So many lives lost to the cruel sea

In Hull next Tuesday, a minute's silence across the city will mark the 40th anniversary of a seafaring tragedy – what became known as the Triple Trawler Disaster.

"I am going over. We are laying over. Help us, Len, she's going. Give my love and the crew's love to the wives and families."

The passing of 40 years has not diminished the terrible last words of skipper Philip Gay before the Ross Cleveland disappeared from radar

screens and succumbed to nature's ferocity.

She was the third Hull trawler to be lost within 26 days. In modern times, it was an unprecedented blow even for a community well used to sacrificing its menfolk who fished the wild northern seas.

The repercussions would be felt way beyond the disputed grounds on maritime charts, and the streets around Hessle Road. Wives, mothers and sisters, fearful of the mounting toll of widowhood, rebelled against their men and the industry and campaigned for greater on-board safety.

Cod, like coal, was to be a pawn in wider political and economic issues, but in the early weeks of 1968 the enemy was atrocious weather.

Over a vast tract of ocean it overwhelmed three of Hull's deep-sea fleet, two of which had sailed from St Andrew's Dock on the same tide on January 10. The St Romanus went down when heading towards Norway. The Kingston Peridot communicated with a sister ship on the 26th, then nothing more was heard from her as she attempted to ride out a storm off the north coast of Iceland.

With the city already in shock, further disastrous news emerged. The Ross Cleveland had perished on February 5 while seeking shelter in a fjord in the far north-west of the island close to the Arctic Circle.

In all, 58 lives were lost. There would have been two more had fate not intervened among the Ross Cleveland's crew. The cook, William Howbrigg, had earlier been put ashore in Reyjkjavik suffering from suspected pneumonia. But it was the survival of the mate, Harry Eddom, that has become an epic story of the sea, though one which was to bring its own burdens.

Conditions in the fjord were unimaginable, even to veteran mariners who knew the area well. Icelanders at the time said the storm was the worst in living memory. It was a hellish mix of hurricane-force winds, mountainous waves, snow, and lethal icing which coated superstructures and destabilised the flotilla of trawlers struggling to avoid rocks and each other as their supposed sanctuary was pounded for hours.

Visibility was often zero, as men like Eddom worked with axes to try to at least keep their vessels' radar and communication equipment free of ice. Around them, unseen in the blizzard, ships were listing crazily or being played with like toys by 40ft waves. The scene was unforgettable for all who came through it.

The Ross Cleveland had managed to maintain contact with the Kingston Andalusite, skippered by Len Whur, and only yards away on her port side. But the end came for the Cleveland when she was struck by a great wall of sea, pushing over her 659 tons. Within moments she was engulfed and her engines couldn't respond to the greater power of nature. In the words of a seafarer, "she wasn't coming back". From the bridge, skipper Gay broadcast his poignant message to Whur, who was battling to save his own trawler.

Eddom, meanwhile, had emerged from the starboard bridge door and released a life raft. How he came to be in it, he will never know. He'd been knocked overboard and was semi-conscious when the only others to escape the ship dragged him into the raft. What followed was a human drama only the gods can understand.

Eddom was still in his waterproof deck gear from clearing ice. Those who'd saved him were hopelessly ill-equipped to defy the tempest. Barry Rogers, an 18-year-old deckhand, was wearing only a T-shirt and underpants. The bosun, Walter Hewitt, 30, wore thick clothing, but it was not wind or water resistant.

The three of them used their boots to bail out water. Talking of home and their families – for a while – gave them the will to overcome their physical trauma.

But with the wind at Force 12, the temperature touching –40, and nothing in the raft to support them, the outcome was inevitable for at least two of the three. Rogers died first, and then Hewitt.

For another 12 hours Eddom drifted with the bodies of his crewmates. When it seemed that death must claim him, too, the raft was blown ashore. He thinks he stumbled for miles seeking help before reaching a deserted cabin. He spent that night sheltering from the blizzard and was suffering from frostbite when he was found the next day.

Eddom was given food and warm clothing and rested before being taken to hospital on a rescue craft. He became headline news around the world as British newspapers scrambled for the exclusive account of his escape.

There were other tests to come. Back in Hull, the grief of some resented his survival when so many others had been lost. Some asked – unjustly in the view of trawlermen who had insights into what he endured – if he could have done more to help others.

