The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

The owners of the Norwegian whaling fleets had harbours and shipyards back in Norwegian so would return home at the end of each season. Salvesen, however, had no such facilities at home so would not only incur the cost of steaming home and back to the fishing grounds but also the high costs of mooring and servicing of the fleet in Scotland. The solution was to leave the fleet at Leith Harbour and transport man and materials there for the off-season servicing of the fleet.

During the 1930s, when jobs were scarce at home, there was no shortage of whalers ready to volunteer for the winter. Compared with the normal two-year articles of engagement in the merchant navy, a period of eighteen months away was relatively attractive, particularly as there was no way of spending earnings. Those who wintered there found Leith Harbour a much pleasanter place than might have been expected. There were occasional heavy snowfalls which lay up to ten feet deep, but it was no colder than Norway, apart from a gloomy mid-winter period when the sun did not rise above the hills behind the station.

Arriving at Leith Harbour, at the head of the Stromness fiord, I could not believe any place could be so delicate. Despite the amenities such as a cinema, library and football field, this was the backend of beyond. The station had a big installation for the servicing of the floating factories and overhaul of the catcher fleet, including a floating dry-dock. Tanks for storage of fuel and whale oil and large guano shed for the storage of meat and bone-meal. Coronda Quay, the main jetty had very deep water alongside where floating factories and transports could safely lie. The whale catchers had their own quays there they would be moored over winter, fuelled and repaired. Close to the quay were the substantial machine shops, platter and boiler shop and foundries all required for the winter overhaul programme. The wages paid by Salvesen were higher than paid by other companies in South Georgia and the slop chest prices very much lower than at home. In fact, there had been a dispute over wages a year or so before I arrived at Leith Harbour, settled when the company agreed to an increase from 50 Kroner to 80 Kroner per month. The men on South Georgia had been in a strong position at that time, for once in Leith Harbour they could not easily be replaced. a situation however that would soon swing in Salvesen’s favour as unemployment at home increased, the threat of a strike might mean no work the following season.

During those dark months of winter down in South Georgia, the weather could be horrendous. Leith Harbour, although well protected from the worst of the winter storms, the bitter cold was everywhere. Working onboard empty ships, whose steel hulls would run with condensation, and when the temperature dropped would freeze into solid ice. We carried a small bogie stove with us, that even when glowing cherry red halfway up its stove pipe, gave off little heat in the vastness of a ships engine room. Off duty, there was little to do but try to rest weary bones, and learn a few new tunes on my box of whistles. The schedule meant our work was never-ending and glad I was to see spring. There were days however when up on deck looking out on a mirror-calm sea, the ship rolling in the Southern Ocean’s swell, listening to the plaintive cry of the solitary sea birds and the unmistakable boom of a whale blowing as they surfaced. The tinkling, like breaking glass, of ice in the swell, or the dramatic crack, like that of a gun, as the ship broke through the pack ice, there were times when I thought the Antarctic was the most beautiful place on the planet. My fondest memories of Antarctica was seeing for the first time the Southern Lights, the aurora borealis of the southern hemisphere. This strange and surreal curtains of dancing light, the colours green, yellow, red, blue and pinks, dancing unrehearsed in the night sky, almost defying description.

By December all was ready for the new fishing season, I sailed onboard the floating factory ship the Neko, a converted cargo ship of some 3,576 gross tons. Our destination was the South Shetlands, a small group of islands about 400 miles southeast of Cape Horn. We went south with three catchers and a two-boat, but the weather was most foul and ran into some very unseasonable heavy ice. It was with great difficulty that we reached Deception Island arriving there in mid-December, despite our late start we had a very successful season. Striking a balance between, enough coal and sufficient space for the storage of oil was always a problem. Too much coal, less so, since it could simply be dumped overboard, however, the weather is unpredictable, and if continuous bad weather depletes the ship’s bunkers, there is little that can be done. On our return to South Georgia. Returning at the end of the season we again hit bad weather, reducing our speed and burning up our bunker. With no wireless to contact our base and have supplies vessel sent out to replenish our stocks. with only half, our journey completed Scapa was first to raise a distress signal that she was our of coal. later that day Sonja put up her signal, she too was running low on bunker. The following day Silva ran out of fuel, all now taken into tow by Neko with still 500 miles of ocean before us. The one remaining catcher made it back to South Georgia under her own power, Neko towing three catchers four days later, our bunkers exhausted we were down to burning all spare timber on board along with three barrels of whale oil.

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