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Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic

Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic

4.5 2
by Redmond O'Hanlon

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Having survived Borneo, Amazonia, and the Congo, the indefatigable Redmond O’Hanlon sets off on his next adventure: his own perfect storm, in the wild waters off the northern tip of Scotland. Equipped with a fancy Nikon, an excessive supply of socks, and no seamanship whatsoever, O’Hanlon joins the commercial fishing crew of the Norlantean, a


Having survived Borneo, Amazonia, and the Congo, the indefatigable Redmond O’Hanlon sets off on his next adventure: his own perfect storm, in the wild waters off the northern tip of Scotland. Equipped with a fancy Nikon, an excessive supply of socks, and no seamanship whatsoever, O’Hanlon joins the commercial fishing crew of the Norlantean, a deep-sea trawler, to stock a bottomless hull with their catch, even as a hurricane roars around them. Rich in oceanography, marine biology, and uproarious humor, Trawler is Redmond O’Hanlon at his finest.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Tony Horwitz
Trawler nonetheless paints a memorable and unexpectedly tender portrait of men who perform one of the world's most demanding jobs.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Deviating from his usual excursions into the world's rainforests, O'Hanlon (No Mercy) finagles his way onto a Scottish deep-sea fishing boat headed into the North Atlantic waters in January, "the very worst time of year," when storm winds are at their most forceful. The captain and crew seem to like O'Hanlon well enough, even if he is a "mad, seasick writer who's no use to anyone," prone to staring off into the distance when he gets distracted by his thoughts, and he conveys a genuine affection for them as he records their stories. Since there's little to do aboard the ship other than help his marine biologist friend catalogue the various fishes they pull up, and no real scenery to describe besides the wind and the rain, O'Hanlon gets into one long conversation after another-or maybe just one long conversation with intermittent interruptions, as a certain degree of sameness creeps in. O'Hanlon and his shipmates are equally excitable, especially under their sleep-deprived conditions, leading to dialogue peppered with exclamation points and fevered theories about near-total homosexuality within the 19th-century British navy and the possibility that women find trawlermen attractive because fish smell like human pheromones. Though the unrelenting, incongruous manic tone may be off-putting to newcomers, fans of O'Hanlon's trouble-filled sagas will feel right at home. Photos, illus. not seen by PW. Agent, Peter Matson of Sterling Lord. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Having satisfied much of his yearning to see the world, O'Hanlon (Into the Heart of Borneo) takes a voyage that most people would find profoundly unglamorous: an extended journey into the wild seas off the coast of Scotland in a fishing trawler. His apt and evocative descriptions of the ship and of the men who sail on her make it easy to understand why he has earned a place in the short list of contemporary travel writers. While it's doubtful that reading O'Hanlon's title will make anyone want to rush out and book passage on a Scottish trawler, his skillful way with words makes us believe we are safely aboard the Norlantean and sailing off with Luke, Sean, Jerry, and the rest of the irascible crew. His discovery of shipboard superstitions (no green, no women, etc.), his fondness for the idle-time gossip among the men, and his development of an intense fascination for the sea and for the creatures that are hauled up in the fishing nets all contribute in making Trawler a delightful read for travel aficionados. Recommended for larger public libraries.-Joseph L. Carlson, Allan Hancock Coll., Lompoc, CA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
More hard travel to the underside of natural history from O'Hanlon (No Mercy, 1997, etc.), who boards a trawler headed for bad weather and finds as well a feast of weird sea creatures-not to mention the semi-madness of the sleep-deprived. The author begins his tale with rich, dark humor, describing his terrible seasickness as the hundred-foot-plus trawler Norlantean runs north out of Scotland, into a hurricane. The skipper has mortgaged his life to the boat, so out into the force-12 winds he must go through the storm to the fishing grounds. As the Norlantean pitches and heaves, O'Hanlon describes what it's like to be at the mercy of bad weather: the lumps (two or three jumbo waves rolled into one) coming out of the night like your worst dream, the pure peril, the confusion, the elemental fear. This is raucously good reading matter, delivered with uneasy drollery. But just when you think the storm will be the heart of the tale, the action shifts to the gutting-room floor, where O'Hanlon and his marine biologist friend Luke will spend most the rest of the book. There, the two of them will slowly become unhinged by their lack of sleep, engaging in extended, monologuish, digressive, fascinating conversations whose various subjects include: the curious fish they pick from the catch (Esmark's eelspout, Blackmouth catshark, Greater forebeard), the travels of a sperm whale's right nostril, the evolution of a squid's eye, their favorite scientists, the spooky woods on the island of Unst, the deadly buckets of slime produced by the hagfish. These conversations ramble, but they burn brightly as well, testaments to lives consumed by overpowering interests. A not-so-long but certainly very strangetrip, with all the dark radiance and queer humor of this author's earlier work. First printing of 35,000. Agent: Pat Kavanagh/PFD
From the Publisher
“Edifying and hugely entertaining. . . . O’Hanlon’s is a magnificently original voice: manic, scholarly, funny, sumptuously descriptive, and more than slightly deranged.” –Jon Krakauer

