The Luckiest Thirteen by Brian W. Lavery – The story of St Finbarr, trawler, in 1966

This is an intensely written book about a huge news story that many people have forgotten. Subtitled “The Forgotten Men of St.Finbarr – A Trawler Crew’s Battle in the Arctic”, it tells the story in great depth of a battle not for fish and profit, but for life itself. However detailed an account of the disaster which saw men die as the result of cold, fire and the fierce sea itself, it also places these men’s lives in the context of their families and friends. This is far from just the tale of a disaster; this gives the social setting of those men who variously returned or died. This book gives a snapshot of a way of life dominated by long voyages which always tested both the men and their families left behind, yet was the only way of life known to many. The irony of the “perfect” trawler being so ultimately vulnerable dominates this book, but it remains essentially the story of humans on the edge of life. I was interested to be given the opportunity to read this memorable book.

The book opens with the assembling of the crew of the super trawler. The first of a new generation of trawlers with a larger capacity and the ability of to freeze a huge cargo of fish, St Finbarr represented the modern ambition to go further for longer and bring back relatively enormous catches of fish at profit. Apart from the technical information which is well explained for the uninitiated, there is much to be discovered about a way of life where men left home and family for several weeks at a time, only to return with a lot of spending money. The drinking was a release from the huge risk and daily dangers, the hardships and total commitment demanded by fishing boats, with comparisons between the traditional trawlers and this relatively luxurious ship. We are also told of the women, the young wives and mothers, the older women with husbands and even sons on board these trawlers for weeks, meaning that they had responsibility for so much. Their group identity was to be severely tested as partial news came back concerning the incident of Christmas Day, and those men who survived and those killed were unknown. I found it particularly interesting to see the work of the local clergyman who brought news and comfort, and tried to console and entire community.

This is not a specialist book, as Lavery tries to address all possible angles that the reader may want for information on, including the origin of phrases concerned with trawling for fish. This does sometimes lead to a certain overwritten style, but by the time the reader has finished this book they are fully informed about the events and context of this incident. The Afterwords and Endnotes give further details of what happened to the people and families of those on the boat, and an impressive series of notes containing details of further reading. This is altogether an impressive book full of information written in an accessible style with the people involved at its heart in all their variety and contrast, and provides much essential history of an event which changed many lives.

Christmas parties and carol services abound at the moment. I was so exhausted after a lunch and Christmas party that I dozed in the University Carol service. Unfortunately media studies students had roaming cameras, so my less than attentive moment was made visible to all on a large screen. Lesson learnt about keeping involved! Happily I have lots of books to keep me awake!