Fishwives Choir: For those in peril on the sea

When Jane Dolby's husband died in a storm, the friendship of other fishermen's wives was her lifeline. Together, they formed the Fishwives Choir – and found themselves in the running for the Christmas No 1

On 10 November 2008, Jane Dolby took a taxi to a friend's party in her hometown of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. Jane's husband Colin, a fisherman, had said that morning that he'd be back in time to drive the family there, but he hadn't arrived home.

Earlier that day, a ferocious storm had blown up, apparently out of nowhere, on the otherwise calm day, but Jane hadn't worried about her husband, an experienced seafarer.

"It was the sort of storm where rain's just lashing down like needles," she recalls. "It stings your face like shards of glass. Still, I wasn't worried. Colin had been out in all sorts of weather. He's from six generations of fishermen. He'd been on a boat before he could walk. He was very, very experienced and it just didn't dawn on me it was going to be a problem."

Jane took a taxi to the party with the couple's children, thinking Colin would join them there, but instead received an anguished phone call from his sister. "She said: 'Colin's not back,'" remembers Jane, 47. I said, 'He's often late.'" He always said you can never tell the time by a fisherman.

"But she said: 'You don't understand – his boat's not back.' And that's when I knew with a sort of certainty that he was dead. I just knew I was never going to see him again." Colin's trawler sank in the storm and he drowned. But his body wasn't found for another year, despite desperate searches by fellow fishermen.

The lack of a body meant no death certificate and Jane's grief was compounded by legal and financial difficulties as she struggled to convince banks and utility companies of Colin's death. She was unable to stop direct debits, claim bereavement benefits or even cancel his phone contracts – and worst of all, she couldn't plan his funeral.

Emotionally unable to cope with work and struggling to pay a mortgage and care for two small children – Florence who was seven and Elliott who was three – she admits: "I was just trying to drag myself through the day."

While Colin fell for his smiling, blonde neighbour immediately, it wasn't love at first sight for Jane. "I wasn't really interested in Colin," she remembers. "I'd only gone out with musicians and angst-ridden artists, who were all terribly bad for me. The neighbours on the other side had said: 'He quite likes you. He always mentions you.'

"I said: 'I'm totally not interested. He always wears that weird bobble hat and he smells of fish – not my type at all.'"

But the pair struck up a friendship, marked in Jane's memory by Colin's small acts of kindness. "He knew I had a real fire and I'd come home to find a load of chopped logs by the door," she remembers fondly.

"One day he'd been in the garden and put up a football net for my boys – made out of old fishing nets and poles of wood from his boat."

Then Jane took Colin up on an invitation to go fishing. "That was it," she says. "I saw him in his natural environment and something happened. I knew then that I would marry him. It was the strangest feeling. I'd never had that before."

In the days following Colin's death, the doorbell kept ringing. The fishing community of Leigh and Southend delivered a hefty collection and anonymous hands thrust Sainsbury's vouchers through her door. Her local sailing club handed over a cheque. But as well as the vicar, friends, family and strangers, there was one man who would prove to be Jane's rock.

Tim Jenkins from the Fishermen's Mission knocked on her door one day. The charity, which supports fishermen's families through difficult times, took over Jane's legal battles, supporting her financially and emotionally.

Food for thought over your fish and chips: fishing is the UK's most dangerous peacetime occupation; last year, a fisherman died every nine weeks and in 2009 it was one every four, according to the Marine Accidents and Investigation Branch.

Jane vowed that once she was more in control of her life she would pay the charity back for its support in her bleakest days.

More support came from an online forum where bereaved women shared their experiences: grieving, healing and supporting. "They saved my life, really," admits Jane. "I was there at 3am and 4am – silly times when I couldn't call anyone else. It was an incredible place." Perhaps it was the buoying feeling of support from women who understood her pain that inspired her idea for a choir made up of women from her local fishing community. Starting as a loose idea that she put on Facebook, Jane was overwhelmed by the response she got to the Fishwives Choir idea.

As word spread, women from Hastings got in touch to see whether they could travel to rehearsals, and soon interested members from Scotland, Devon, Cornwall and Wales began asking about local branches.

"I said: 'I'm really sorry... I'm sort of making it up as I go along," says Jane. But the idea was born to record a single to raise money for the Fishermen's Mission, which many of the women had connections with.

Jane had no idea where to start, but under pressure from eager members, she roped in the talents of music teacher John Puddick to create the arrangement they would eventually record – a moving fusion of the folk song "When The Boat Comes In" and the seafarers' hymn "Eternal Father", which was sung at Colin's funeral.

A tentative email to old acquaintance, Phil da Costa, who produced the Military Wives' Christmas No 1, "Wherever You Are", led to Phil pledging his and fellow producer Jon Cohen's support for the project. Suddenly, the plan had legs. "John came round with this arrangement – he'd worked so hard on it. He arrived with this huge music score – and I don't read a note of music. I didn't know what to say, so I said: 'Perfect, it's brilliant.' Then I had to pay someone to go and record it – then I sent out CDs to all the women."

Further assistance came from Sarah Grace and Tommy Ludgate at the music organisation Globejam, who created vocal tuition YouTube videos so that the women could learn to sing to their the CDs. "All these women were putting kids to bed and then doing vocal warm-ups on YouTube," says Jane affectionately. "We didn't know what we were doing, but we learnt it all."

Blithely unaware of the realistic demands of the rehearsal and recording process, Jane drafted in another last-minute helper – her eldest son, Josh, a techno DJ in Berlin by night, but a concert pianist, composer and arranger on the si de. The 26-year-old agreed to come and see what help he could give. "By his own admission, it turned out to be something he was brilliant at," says Jane. "He was just a natural."

Splitting the groups up, working with the arrangement and directing the singers, Josh also found a special meaning in the project. "Colin was his stepdad," says Jane. "He loved Colin and it was so special, we had such a laugh – he was our Gareth Malone."

The single was released in August. Jane says that the moment she and the group watched the video was when the emotion suddenly hit her. It attracted some attention, with Jane appearing on The One Show, and Chris Evans playing the single on his Radio 2 breakfast show.

Then a few weeks ago, she got a call from the Chart Show – telling her the track was in the running for the Christmas No 1. At first, she didn't believe it. A call to the bookies had Jane even more flabbergasted when she realised the choir had better odds than One Direction. "The odds have changed since then but it was still really funny."

All of the women have connections to the fishing industry, many have lost fathers, brothers and husbands and all know the everyday dangers their loved ones face. "I'm very glad there's a lot of us," Jane admits, saying she has no desire to be a celebrity – although she found herself supported by several celebrities including the actor Timothy Spall, Jill Stein (ex-wife of Rick), and most meaningfully to Jane, the Military Wives Choir – who have been vocal on Twitter for the Christmas No 1 campaign.

But the response from the women made the hard work worth it. She adds quietly: "Of course, I'd swap it all in an instant to have five more minutes with Colin, but you have to play the cards you've been dealt.

"Colin was someone for whom integrity, honesty and doing the right thing were important, and he'd be so pleased I was doing the right thing by the Fishermen's Mission after what they did for me and his children." µ

To buy 'When the Boat Comes In/Eternal Father' go to fishwiveschoir.co.uk

For more information on the Fishermen's Mission go to fishermensmission.org.uk

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