“One of the most thrilling and inspiring books about science I've ever read . . . hours of pleasure offered by an enchanting dinner guest [who] often reveals himself to be foolishly bold, comically inept, intellectually astute and a madcap driver: Mr. Toad with a Ph.D.”
–Bruce Barcott, The New York Times Book Review

Trawler read[s] like The Perfect Storm meets Monty Python.”–Outside

“O'Hanlon is an adventurer worthy of the word–a credentialed naturalist, a rompish wanderer, a sparkling armchair companion, a bit of a goof and also a smashingly evocative writer. . . . In that wild and exhilarating junction where human and nature meet, he pursues the joys of discovery.”–Los Angeles Times Book Review

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Departures
Sold by:
Random House
Sales rank:
File size:
3 MB

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Redmond, you’ve got to get up here, fast. There’s a storm coming in, big style! I have the satellite maps. Force 11, maybe more. Straight for Orkney. And Jason, the Norlantean skipper—he’s called on Cellnet. He’s north-west of Shetland. He says the weather’s horrendous. And getting worse. Perfect! Just what you wanted! He says we sign on at Scrabster, Saturday, two days’ time, 7 a.m., no later. OK? Good. So pick me up at home—19 Pilot Square, Fittie. Be there! And remember—nothing green.”

The speaker was Luke Bullough, probably the toughest (and certainly the most modest) young man I’d ever met. A biologist at the Marine Laboratory, Aberdeen, a member of the Aberdeen lifeboat crew, he was a man with a vast experience of the real sea: as a research diver in Antarctica; as a Fisheries Patrol officer in the Falklands; on trawlers and research ships in the North Atlantic. Whereas me? Well, I’ve crewed very small sailing dinghies in races round plastic buoys in sheltered bays; and, oh yes, I almost forgot, I’ve taken passage on those cross channel car-ferries.

So this is it, I told myself, as I sat heavily down on the chair beside the telephone, by the front door of the small, snug, safe, warm house; by the door that let on to the ancient, stable, peaceful, comforting landscape of Oxfordshire. Yes, here’s the defining moment—the one telephone call you’ve spent nine months trying to persuade to come your way. And I know, I thought (my head, I’m ashamed to say, in my hands) I know—you were all set to spend six or eight months in the swamp jungles of New Guinea; and how easy, how deeply attractive that now seems—mere rainforest, something you really do know about.

But a year ago, my daughter Puffin, then twelve, became so ill she had to spend five months in the Oxford hospital for children—and her wise National Health Consultant Mary Ellis (she’d seen it all before) said to me: “Redmond, no; you are so wrong; fathers do matter; and no, you can’t disappear for eight months, not now—and, if you do, you may well have your daughter’s death on your conscience.” So I brought forward a secret, passionate project that I’d been saving for my Zimmer-frame old age: The Wild Places of Britain. And then months after the contract was signed, it dawned on me (a dawning horror) that yes, hang on, wait a moment, it’s not that absurd, there really is a wild place in Britain, wild in world terms, wild however you look at it; and it’s called the deep sea; the continental shelf edge, the abyssal plain, the British North-east Atlantic.

