HC Deb 16 May 1956 vol 552 cc2170-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

12 midnight.

Mr. E. L. Mallalieu (Brigg)

I wish to draw the attention of the House for a few moments to the conditions under which our trawlers work in Arctic seas when winning the fish for our people. Last winter two trawlers from the Humber were lost with all hands on their northern fishing grounds between the North Cape and Iceland. They were modern, supposedly well-designed trawlers with all the very latest in electronic aids that could be devised. Yet there swept over those northern seas a terror which made light of modernity, and in a matter of minutes laid them low, to be engulfed for ever in the freezing death around them.

These vessels were caught in a gale, of Force 10, or more. It was in January this year. They battled against the terrible conditions for some days, and then they were suddenly overwhelmed by what was, perhaps, the worst black frost for many years. In these circumstances, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, as I am sure you can imagine, sea and sky tend to be blurred, and the distinction between them to disappear as the wave tops take flight and speed horizontally in the form of spray with the force of bullets.

This spray clings to the superstructure, to the masts and rigging of any trawler which may happen to come in its way. It clings in the form of ice, and the weight of the ice can be so considerable that in itself it causes the unfortunate trawler to capsize. There was one trawler in the gale, which lasted for several days, which had no less than eight feet of thickness of ice on its forestay. But it is not only the weight of the ice on the forestay and the masts and upper works which causes the vessel to capsize. The area of that ice, too, can form a sort of sail sheeted amidships, depriving completely the steersman of his control, so that when the vessel is caught abeam by the wind or comes broadside on to the seas, she heels over and the area and weight of this "sail" sheeted amidships prevents her from coming up.

The dramas of these modern sailors in the Arctic can be followed from afar thanks to the radio communication fitted to the trawlers nowadays. The messages are terse and telling which describe the fight with the gale and the ice. "The worst gale of my twenty-five years' experience," said one of the skippers.

A message from one of the doomed trawers said, Boat deck all iced up; the lads will try to hack it off when daybreak comes. Then the final message came, Heeling right over. Cannot get back. That was the "Lorella" at 14.35 hours on 26th January this year. The "Roderigo" sent out a somewhat similar last message, Listing to starboard and going over; cannot abandon ship. I am sure that nobody would wish to send men to sea on trawlers which were not as safe as they could possibly be made, but it is possible for men of very great experience, particularly if that experience has had to do with the sea, to become hidebound by convention, unable to see how vessels which have been designed in a certain way for a long time can possibly be improved to make them more safe.

Although I would be the last person to deride experience from the past, hallowed by time into the form of a convention, I would think it possible, from my small experience of them, that men of the sea become easily a prey to convention. Perhaps from being in the presence of the sea which is so much greater than any of them, they come to accept convention and experience of the past as things they need not go into. At any rate, conventional designers and builders of our trawlers have not yet succeeded in making them as safe as they might have been made.

At least, however, the Yorkshire builders of these ill-fated trawlers, together with the British Shipbuilding Research Association, have caused experiments to be made to see whether it is possible in any way to diminish the risk from ice in the Arctic. There have been reconstructed in the stratosphere chamber of Vickers-Armstrong at Weybridge conditions which would be likely to obtain in gale circumstances in the Arctic—winds of upwards of 60 m.p.h. spray blown at a giant model one-twelfth of the size of a real trawler in a huge tank filled with water at the temperature of the Arctic seas. In fact, Arctic gale conditions generally have been simulated.

In these experiments, ice was formed on the mast and standing rigging and there was a continuous wall of ice from forestay to deck, acting as a sail hauled amidships. In time, inevitably the model capsized in the tank.

These trials have confirmed without any doubt that the chief risk to trawlers in the Arctic seas comes from frozen spray and that a normally rigged trawler would be unlikely to remain afloat in conditions of an Arctic gale with more than 60 tons of ice on it. If there were a flat, calm sea that figure might be 140 tons, but the chances of such a sea are not always to be counted upon. I am talking about a normally rigged trawler with masts. rigging, shrouds, possibly rails round the circumference, and the normal superstructure. I do not pretend to be an expert on shipbuilding—very far from it —but it would seem to me from these experiments that if there were a trawler without any mast of rails she would be very much safer than one with mast and rails. Indeed, a rail or anything suspended above deck would seem to be a real danger—a davit, boom, derrick, or even a boat. That is positively inviting the formation of a wall of ice between the thing suspended and the deck itself. It would, appear, therefore, to be solid common sense to substitute for these things solid rails, rather than rails with uprights and horizontals, and gaps between, so that no ice can form there to provide extra weight on the upper part of the vessel.

Of course, not being an expert, I do not know to what extent it is possible to have telescopic masts, folding masts, or no masts at all. These are questions for the experts, but I feel certain of the principle that the less one has of redundant detail and unnecessary trappings on the upper part of a trawler, the safer that trawler will be. Of course, the resource- ful experimenters of Vickers Armstrong have come strongly to that conclusion also.

