The Bridlington Circuit Methodist minister George Shaw wrote a fascinating first hand account of herring fishing on a yawl in his book "Our Filey Fishermen", published in 1867. He recounts how he was invited on board by a skipper "whose vessel was lying in the bay, ready to start for the fishing grounds".
"...and about two o'clock, pm, the vessel was sailing gently out of the Bay, with her bow towards the open sea. Several yawls and herring cobles were steering in the same direction, and here and there passed a fishing boat bound for Filey or scarborough, two of which were amply loaded with fish.
After sailing in a straight line for about four or five hours [perhaps 25 or 30 miles], we reached the fishing ground. Numbers of vessels - English, French and Dutch - were already there, some of them preparing for work, and a few already engaged in paying out their nets... and now let me attempt to describe the scene.
The hatches were taken up, and the warp - a rope 1000 fathoms (2000 yards) long, and about four and a half inches thick - was paid out over the vessel's side. The men at the "Capstan" allowing it to go out at the required rate Barrels to float the warp, were tied by one man, while the nets were tied to it by another, the barrels being thrown overboard as they were tied, and the nets carried over by the warp itself.
As the nets sink and the barrels swim, you will perceive that the warp is kept under the water by a process of paying out occupied rather more than an hour, and when this was finished, there were 100 barrels and 120 nets in the water. And now comes a summons to supper.
This consists of beef and fish, and a very substantial one it is. It would have amused you to have seen us at our meals, dinner especially. You sit down on the deck, a piece of boiled beef, smoking hot, is brought up, and one of the men - the master most likely - commences to 'cut it up'.
And he does cut it up, and no mistake, and hands you a piece, that looks sufficient for half a dozen meals. It is no use your protesting 'you can never eat it'.
He tells you he knows better, and that it is ' a lang tahme between then and supper.' To this is served bread - home made, and worth the name of bread - cabbage, potatoes, or carrots. Should there be a little sea on, you will have some difficulty keeping your plate on your knee - for a table is out of the question - or if you keep your plate, it is likely you will lose your meat or potatoes.
I was careful to cut mine into pieces as soon as I got them, and then they did not roll about so much. I have heard the fishermen tell the most amusing stories of gentlemen who had gone off for a treat, trying to catch their rolling potatoes, and rolling over themselves, with their plate and its contents underneath them.
After the meat comes round dumplings, which, for the sake of security, are served in basins, and the treacle can be handed round and you help yourselves. After this you have a 'dish 'o teaa' if you feel disposed, intoxicating drink is out of the question, most of the men being teatotallers.
"But to return to our subject. After supper, we gathered round the fire for a chat, previous to turning in for a nap. I should like you to have seen the picturesque group we made. It was a scene for a painter.
Talk of comfort and contentment. I never saw it equalled. And I have often mixed in what many would call intellectual parties, but have seldom heard more christian or common sense conversation than in the cabins of our rough and hardy fishermen...
"But to return to the night in question. Fine as this day had been, the night was still more so. Our Captian informed me that it was the finest night they had had all season.
Indeed it could not well be finer. About ten o'clock, I went on deck, and sat down to muse. It was getting dusky, and the signal-lights from the vessels around us, presented a sight indescribably novel and beautiful. Not a sound was to be heard, or a breath of wind felt. While sitting I saw, faintly glimmering through the distance, the far famed Flamborough Light...
Shortly after midnight I was awakened by a loud stamping of feet upon the deck, and found that it was the signal for the hands to look on. Hastily rising I was on the deck as soon as they were, and saw a coble lowered in the water.
Two of the men leaped into her, and yielding to my earnest entreaties the Captain permitted me to join them, giving me however, a special charge to be careful. And now the boat was pushed off from the vessel, and there we were, in a frail coble, out upon the wide sea.
Never shall I forget the scene. The moon had risen and was shining with undimed splendour. Not a cloud was to be seen. Our path lay directly along the line of silvery brightness caused by the reflection of the moonbeams upon the water. The men pulled along for some time, and not a word was spoken.
Here and there we could perceive a boat leaving a vessel on a similar errand to our own. As we neared them, or others passed who examined their nets, we hail'd them with a word of good chear, or inquired, Do you find anything? The reply from one or two of the was, 'Lots, on em' This caused the men to pull with renewed vigour.
After rowing about a quarter of a mile we pulled to the 'fleet', and took in a barrel, by which we hauled up the warp, which one of the men thrust over the bow of the coble, while I held it fast to keep it from slipping. The net was then reached and lifted partly out of the water. In the small portion I saw there were scores of herrings entangled in the meshes, which lashed the water with their tails and presented a beautiful appearance.
Putting the warp overboard we went about another quarter of mile, and examined another net with the same result, and after repeating the process two or three times, finding herrings in every instance, rowed for the vessel... I learnt then that it was only in very fine weather they would go out in a coble to look on,and that generally they haul in the warp and look at the nets nearest the vessel.
The report that herrings were in the nets gave great satisfaction, and very soon preperations were made for taking in the nets. The men went to the Capstan and commenced turning it round. By this means the warp was drawn in; as it came on board one man loosed the barrels, another 'paid' it into the hold, and two others shook the herrings out of the nets on to the deck, part of which fell through an opening into the well beneath.
When acculmulated so as to be in the way, I shovelled them down. This process lasted about three hours. At length the whole fleet was in and we captured about 30,000 herrings. (three last). The sails were immediately hoisted and we were on our way with all speed to the market.
As the vessel sped through the water, the decks were cleared and washed; the barrels &c, placed in the same order as before, all ready for the night's work; and then we went below for breakfast, to which we had a plentiful supply of 'fresh herrings', beside about a dozen mackeril, which had been caught in the nets.
I need not say that we sat down to this with keen appetities, and enjoyed it none the less for our capital catch.
"About ten o'clock the same morning we reached Scarborough, and a sample of herrings, taken promiscuously from the heap, was sent on shore by a man in a coble, whom I accompanied. We landed at the pier and proceeded to the place of business.
The herrings were collected, and the lot knocked down at 6 shillings and 9 old pence per hundred, a capital price, and we moved off gratified to think that our night's fishing had netted something like £90.
"... about 2pm we left for the 'ground'. The Captain, thinking we might have had plenty of it, kindly offered to put us ashore on Filey Brigg as we passed it, but No! we were by no means tired, and determined to proceed. We pursued a similar course to that of the day before, - the nets were paid out in the same manner &c, but as the wind had risen considerably, we did not go out in the coble to look on.
One or two nets were hauled up, but we found nothing in them. After three hours of hard work the whole fleet was got on board, but we did not get as many fish as would serve for our breakfasts. In this emergency, we had to fall back again upon beef and fruit pies!