A slow image of an imagined fear came back to me: eight-years-old, on a family holiday in Orkney, standing on the cliffs in a wind that you could lean against, looking out to sea, my father handed down his binoculars: “Look at that,” he said. “And remember. Those men, they don’t know it, but they’re brave.”

Through the magical device, the lenses that let you make friends with the most distant birds, I got spookily close to a big blue trawler—one moment it was there on the upthrust of a wave, the next it was gone, surely for ever, into the trough. To be on that boat, I’d thought—and being there became a recurrent childhood nightmare—to be there, that’s what fear must mean, that’s what fear is.

Eight years later, all of sixteen, after a tour round southern Ireland on my first motorbike, a 250cc. Royal Enfield (“Redmond O’Hanlon? The name is right! Young man—that’s a shilling off t’bill”) I decided to confront the horror. In the little fishing-port and ferry-terminal of Rosslare I signed on, as cabin-boy and apprentice deck-hand, on a trawler. We’d put to sea tomorrow. I sent a telegram to my parents. running away to sea stop please collect motorbike fishguard stop.

There might be small objections, I could see that—minor nonsenses like university entrance exams to be sat at school (for heaven’s sake), but this was a job, the real thing at last, a grown-up life. But it’s true, there were small worries: the kettle in the galley, for instance, the kettle that was to be my main responsibility, well, it was black and big: I’d no idea that kettles could grow so big. And my top bunk in the crew’s cabin—it was so short that you could only lie in it if you rolled up tight as a wood-louse: and down below, in the well of the airless space, the two enormous men who, in the dockside bar, had said yes, of course I could join, were now lurching about, too drunk to do much damage, knives out, attempting to settle some dispute.

In the morning, I was glad to see, they were asleep in situ, one half-on-top of the other, both snoring; and I was even more glad to see, as I was escorted from the boat, the members of my rescue party, each holding an overnight telegram from my parents: an officer of the Garda (the Irish police); a patrolman from the AA (the Automobile Association); a patrolman from the RAC (the Royal Automobile Club). One police car, one yellow and one blue motorbike-and-sidecar were neatly parked on the quay. Eight days later, in a freak storm in the Irish sea, a trawler from the Rosslare fleet went down with all hands.

But for me, this time, I thought, well, of course, there’ll be no rescue. In Britain it’s illegal for trawler captains to take passengers to sea (and with good reason, as I was about to discover). In every port the Fisheries Officers (among their more serious duties) make very sure it doesn’t happen. I owed my one opportunity to a chance meeting—in an otherwise deserted hotel, at the end of a desolate track in North Uist, the Outer Hebrides—with an alert, twinkly-eyed, tweed-dressed Englishman in late middle-age (I took him for a Duke, at least).

Dr. Richard Shelton, Director of The Scottish Office Freshwater Fisheries Research Laboratory at Pitlochry, said, “You’re writing a book?” (a young girl emerged from the kitchen, and no, she was sorry, the beer had long gone, but they still had a little cider) “The Wild Places of Britain? Including the fisheries? You’re sure, you’re serious? Yes? Then you must take a trip on one of our ships, our research ships. The Fishery Research Ship Scotia. She’s new, she’s beautiful. Leave it to me.”

And so it was that I’d passed my apprenticeship, a crash-course at the Fisheries library in Pitlochry, an instant graduation (it seemed I might be all right, pig-ignorant of course, but well meaning) to the Marine Laboratory, Aberdeen, to a physical-oceanography research cruise on the FRV Scotia along the Munken–Fair Isle standard section to the Faroes. And it’s true, I’d said to Luke Bullough—I met him on the Scotia—in a moment of misplaced happiness (the Scotia has one of the most sophisticated computer-operated U-tube stabiliser-systems in the world, and besides, there were birds everywhere, Sooty shearwaters off the beam, an apparently tame Great skua begging for fish-scraps at my feet): “Luke, my real ambition: it’s to go out on an ordinary commercial deep-sea trawler to the far north, at the very worst time of year. I must see what it’s like. And only you can help me.”