It is greatly odd, to learn that some of their findings have been well known for some time and that trawlers have actually been constructed incorporating them, and disturbing to learn that these are operating under foreign flags. It is true to say that some of those trawlers operating under foreign flags, incorporating these alterations, have actually been built in this country.

One could, of course, draw sinister inferences from these facts. One could, deduce that British trawler owners were so pig-headedly obstinate that they refused to incorporate innovations in their vessels which were calculated to be for the safety of their crews. One could also imagine that possibly they might not wish to incur the outlay of changing their existing vessels or building new ones. But I should like to think that at least that latter possibility is not really a possibility in this country.

The sole object I have had in bringing these experiments to the notice of the House tonight is that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary shall have the opportunity of bringing them to the attention of those whose business it is to build trawlers and to run them. If the hon. Gentleman will do this, I feel sure that he will contribute to the safety of the very gallant men who work those trawlers in the Arctic seas.

12.13 a.m.

Mr. Kenneth Younger (Grimsby)

Before the Joint Parliamentary Secretary replies, I would like to add one or two sentences to the valuable contribution made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Brigg (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu). He has raised one aspect of the alarming problem of the losses of trawlers, which have been rising and have been exceptional in their number in the last two years or so. Indeed, so great has the anxiety become that the hon. Gentleman will remember that recently a resolution was passed unanimously by the council of the borough of Grimsby which I have the honour to represent. This resolution, which was sent to the Minister, asked for a special enquiry into the causes of all these losses. There have been different causes in the case of each incident, of course.

The Minister did not feel that it was necessary to agree to a general enquiry, but if there is not to be one I think that indicates how important it is that each suggestion made for dealing with one cause should be taken most seriously. Of course, the suggestion of my hon. Friend covers only one technical aspect. Nevertheless it is an important one, and I am therefore much looking forward to what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary may have to say on the matter.

12.14 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. John Profumo)

May I start by thanking the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Brigg (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu) for initiating this discussion and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Grimsby (Mr. K. Younger) for joining in. I think the hon. Gentleman will understand me if 1 say that he does us all a good service by giving me an opportunity of saying something about this extremely important problem. If I am able to encourage hon. Members, and those who have their life and interest in this great industry, then I shall feel also that we have done some good even at this late hour of the night.

First, I should like to make clear what the position of the Minister is with regard to this serious problem. My right hon. Friend has no statutory responsibility for the general design of commercial ships of any kind or for the provision of equipment to safeguard them from the effect of icing on their stability. Neither has the Admiralty, nor the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; nor has the Scottish Home Department.

Nonetheless, having said that, this is a matter in which my right hon. Friend and I take the keenest interest as part of my right hon. Friend's general responsibility for the safety of ships and seamen at sea. It is an excellent comprehensive subject causing concern to everybody who is responsible for ships operating in high latitudes.

The hon. Member and his right hon. Friend will recollect that following the tragic loss of the large modern trawlers, "Lorella" and "Roderigo," in January last year the Minister of the day ordered a formal investigation. In the concluding paragraph of its report the court stated: Some questions were put by the court to suitable witnesses as to the possibility or practicability of measures to mitigate dangers similar to those causing the loss of these trawlers. The court has very carefully considered this matter and regrets that it is unable to put forward any useful suggestion in this regard. It is, however, happy to note that the trawler owners in Hull are studying the question and doing their utmost to ensure additional safety to their vessels and to the gallant crews who man them. I merely quote that because I would not wish the hon. Member or anyone else to think that even at that stage work was not going on on those lines. Since then various interests have independently undertaken, or propose to undertake. research to discover what can be done.

I will now say a word about the distant waters trawling fleet which comprises the trawlers most liable to encounter dangerous icing conditions. The fleet is comparatively modern. In fact, about 40 per cent. of it has been built since the war. The trawlers are well equipped with the latest navigational aids, as I know the hon. Gentleman recognises, and they are well manned. The trawler companies are well served by the builders, and there is no question but that close attention is given to good design.

1 realise that the hon. Member is aware of the conditions in which severe icing occurs, but I think it well to say something about these dread hazards purely in order that we may get in the right perspective the magnitude of the problem that we have to face.

In the distant waters fishing grounds these large trawlers are subject to conditions of severe icing and hurricanes. Off Iceland it is possible for winds blowing from the north-east or the east to reach 100 miles an hour bringing with them intermittent blizzards. These gales rise unbelievably quickly. It is sometimes impossible for trawlers to run for safety or shelter if the gale has caught them some distance from the land.

In severe icing conditions a small cable no thicker than a finger can become as thick as a human thigh; the winch can turn into a small iceberg on deck, and the boat freezes solidly to its cradle. In these conditions it is impossible for men to stay on deck and chip away the ice. It was these sort of conditions in which the "Lorella" and the "Roderigo" were lost. It was not, I think, in conditions of "black frost."

