13 – the Advent of Steam Trawlers

The very first steam trawler must have been a most remarkable ship. She was called the Enterprize and was built in Granton by J. & M.W. Ruthven in 1854, and was fitted with a jet propulsion unit. She burned 5lb of coal per I.H.P. hour, her maximum speed was 8 knots, and she was not a commercial success but rather more a demonstration vessel than a true fishing vessel. She was soon converted into a sailing yacht.

What the Enterprize did show was the feeling of the time – that steam trawlers would not work because the trawl warp would foul the propellor or paddles.

Even so a vessel called Corkscrew, a 50HP screw steamer was fitted out at Grimsby in 1858 with a beam trawl on each side. Even though fish was plentiful, she was for some reason uneconomical.

When Robert Hewett built the Lord Alfred Paget and the Wellesley, they were the first practical steam trawlers, and they did trawl seriously so as to avoid the higher dock dues imposed on cargo vessels at London, albeit for the minimum time necessary to so qualify. However, because they trawled for the barest minimum of time, they did not have much effect on the development of the steam trawler per se. This is not totally surprising when one adds together the fact that Hewett and Co were concentrating on the carriage of fish at that time and that Robert Hewett is known to have said that “the wind is free, coal is not”.

In the early seventies various people, principally on the south coast, made a number of attempts to trawl with steam. The vessels that they used were totally unsuitable and the experiments failed. In 1877 there was a serious shipping slump,and many of the little tosher paddle tugs in the North East for towing sailing colliers were short of work. At times they were used to tow smacks out to the fishing grounds a few miles offshore. From time to time, with nothing better to do in calm weather they would then tow the smack with its gear down. William Purdy, the part owner of one of them, the Messenger, 62 tons, decided to tow a trawl from the tug itself and the vessel was put to work trawling out of the Tyne, the first trip being in November 1877. The returns for the first trip were modest, but much better than being laid up. Despite the disadvantages of the paddles, she was so successful that several others followed suit, although they returned to their proper work when trade picked up. One noticable advantage was the ability of a powered vessel to trawl in restricted areas as they were not limited by the wind in the direction that they could steam and therefore trawl.

Their success was such that the first specially designed trawlers were built; in 1881 the Zodiac and in 1882 the Aries. They were screw driven vessels, just under 95ft long, designed to combine the features of the sailing smack and the steam coaster. The same company (The Grimsby and North Sea Steam Trawling Co) built four more such vessels in 1883, the Gemini and Taurus at Hull, and the Cancer and Leo at Grimsby. It should be said that these these vessels also ran as carriers to the Hull fleet off the continent during the summer months; presumably this was more profitable than trawling on their own.

Steam trawlers, it was found, could catch three or four times as much as a smack. However, as Robert had pointed out, the wind is free and coal costs money. A large steam trawler could burn 10 tons of coal a day. Steam trawlers were also expensive to build as well as run. However, it was realised that steam was the future of trawling as it was less limited by weather. Thus as the technology was grasped and the lessons and pitfalls learned steam trawlers were built in great numbers, and the fleets of smacks around the country declined. The problem was, though, that the the large catches made by the steam trawlers resulted over the years in a large decline in the fish stocks due to overfishing.

There followed a succession of different designs, including steam driven welled longliners (not successful because steam trawlers could catch much more fish) and drifters, which resulted in time in the heavily built modified smack shaped hulls which were the most successful. In 1883 there were 225 steam fishing vessels in England and Wales.

The first steam trawler to be built for Hewett and Co was the Sweetheart, built by J. A. Stewart and Co at Barking in 1885, and she was just under 100ft long but only had a 25HP engine. This has not prevented her from being an remarkable vessel.

The Sweetheart was sold by Hewett and Co in 1905, went to Ireland, subsequently to Denmark, Iceland and then to Norway and she was fishing there in 1912 under the name of Gardar. The next report we have is that she was refitted in 1948/50 when her steam engine (120 ind HP) was replaced by a four cylinder Alpha 245 BHP diesel, and she was lengthened. In 1963 she was operating as a herring purse seiner on the Norway coast, and during July – Sept as a drifter in the herring fishery off Iceland. In the winter of 1963 she was refitted and in 1964 was pair trawling for herring in the eastern North Sea. The owner at that time, Mr Andreas Halstensen of Bekkjarvik (near Bergen), said that the hull was still good and strong for many more years service. In 1992 she was sold to Germany and converted to sail, but is now back in the ownership of the Halstensen family. For a fuller history have a look at this page.

Further steam trawlers built by Hewett and Co were the Bridesmaid, Ladylove and Euphrates.

The use of steam power meant that the trawler could cover the fishing ground at a constant speed. This in turn meant that a different design of trawl could be used, namely the otter trawl. The invention of the otter trawl is generally attributed to W. Hearder of Plymouth in 1860. Salmon fishermen had for many years towed their fishing lines along the rivers using a paravane to hold the line away from the shore. These paravanes were so successful that they were named after the salmon’s natural predator, the otter.

The first otter trawls were fairly primitive when compared with those of today. The basic net was similar to that of the beam trawl in shape, and was again two panels of net laced together at the sides. Instead of the beam and trawlheads, though, two otters were  attached to the front of the net, one at each side. These each were attached to a single trawl warp by a bridle and flew out to the side and held the mouth of the net open; floats of cork held the top of the net up in the water. The mouth area of the otter trawl was greater than that of the beam trawl, and in particular the headline was further off the ground which made the net more effective at catching round fish such as cod and haddock, although in early otter trawls the headline did not extend far ahead of the ground-rope, which would have substantially reduced the efficiency of the net.

The otter trawl was, however, used on yachts, because yachtsmen had the time to choose under which conditions they would fish, and the net and equipment would stow away into a relatively small place with no bulky and heavy beam to get in the way. Apparently Lord Alfred Paget used them, and he had certainly  been fishing from his yachts for many years. He had an account with Hewett and Sons in 1857 which shows an entry for two 2 codends, ½ doz. longlines, 4 leads and sprawls, 25 hooks and twine. At the International Fisheries Exhibition in 1883, the Earl of Ducie spoke of the otter trawl and said that it “Was only available in shallow water and never to be spoken of in the same breath with a beam trawl. It is a very easy and cleanly instrument but only fit for amateurs.”

The efficiency of the net was improved by the trawl boards patented in 1894 by Scott of Granton, and it after this that that the otter trawl was adopted seriously by the fishing industry. Hewett and Co undertook trials with different otter boards in 1897/8. The trials usually used different sizes and angles of attack, with boards using chain bridles. Other boards used wire, and some, known as “bar heads” had solid bars to which the warp was attached. These trials were undertaken using both steam trawlers and sailing smacks.

It was not really suitable for use by commercial sailing smacks because it needed a constant breeze to keep the mouth of the net open and prevent the otter boards from falling over, and it was sufficiently complicated that it was almost impossible to work the net in the dark. In addition it could not be used on such rough ground as could the beam trawl and if the boards were not heavy enough in  rough weather it would leave the sea-bed. For such vessels the beam trawl was more effective and profitable.

Skipper Parmenter of the Daisy commented that otters fished very well in bad weather, but were no good in very fine weather, and on average were not as good as beam trawls. He also said that the drag was greater than that of a beam trawl. Smacks needed a good wind for shooting so as to get the net clear and working. He had tried dropping the net with the vessel dead in the water, but that method had not worked.         The otter trawl was adopted by the steam trawlers as it was found to be, for them, more efficient. The adoption of the otter trawl was probably hastened by the fact that paddle tugs were first used for steam trawling. As previously mentioned, one of the fears of steam trawling was that the trawl warp would foul the paddles or screw. If the traditional method of handling the net over the side of a paddle tug was used then this would be a real problem. The tugs, however, were designed for towing and therefore had a large open deck aftside which was kept clear for the towing warp. This large open deck would have been ideal for handling the trawl, and it was well clear of the paddles. Thus even the otter trawl could be worked over the stern of the vessel in a fashion not dissimilar to the modern day stern trawler. When the more seaworthy and efficient screw driven trawlers were used, the trawl had to be worked over the side so as to avoid the propeller, but by that time the advantages of the otter trawl over the beam trawl would have been evident. Thus the steam side trawler had to be adapted to the trawl. These vessels could fish from either side, but hauled the net forward of the mast.

The success of steam caused many smacks to be converted to steam. The result was usually unsatisfactory as it mostly is with hybrids at sea. There was not enough room in the hulls for a satisfactory installation and therefore they were often underpowered, and the engines were run for far too long or under too great a strain and therefore broke down quite often. Another, quite different, problem was the mixing of old sailing men and habits with the new engineers and firemen. “Shovel engineers are liable to cause trouble”!!