Ken Gibbs – Hidden Histories

DSC_1207Ken Gibbs has probably spent as much time looking back at Brixham from the sea as he has spent looking out to sea from Brixham.

The call of the sea has pulled him back time and again, so much so that if you cut into him, his veins would probably be filled with brine rather than the red stuff.

Not only has the sea been his life, his living and his lifesaving, one of the few land jobs he ever had – an enforced spell in the army, he hated with a passion as strong as his link to the sea.

For Ken, being Brixham born and bred, going to sea was at one time as natural as working in a car factory might be for someone from Birmingham or going down the mines or into the woollen mills for someone in Yorkshire.

He still remembers the busy, but considerably smaller fishing harbour of Brixham around the time that trawlers were transitioning from sail to steam, as well as the many nameless characters of the town.

It is not that they did not have names, but because everyone knew everyone else, there was seldom the need to use them in a small tightly knit community. Thingummy would do, and it sufficed for everyone.

The centre of town was ‘downlong’ – Brixham was downtown, and most of the streets had only a handful of houses along them, and the uptown greenfields was Cow Town.

That was the Brixham of the 1930s where in 1931, Ken, who was to become one of six children was born in within sight, sound and smell of the sea in Castle House in Overgang, in one of four flats, each occupied by a family divided only by paper thin walls.

Luckily he was too young to go to war when it broke out in 1939 but remembers the motor torpedo boats and gun boats using the harbour as their base overlooked by the naval officers who had commandeered the Northcliffe Hotel up on the hill.

“I used to watch them go out and often come back in smashed up, but life in the town continued as close to normal as it could,” he recalled

So normal in fact, that when playing with friends near the War Memorial on the front, their game was only paused as they dived into the water to avoid the machine gun strafing German plane that flew over.

“You could hear the bullets hitting the water, but there was nothing you could do, so when it had passed, we just carried on,” he said.

His own skirmish with the armed forces came when he was 18-years-old when an argument with the skipper of one of his first trawlers led to his national service protected status as a trawlerman coming to an end.

The boat literally sailed without him and in the argument that followed Ken told the skipper what he could do with his job. Within weeks he was a Royal Engineer training at Farnborough.

There followed the two years of his life that he hated most – in an office in Southampton. A period to this day, he would rather forget.

headDespite his pledge never to go to sea again, he returned to Brixham on a Monday and was going around the breakwater on the Huntley Castle on the Tuesday.

But his return coincided with a devastating red algae bloom in the channel that decimated fish stocks and in need of an alternative job, he was talked into joining the police force. It didn’t last.

Within two years he was back out at sea on the Duntroon Castle and then the Boyne Castle before scraping the funds together to buy his own, the Renovate, appropriate because he spent the next nine years rebuilding it and keeping it in good order.

During his last years of ownership he took her round to the Irish Sea – leaving Brixham in May and not returning until three months later in August.

In 1963 he went back to working other people’s boats and teamed up for a time with former British racing driver, Bruce Halford aboard Auchmore.

In 1966 he met and married Win, the woman who was the powerhouse behind the family who kept things going when he was at sea and with whom he had two daughters, Karen and Suzanne and he now has three grandchildren.

Later two more of his own boats followed – Sonny Boy and the Angelus, a 78 footer that he kept for thirty years until European quotas meant that for the first time in his long career, he couldn’t make it pay.

The plan was to retire, but first the call led to him teaching sea skills at college in Plymouth and the purchase of a boarding boat that saw him leaving the harbour to go fishing for mackerel at 3.30 in the morning.

Aged 79, he finally decided it was time: “I loved being on the sea. I always had the greatest of respect for it, but it never worried me,” he said. Which is just as well given his earlier years with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Ken talks freely about his time at sea trawling, but as with so many unsung heroes, becomes more reticent when recalling his time aboard the lifeboats.

But being part of the RNLI, he says, ‘makes you a changed person’ and he remembers well the moment that change happened.

It was a summer’s evening around 7 pm when he heard the Maroon –  a type of rocket which makes a loud banging noise and creates a bright flash – coming up from below his Garlic Rea Road home. On station within minutes they began the search for what they were told was two young boys adrift in a hire boat.

Darkness was falling, and the wind had been blowing into the bay from the North West all day churning up the sea and making the search even more difficult, with relatively feeble spotlights.

The hours passed, and it was not until after two o’clock the following morning that the shout went up: “I was over the side and into the boat as quick as I was able, but there was only one boy aboard.

“But as I got to him, he told me that he was on his own. That feeling. That is when you change. That is when you become a lifeboatman.”

On another occasion, when he was coxswain, he made a lifelong friend having rescued him in a difficult mission 38 miles south-east of Berry Head just off, the Casquets, Alderney.

Ken later learned that the single-handed trawler, the Petit Michel, that he had spent more than 10 hours at the lifeboat’s top speed of 7.5 knots getting to, had been adrift for four and a half days in severe gales

He modestly wrote in the log that the swell had been around eight foot – a fact later disputed by the captain of a Norwegian ship who had first found the stricken vessel, who put the waves nearer 26ft.

He shrugs as he recounts the story, concentrating not on his own heroics, nor the conditions of the sea, but on the fact it led to an enduring friendship with the rescued man, John Jude.

“It was was what it was. You just got on with it. Eight foot, 26 foot, it makes no difference; we did what we needed to do.”

Nor did Ken mention the RNLI bronze medal he received in recognition of his ‘courage and excellent seamanship’ during that rescue in December 1973 in a very rough sea churned up by a gale.

The last time Ken went out to sea was three years ago,  aboard one of the visiting  Dutch boats, during the Brixham Trawler race having made friends with the skipper over many years.

Now aged 87, he says he won’t be doing it again. But with the call of the sea as strong in him as it is, you wouldn’t bet on it.