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Netting the Lower Depths
Redmond O'Hanlon's Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic

A seasoned traveler of tropical climes sails the North Atlantic and confirms there is good reason for trawlers’ reputation for seafaring dangers (to say nothing of fish-gutting).

Redmond O’Hanlon was less than eager to undertake the journey that is the subject of his latest book, Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic. As he tells us in the book’s opening pages, the only reason he left his family and warm, comfortable house was the fact that he’d signed a contract for a book to be titled The Wild Places of Britain.

Many readers may wonder, What wild places of Britain?

“[I]t’s not that absurd, there really is a wild place in Britain, wild in world terms, wild however you look at it; and it’s called the deep sea; the continental shelf edge, the abysmal plain, the British North-east Atlantic,” O’Hanlon assures us.

One problem: O’Hanlon didn’t have any experience in the North Atlantic (his specialty is the rain forest).

But never mind.

O’Hanlon’s family readily (perhaps too readily) encouraged him to journey mid-winter up to Scotland, where he boards a trawler bound for the frigid North Atlantic, which happens to be experiencing a hurricane — “the worst weather at the worst time of year,” the skipper cheerfully tells him. (Facing a £2 million debt incurred when he converted the trawler to deep-sea fishing, the trawler’s owner is forced to go to sea obsessively, no matter what the weather; when they leave port for O’Hanlon’s trip, all other trawlers stay home.)

No big deal.

Another problem: trawlermen have the highest death-rate of any workers in Britain.

No matter.

Then there’s the matter of sleep deprivation. O’Hanlon is told that as a member of the crew he will get an average of three hours’ sleep in thirty-six, and this (finally) gives him pause. But he’s already onboard when he learns this, and there’s no turning back at that point.

What can you do?

Sounds like guaranteed fun, eh? After all, O’Hanlon is a master of the hapless adventure tale. His tone is a pitch-perfect blend of alarm and self-doubt, and a reader will find himself rooting for O’Hanlon’s seemingly unlikely survival in a way he never would for a cocky writer assured of his macho immortality. Nobody, we know, is really going to perish on this outing because O’Hanlon wouldn’t dare to recount a tragedy in this comic voice. But it’s fun to pretend, isn’t it?

Actually, it is. But it’s not as nearly perfect a gem as some of O’Hanlon’s other books.

Like all travel writing, I suppose, it all comes down to place. Compared to O’Hanlon’s typical tropical settings, Trawler is a bit limited in range. There’s the sea (relentlessly deadly) and there’s the work below deck (relentlessly dull). The winds howl, the waves crash, the fish are gutted. Surviving the experience may be impressive, but readers seldom wonder what strange surprise awaits O’Hanlon on the next page.

To entertain his readers, then, O’Hanlon offers dialogue.

A lot of dialogue. It’s hard to imagine him being able to record it all in between the fish gutting and sleeping on his feet, but it definitely sounds authentically manic.

Perhaps surprisingly, it works.

O’Hanlon engages Luke (a marine biologist with boundless energy and an unfathomably deep love for fish and the mysteries of the sea) in frenzied, shouted, hallucinatory conversation that draws us into the sort of intriguing places the sea, in O’Hanlon’s hands, doesn’t seem to offer. (Luke, if he had written the book, might have made the sea’s underworld tremendously exciting, but he would probably never have drifted up high enough to encounter people.)

The two men are happily at odds on enough topics to keep the narrative momentum up, and the result reads like a zany, sleep-deprived Platonic dialogue on fish, sex, alpha males, warfare and the meaning of life (or the horrible lack of it).

Along the way, O’Hanlon offers some beautiful passages of writing. Here, for example, is Luke explaining to O’Hanlon why he has covered three especially valued books in protective paper (culled from Manila envelopes) for their ocean voyage:


“Because, Redmond, you understand, you must—when I’m old, older than you, very old, if I’m lucky, if I make it through, when I can’t go to sea any more, I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll have a cottage by then, like I told you, with a fire, so warm, and a family, and we’ll all gather round, and with my gutting knife I’ll slit the Manila envelopes right off these three volumes, and underneath, you know what? The covers—they’ll be as new, like the day I first had them! They’ll be perfect, the covers, and somehow I know they’ll remind me of everything, all my life—well, they’re not covers technically, of course, there are no covers, no nonsense like that, no, they’re the boards of the books themselves—and the colours, the only colours in the whole big deal are on the board, and volume one, it’s the delicate surface blue of the calmest of days in high summer, shading down to that dark blue when light gives up and you can’t see in any more and the vast world of all those miles to go gets secret.”


For O’Hanlon, at least, the trawlerman’s journey is largely about running nets through deep, hidden places within himself. Doubtless, a book about the sea’s abysmal depths would have been compelling, but this one certainly has its delicious moments of comedy and existential terror.

—Review by Doug Childers

Posted February 1, 2005



About the Author

Photo credit: Robbie Stanger

A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Society of Literature, Redmond O'Hanlon was the natural history editor of The Times Literary Supplement for fifteen years. He lives near Oxford, England, with his wife and their two children.



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