way and made of it what they could.
A dirty and dangerous job, the potential for disaster was never far away, either through a storm tossed sea or through what was termed in their often understated way as ‘taking bottom’. This unplanned encounter with ‘terra firma’ could on occasion have tragic consequences but fortunately most vessels managed to get off safely, with the only damage being to the skipper’s reputation and ego!
Few incidents of this ‘taking bottom’ can be more unusual than an episode involving three herring drifters and their close encounter with the Ingale Skerry. Ingale lies between the little island of Auskerry and the southern tip of Stronsay and, although visible as the tide recedes, is underwater and invisible for much of the time, lying patiently in wait for the unwary.
Over the years, the Ingale Skerry has laid claim to many ships and also, sadly, to a good number of seamen’s lives. This tale goes back to a day of dense fog on18th July 1934, while the Stronsay herring fishing was at its height, and a report in the Orkney Herald the following week does full justice to the event:
The story of the extraordinary plight of three drifters of the Stronsay fleet during last Wednesday’s dense mist reached Kirkwall at the week-end through the medium of the Vine, which was one of the three. No damage was done (so at least it is hoped), and no lives were lost, and the situation seems merely humorous when related afterwards. but it was not at all funny to the drifters-men when, returning to port through the dense greyness, their vessels drove hard on Ingale Skerry, and lay there for several tortured hours like a small school of stranded whales, wondering if their bottoms were stove in and whether they would sink or float when the tide came in. The other two boats which emulated the Vine’s assault on Ingale Skerry were the Tropic Bird and Heathery Sprig.
A reporter who called upon the Vine received a racy account of the triple catastrophe from one of the drifter’s crew, who had had the misfortune to lose a packet of cigarettes overboard when the crash came.
The Vine then was returning from the fishing grounds, and there was much rain and even more mist, and between Auskerry and Stronsay lies the rock of Ingale Skerry – it still lies there having survived the shock of being rammed by a trio of drifters.
The Vine was forging ahead at full speed, cutting through the mist like a wire through cheese, according to the narrator, and the crew, again according to the narrator, was looking forward to a visit to the fish and clip shop in Whitehall. Then Ingale Skerry insinuated itself into the foreground, and that was that.
“We were going so fast.” said the teller of the tale, “that I thought we might run on over the skerry on a dry keel and into the sea again on the other side. But we didn’t, we stuck hard for’ard with a nasty grating sound. Astern we were all right, propeller was still racing. Well, we tried to get off of course, wondering all the time what would happen if we did. We had felt such a “dunt” that we thought our bottom must be a mass of iron filings. We got out a kedge anchor, but it didn’t do us much good.
Shortly afterwards we heard a dull thud, and then another, and to our amazement we saw the shapes of two other drifters to starboard hard aground like ourselves. We didn’t know who they were as it was too murky to tell.”
“Well, there we were quite happy now we had each other’s company, and hooting the sides out of our sirens. A couple of drifters came up behind and got the surprise of their lives – and no wonder
They stood by and waited to see whether they would require to do any life-saving or salvage. We stuck there for weeks, it seemed, and the tide came in and the fog cleared a bit. Lucky for us, there was hardly any wind and not much sea. If there had been, the three of us might have been pretty badly battered, badly enough to sink us. As it was, we were all hoping for the best – a few scratches on the keel – but expecting the worst.
We had all our kit tied on and out on deck in case the tide took the boat into deep water and sank her. We had a couple of school youngsters on holiday aboard us. They were scared stiff, and said if ever they got out of this they’d never go aboard a drifter again.
Well, we discovered that the other stranded boats were the Heathery Sprig and the Tropic Bird, and the Thains and the Sustain were standing by. A pity to disappoint you with a tame ending, but we got off quite easily, and went on to Stronsay without any trouble. We go into slip in a week to make sure there are no holes in our hull.”
The reporter at the time must have been delighted to find as an eye witness and participant in the drama a crew member who was also a grand story-teller with a great sense of humour! At the same time, it was made clear in the report that they were very fortunate in the outcome, which could in different circumstances have been tragic.
We are left to wonder if the schoolboys ever did set foot on a drifter again, but they would certainly have had a remarkable story to tell to their friends back at school!