Never mind, I thought, getting to my feet, I can’t go now, not this time. Eight hundred miles in two days? That is not possible anymore, not at my age. Not at 51. (And through the porch-window, in the small arc of light thrown by the outside lamp above the front door, I could see that it had begun to snow.) It’s January, for Chrissake! And nothing green? These absurd superstitions! Why—all the work-clothes I possess are green, or rather camouflage, or rather Disruptive-Pattern-Marking Tropical (woof-woof!), macho gifts, a long time ago, from the British Army Special Forces. But hang on, wait a moment—your family. It’s okay! They’ll protect you. They’ll refuse to let this happen!

I took the few paces to the left—drawing and re-drawing the two sets of velvet curtains which kept the outside world, the cold draughts, at bay—and entered the primal scene that no male should leave (all right: the rest of the family call it the big room but then of course they don’t understand): it was the warm-lit female cave: a place where nothing-bad-can-happen, a moment that ought to last for ever.

My wife of thirty-two years, Belinda (and she’d never looked more blonde and desirable) was sitting in her usual arm-chair to the right of the room (beside a glass case containing a stuffed weasel and stoat, trophies of long-dead Darwin, the cat), reading The Times. On the central patch of carpet my son Galen (ten) was assembling some extraordinarily complicated post–Star Wars space-vehicle from his kit of K-nex; my daughter Puffin (now thirteen) was doing her homework at the dining-table, under the Anglepoise lamp, tongue-tip extruded between her lips in concentration, her face far too close to the page.

“That was Luke,” I announced. “He seems to think I can leave tomorrow, at dawn. The Norlantean’s putting in to Scrabster. I can join on Saturday. Seven in the morning. It’s impossible!”

“The trawler?” said Galen, looking up, his face brand-new, a planetary lander mega-wheel in his left hand. “Cool!”

“Well done Daddy,” said Puffin, not raising her eyes from the page. “Well done.”

“At last!” said Belinda, dropping The Times to the floor. “Don’t worry about a thing—I’ll help you pack.”

“But . . . Luke said nothing green. And I have to leave tomorrow at six in the morning! And all my kit is green! It’s impossible. I can’t possibly do this thing! Not now.”

“Binoculars, cameras, boots,” said Belinda, moving towards the stairs. “Socks, trousers, pants, shirts—a hat. You must think logically. Bottom to top. And he’s right, of course—it’s ridiculous, it really is, you playing soldiers at your age. Of course you can’t wear green. Camouflage this! Camouflage that! Bergens and trousers and combat tape.” He’s right, it’s ridiculous.” You’re too old. Twenty-five years too old! So let me see . . . you’ll need to keep warm. It’s cold up there . . .”

Five hundred miles and one day later, in Aberdeen, on the dockside, I turned up a sidestreet in my little dark-green Renault Clio and parked beside one of my favourite hotels: the St. Magnus Court. A four-storey block built of grey Aberdonian granite, its front embellished with three outflung projecting turrets, a large one at each corner, a little one off-centre above the drainpipe, it distrusts all who enter. The ground floor is occupied by a betting shop to the left, a bar to the right; a sticker on the hotel front-door proclaims: this is a drug free zone. An electronic beam sets off a single stroke of an alarm bell as you step inside: Ping! (“a wandering psychopathic serial killer has just forced his way into this hotel”); there’s another half-way up the stairs: Ping! (“he’s on his way up!”); and, in front of the reception desk, there’s a third—but this one you can annoy by walking in a tight circle: Ping! Ping! Ping! (“My god, he wants to stay. We have a madman on the premises!”)

I checked into my large, tall, cheap, airy room, dumped my bags on the bed, and pinged my way back out to the street. The very next building to the left, low-slung, with a roof pitched like canvas on a tent, is the Lucky Boat Chinese Restaurant and Takeaway. So, in the empty restaurant, I pot-bellied-pigged myself on McEwan’s Export and crispy wanton, on Lucky Boat Special prawns-with-everything, on lychees and McEwan’s Export. I asked the young Chinese waitress, “Is it always this quiet?”

“No, no,” she said, insulted. “Last week we have knives! We have murdah!”