In Icelandic waters there can be met the conditions of black frost. This is quite a different phenomenon from hurricanes and blizzards. It is an icy grey mist extending up to 20–30 ft. from the surface of the water, and it resembles a very dense fog. It occurs in moderate winds, usually blowing off the land. The fog deposits frozen nodular droplets which build up on the ship's superstructure but as the atmosphere is not freezing to any great extent and the winds are not violent, the crew in these conditions can get at it and chip the ice formation away.

The problem is, therefore, how to provide for the rare conditions in which the accumulation of ice is likely to be critical and at the same time not to impair the efficiency of a trawler in catching fish for the market or in gaining a livelihood for the fishermen.

There is a saying that a ship can be made absolutely safe against any marine peril, but the only trouble is that that ship would probably never put to sea. There are two main ways in which precautions can be taken against severe conditions of weather at sea. The first is the avoidance of the conditions by warnings from a good weather warning system, and special arrangements for improved weather warnings are already in force. The second is the provision of measures on board to counteract the conditions when they are encountered.

Probably the most important line of research is that which seeks to reduce to a minimum the parts of the superstructure on which ice may form and to which the hon. and learned Member for Brigg referred. An experiment reported in some detail in the fishing journals in February and March of this year was carried out by the research and development department of Vickers-Armstrong (Aircraft) Limited in association with the British Shipbuilding Research Association. It was to this experiment that the hon. and learned Member referred. A first account of the research results is now being most carefully considered by the technical committees of the British Shipbuilding Research Association.

It would be premature to make any observations on this most difficult and complicated subject before the B.S.R.A. has been able to come to conclusions. When those are available, my Department, which is of course represented on the research board of the B.S.R.A., will study them with the closest attention—I can assure the hon. Member of that.

Having done what is possible to reduce the area on which ice can form, the next stage is to remove the ice where it has formed. Research on one method in particular is at present being carried out. That is the use of a surface heating device similar to that in use on aeroplanes. It is interesting for us to realise that whereas in normal conditions the aviation industry learned a great number of its lessons from the ancient and well-established shipping industry, here is something where the shipping industry, I believe, will be able to profit from something which its younger sister industry has had to pioneer in aircraft in the early days of flying.

The device consists of thin plastic mats in which are imbedded sprayed metallic elements for heating. These mats can be either sprayed direct on to the superstructure, or mounted on insulated panels behind a trawler's plating or underneath the deck. Winches and other deck gear may be protected by fitting heated metal cowlings over the equipment and tubular heaters can be installed inside the mast. These experiments are at present being carried out by the industry.

There is another way, and that is the use of silicone compositions. Silicones take the form of fluids, pastes, greases resins or rubbers. The products have unusual and useful properties, among which are the ability to repel water and adhesiveness, or the ability to act as a separating agent. It is possible that with further experiment these properties could be developed to prevent the building up of ice on surfaces by retarding, if not preventing, the formation of continuous films of ice when it is beginning to settle and by making it possible for thicker layers of ice subsequently built up to be more readily detached by axes.

We must not look for rapid developments in a very difficult practical problem. One difficulty is that with silicone treatment ice still has to be knocked off after it is loosened and that may be virtually impossible when men have to tackle it in conditions of hurricane. I have heard it suggested that steam hoses might be used, but it is unlikely that trawlers would have the boiler capacity to produce enough steam to keep down the formation of ice. Anyway, in hurricanes men could not really get on deck to use the hoses. Hoses are not likely to be any quicker than axes in those conditions.

There is also the question of new design of trawlers. I mean not merely the alteration of the upper works to reduce the areas on which ice can settle, but the redesigning of new building to give trawlers a higher freeboard and better stability. This method of approach, of course, cannot be used in existing trawlers, but some developments may be possible with future designs, and I hope that the industry, which has the responsibility for the whole matter, will be able to find a solution compatible with maintaining the efficiency of the trawler as a fishing vessel.

I am in no way implying that insufficient freeboard and stability are given to trawlers, but more stability would clearly help them to withstand these very exceptional weather conditions. I am sure the hon. Member will appreciate the tremendous difficulty of the problem which faces the owners and builders, but they have a fine tradition in trawler design, and I am confident that if there is anything that can be done they will do it.

In conclusion, I can assure the hon. Member that trawler owners are fully alive to the problem caused by the formation of ice on their ships. I am informed that every suggestion to prevent or lessen this danger has been recently examined and promising suggestions are followed up. Several technical firms are, I understand, working on aspects of these problems and the trawler owners are associating themselves with this work. The problem is difficult and one in which it is impossible to secure quick results. Nonetheless, all who have any connection with it—the Government, fishermen, the builders and, as this debate has shown, individual Members of Parliament—are determined that results there shall be.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Twelve o'clock.