The commanding view from the skipper’s leather chair on the Serene’s vast bridge evokes fear and awe: how can Bobby Polson park his backside here after three years ashore, comprehend these 20 flat-screen digital monitors around him, guide the monster out to sea and find a decent mark of herring to steam swiftly to whoever pays best price?
Oh, and to do all that without breaking any absurd fishing laws while keeping 11 men happy and healthy and, crucially, making a skip load of money to start paying off their huge investment, understood to be approaching £20 million.
The logistical challenges of building, financing, running and making a buck from a gigantic high-tech operation like the Serene would surely terrify most people and it is little wonder, with all that on his back, Bobby can hardly bear to wait another minute to get cracking. Yet he had to endure one last frustrating delay, stuck in Lerwick, while engineers flew from Norway to fix a faulty freezer plant he needs to keeps his catch in prime condition.
On Monday afternoon, tied up at Victoria Pier, his crewmen buzz about, wearing special red and white Serene Fishing Company polo shirts. Some are busy filleting whiting to hang up to salt and dry. Others are lifting huge bins of food, drink and other essentials by crane from the quayside.
Cook Alan Anderson stocks his shiny stainless steel galley with crockery delivered from Harry’s and showing off his fancy steam oven which can cook 12 chickens in one go and clean itself too! “The Norskis swear by it,” he says. “It’s the best oven in the world.”
Up above, Gary from H Williamson’s of Scalloway is tweaking the banks of computer equipment that he and his team have spent about eight weeks in Norway installing.
In the midst of this organised chaos Bobby hands out drams for bankers, Burra men, the Shetland Catch managing director, James “Pinky” Wiseman and a power station manager who have swanned aboard for a look. A few minutes earlier he was in the canteen making milky coffees for a pair of elderly Whalsay women and answering damn-fool questions from journalists. Multi-tasking is surely one of the core skills required of a super-trawler skipper with so many decisions, humdrum or huge, to get right.
When the order for a new ship was placed with West Contractors (Westcon) in 2006 it was bad enough that an upsurge in demand meant it was going to take two years to deliver. The old Serene was duly sold to Iceland and quotas were leased out. Then came further delay after delay until yet another year had gone by without a ship to fish with.
It has been a long haul. Mate Tommy Eunson says two crewmen had been over at the yard in Norway all the time since May, staying in a rented house and overseeing the final construction and fitting out on the boat. She was even a bit later than expected in making her first crossing to Shetland after the naming ceremony in Norway, which was attended by a party of around 70 folk flown over for the occasion. She arrived at Symbister on Sunday when there were celebrations and at least 100 folk who came up for a look.
Bobby admits the wait has been infuriating, all the more so because he cannot quite fathom out why. “Your patience can only be stretched for so long and it’s been stretched as far as it can go.”
No Shetland pelagic boat has been built at the Westcon yard near Haugesund before and the design is new to the islands too – a break from the old team at Skipsteknisk which has designed so many of Shetland’s fleet.
“The last two boats we built we ordered the boat and got it roughly when we wanted it,” says Bobby. “This time we’ve not gotten the boat when we wanted it.”
The reasons are a bit unclear and, it seems, they do not feel they were kept fully informed. According to Tommy one of the delays was down to the hull being built late in Turkey. “It’s just a lot of folk taking on more work than they could cope with.”
According to Bobby very few new pelagic boats have been built recently, largely because of the soaring cost. “To build this boat now you are speaking about maybe £10 million more than what we paid for her. We were lucky in that way, getting her ordered at the right time.”
To put figures into perspective, the last Serene cost £10m in 1998 and the one just three years before that cost £7m.
It was Richie Simpson and his formidable crew of agents at LHD who decided to convert the boat-building funds into Norwegian kroner at the right time – a move which meant they were able to avoid losing out to the tune of several million pounds as a result of the financial meltdown. “He’s an absolute ****ing hero for the Shetland fishing industry,” Bobby says. “He does a lot of work that nobody ever keens about.”
Behind the scenes, LHD have done much of the head-scratching, the hustling and hassling, wheeling and dealing which have finally delivered the UK’s most modern pelagic super-trawler. The end product is stunningly impressive, as with any of these Norwegian-built marvels of technology married to Scandinavian class and style.
Bobby says there is no dispute with the yard and relations are amicable. “I think the boat’s going to be good. We’re just needing a peerie start to get into the way of things and get back to the fishing. We’ve not fished for three years.”
Of course that’s not strictly true, various crew members having taken other jobs during the long wait. Some bought the old whitefish seine-netter Tranquility for a taste of a very different style of life to the 21st century pelagic lifestyle. Her skipper, Stuart Anderson, is now back on the Serene but they intend keeping on the old boat, with the help of Ewan Mouat, former skipper of the Northmavine seine-netter Aspire, who has come out of retirement.
Some of the boys joke they’re “beyond desperation” in their keenness to get back to the Serene way of life they have lived together for so long. They are a pretty tight-knit bunch on this boat, the seven shareholders having stayed the same for many years, still with Bobby’s father Mackie in there at the ripe old age of 81. The seven are Bobby Polson, Tommy Eunson, George Polson, David Shearer, Bryan Sutherland, Gibbie Williamson and Mackie Polson.
The crew members are Alan Anderson, Stuart Anderson, Leonard Polson, George William Polson, Jimmy Shearer and Bobby Polson Jr.
She is the seventh boat involving the Polson family to bear the name Serene, the first being a 21-metre (70 foot) drifter/seine-netter for Mackie in 1955 at a cost of around £14,000.
The new boat is, at 71.7-metres (235 feet), not the biggest in the Shetland fleet and only 60 centimetres (two feet) longer than the last one. With a beam of 15.6 metres, (51 feet), she is far broader too, an extra 2.6m (eight feet) providing greater stability and more space for fish.
She has been designed with comfort and safety in mind as well as incredible power and efficiency.
Her shape combined with her Caterpillar 8,000 horsepower main engine is expected to be far lighter on the fuel when steaming, even with 1,000 tonnes of fish aboard.
The new ship is the first UK pelagic trawler with a covered deck from the whaleback to the superstructure instead of the usual open deck, giving crew members protection from the elements when working in bad weather. She is a deck higher aft with the net drums and working area that bit further away from the lumps of water which can flood aboard. “It will make life a peerie bit better for the boys,” Bobby says.
The pelagic ships might already seem too big to have to worry about seas crashing aboard but the two men assure me it is still a regular danger when heaving the net in coarse weather.
Another safety first is the innovation of pumping her catch aboard over the stern rather than the side, which will mean she will not have to sit and roll broadside to a heavy sea. Tommy explains that once the fish is aboard they are always in a hurry to get them to market as fresh as possible. Now, with the deck covered, they will be able to get under way sooner without putting the men who are out working with the fish tanks in danger from breaking seas.
Tommy jokes they will now be able to check the tanks in their slippers. “You were having to go peerie ways sometimes for the safety of the men on the deck. Now do can set off and do keens fine they are all inside.”
Life onboard reaches new levels of comfort even for pelagic boats, which are legendary for their giant pot plants, televisions in every room, saunas, gyms and so on. There are no bunks now, just a bed in each cabin and each room has its own shower and toilet, which is a step up from having to share between two as other pelagic crews do.
There are some classy customised touches to be seen, such as the mirror pictures hanging in the corridors depicting each of the previous Serenes and the map of Whalsay embroidered on the leather head rests of the twin skipper chairs.
The Serene finally left early yesterday morning to start on her North Sea and west coast herring quotas before moving on to the Atlanto-Scandian herring then making the switch from 1st October to the big earner, the mackerel.