At three-thirty in the morning I drove east along the harbour: to my left stretched a long granite frontage of dockside pubs, ship’s chandlers, marine insurance agencies, the office of the Port Authority; to my right the oil industry ships were berthed, sometimes three abreast: oil-rig supply-vessels, oil-field exploration ships, lit by their security lights, their orange-and-white shapes a confusion of radar pods, scanners, helicopter pads, derricks, cranes, Eiffel towers of scaffolding. The road swung left by the entrance to the lifeboat sheds, and past (I thought) the massive blue-and-white bow of an ice-breaker, past derelict ship-building yards, past the high darkness of nineteenth-century warehouses and on to a wide, cobble-and-tarmac-patch street. I turned right, over a narrow granite bridge, and into an earlier world, Fittie.

Fittie is a village at the harbour-mouth, set against the sea. Arranged in a series of quadrangles like an Oxford college, its attached rows of small granite houses (three rooms up, three down) face into their squares, opening only on to their tiny, compressed reminders of safe, farm-labouring cottage Britain: each with its own central patch of grass, flowers, a garden shed. Yes, I know, I thought—these garden sheds were once fishermen’s bothies, huts built for the storage of nets and floats and lobster pots, but that’s the point: the men who lived here, the fishermen, the whalers (the men who gave Aberdeen its first oil-boom, whose hunting voyages lit these same lamps, the city, the country with oil)—and, especially, the pilots who, in their open boats, in all weathers, had to race each other to win the work on an incoming ship: why did they want to live like this? Were their small fortresses designed, like an Oxford college, sensibly enough, to keep quiet work in and political chaos, lawlessness, out? No, of course not, I thought, as I knocked softly on the door of 19 Pilot Square: this is far more interesting because it’s plainly psychological: no one who earns his living from the real chaos of the sea would want to look at it as he goes to sleep—no, these squares are defensive only in the mind; in here, it’s peace, the female, sex, the wife, domesticity, children, the deep rewards of life. Out there it’s . . .

“Shush! Quiet!” hissed Luke, index finger against his lips, easing the door ajar. “Quiet! It’s Ally—my new girlfriend. She’s special. She’s asleep. Don’t wake her. Quiet!”

Dressed in his usual blue-denim shirt and jeans, Luke yet seemed even more athletic, compact, intense (and, somehow, more apologetic) than I’d remembered him. I followed him down a short passage, a closed door to either side, and into the kitchen. “It’s Alison,” he said, making me a coffee. “You know—I told you. It’s so difficult, to choose, all that. And I hate hurting people. I really do. But maybe you can help me—you see, it’s like this: I think I’m in love.”

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Literature, Redmond O’Hanlon was the natural history editor of The Times Literary Supplement for fifteen years. He lives near Oxford, England, with his wife and their two children. “Among contemporary travel writers,” according to The Washington Post, “he has the best nose for the globe’s precious few remaining blank spots . . . Long may he trudge and paddle.”

The following books by O’Hanlon are available in Vintage paperback:

Into the Heart of Borneo
“A learned and sensitive book as well as a knockabout farce.” —The New York Review of Books

In Trouble Again: A Journey Between the Orinoco and the Amazon
“When Evelyn Waugh . . . and Graham Greene traveled, the going was still rough . . . Redmond O’Hanlon, hacking his way up an unmapped tributary of the Amazon, fearful (and not without good reason) of ending his days in someone’s cooking pot, has managed to keep that tradition alive.” —Jonathan Raban

No Mercy: A Journey into the Heart of the Congo
“Old-fashioned, gut-wrenching, real-life adventure . . . As much an inner journey that explores fear, religion, magic and childhood as it is a dangerous trek into the depths of the jungle.” —Time

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Trawler : A Journey through the North Atlantic 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! Instead of the typical North Atlantic adventure story I expected, I found myself exploring the philosophies and yearnings of the hardest-working seamen I've ever read about, written by a seasick (for awhile) author who could hold his own in conversation, if not in fish filleting. There is rough weather aplenty, and I'm carrying around great visuals of wild ocean in storm and sun. Different, and unforgettable.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago