Sunday 18th September 2022

We were off the Orkney Islands at 08:00 and heading NNE at 12 knots with 3m waves and a Force 7 wind with more than 5 hours to go before we head NE to Norway.

As seas go, the North Sea is not very old. It was formed by the melt towards the end of the last Ice Age. At that time people migrated from ice-free areas to the newly ice-free land. This was likely to be a land of estuarine-like lakes and islands where fish, eels, molluscs and land-based mammals thrived in a region that is today’s open North Sea, where only the names, such as Dogger Bank, remind us of the landscape that is like the Netherlands but off the Holderness coast.

Norse colonists (Vikings) ventured westwards from Scandinavia and brought with them cargo including cattle and entire families, as well as the stereotypical helmeted warrior image to the Orkney and Shetland Islands in the 9th century AD. These peoples were skilled in inshore fishing and introduced these skills wherever they settled. Hence the bones of herring or cod found in excavations at Jorvik (York) and other sites.

By the 15th century the North Sea was the centre of the herring trade with the Low Countries dominating and ports such as Calais, Ostend and Antwerp as major fish marketing centres.

The growth of the herring industry lies principally with the Dutch. There is an old saying that, “Amsterdam is built upon a foundation of herringbones”. Firstly, the work of Willem Van Beukels in the 14th century perfected the preservation of the fish. Later, a nameless man, from Hoorn on the Zuider Zee, perfected the drift or seine net. Afterwards both these ideas came together with the development of the “buizen” or “buss” which were the forerunner of today’s factory ships. These multi-decked vessels were between 70 and 100 tons and could carry about 60 tons of herring in barrels which were partially cured by their crew of 15 before the catch was transferred to other boats to carry the fish to port.

During the herring season the buss fleets would start their work off the Shetland Islands in February/March moving south to the Dogger Bank by September/October and East Anglia by December. At this time the English were growing desperate because through their ‘modern’ fishing skills the Dutch were catching more herrings close to our shores than the British. In 1534 some of the Dutch ships were captured and entrapped at Newhaven (near Edinburgh) and their catches confiscated, leading to acrimony that lasted a decade before being resolved.

Gradually the change from steam and diesel power along with the increasing size and efficiency of the nets inevitably led to the decline in yields as the fishing grounds became overworked. The fleets moved to other areas such as the Faroes and Iceland, but it was not until protected areas were established that the numbers of species began to recover.

At 16:45 we crossed the Greenwich Meridian! At last, we are Norway-bound and have even put the clocks forward.

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