After his initial interviews and statements, Harry Eddom never talked publicly about what happened, and even friends knew better than to ask and 11 weeks after the sinking of the Ross Cleveland Harry was back at sea aboard the Ross Antares. Harry is now 75 and it's said that over the years he stayed away from events in Hull, like the Lost Trawlermen's Day Memorial Service at the lockhead in the now derelict St Andrew's Dock, and which last week gave prominence to the disaster. His reticence has not discouraged fascination with his story. He's been the subject of a book, and his name is the title of a much-recorded folk song.

Maybe his own feelings have been best expressed in small gestures. As he recovered in Iceland he was presented with a New Testament which he inscribed and gave to one of the missioners who had visited bereaved families in Hull.

Some say it's a miracle, others just plain good luck, that Eddom's photograph isn't among the rows of images of lost trawlermen in the fishing heritage section of the Hull and East Riding Museum. Or that in the city's Maritime Museum his name won't be on the page when the daily book of remembrance for 6,000 Hull fishermen lost over the course of a century is turned to February 5.

The names of 18 of his crewmates are written there, headed by the Ross Cleveland's skipper, Phil Gay. Beside the book of names is the MBE awarded to Gay's sister, Christine Jensen, for her contribution to the women-led campaign to improve conditions of trawlermen at sea. The St Romanus, for example, had sailed without a radio operator – a not uncommon situation on vessels which lacked suitable accommodation.

Two years after the triple disaster, the then Board of Trade published an orange-backed booklet entitled Safety on Fishing Vessels, a 36-page guide which went some way towards addressing the women's demands on behalf of those who had urged them not to rock the boat.

As things turned out, it wasn't long before Hull deep-sea trawling died by other means. The Cod Wars and Iceland's subsequent 200-mile exclusion zone, an oil crisis, outdated methods, and the growing influence of EU policies, all combined to push Hull's major industry to the point of collapse by the mid-70s.

At its peak, more than 160 long-distance trawlers – several of them built locally in Beverley and Selby – were based in the port and fishing sustained an estimated 50,000 local lives.

Today, its old focal point is a forlorn place. St Andrew's Dock has silted-up and much of the adjoining site is derelict. Retailing and apartments are today's growth business around the waterfront. Developers are mindful of the past, however, and have pledged some of the land for plans to establish a memorial to those who gave their lives to trawling.

An appeal fund has so far raised 40,000, and the project will include an exhibition centre in the former offices of Lord Line, one of the trawler operators once clustered around the dock.

Adam Fowler, chairman of the action group, says: "Deep-sea fishing wasn't just about its impact on Hull but had a national importance, and like many other things it was taken for granted. Beyond trawling's own community, how many people realise what the true price of fish has been?"

Sole survivor who carried a heavy burden

In January 1968, Donald Woolley was 25 and an assistant missioner at the Royal National Mission to Deepsea Fishermen in Hull. During that month he got a call from the fishing industry's welfare officer who told him he had information he needed to discuss.

Radio contact had been lost with the St Romanus, and the Kingston Peridot was also not responding to calls.

"The news was ominous and it was felt that if there was still radio silence by the following Monday morning, the vessels had to be considered lost." And indeed later, a call came through that the Ross Cleveland had been seen to sink with, as far as was known, all hands.

"It was an horrendous time," said Woolley. "What had begun with concern over one trawler had suddenly become the realisation that Hull had lost three. People had kept hoping against hope, but when the Ross Cleveland went down, everyone knew that the others weren't coming back either.

"Nearly 60 lives lost. Fathers, husbands, sons – every family in the fishing community was touched in some way. Hull had lost trawlers before, but three in such a short space of time was beyond our understanding."

Woolley, who is now retired and lives in Wakefield, has a particular memory of Harry Eddom. "It must have been particularly difficult for him, being the only survivor."

Jim Williams has nothing but sympathy for the man who came back. After leaving the Royal Navy, Williams was a trawlerman for 27 years. Two of his cousins were lost while fishing in the Barents Sea so he knew there was often a fine line between life and death. "You followed the fish, but you couldn't console the weather. The fact Harry survived was a burden in itself. Why him, the only one? All you can think is that someone up there was looking after him that day, and then gave him the strength to live his life afterwards."