Thursday, 28 January 2010

Spanish Wood

The Spanish Mediterranean coast is not a good place for buying wood. Though a thick pelt of forestry covers many areas of Catalunya there is little general use of wood. While you might see pine beams in old buildings, timber has barely been used in construction since the 60’s when concrete became God and high-rise apartment blocks ruptured the skyline.

Wood in the home has been ousted by a dictatorship of flat-pack furniture. Familiar tables and lamps crop up in other people’s homes with depressing regularity. An insidious bland conformity spreads from home to home. And if a window and wooden frame need repairing they are inevitably replaced with quadruple glazed windows in white aluminium frames that swoosh shut, sealing you in soundproof rooms full of stale air.

My carpenter friend Mr Mushroom makes gates and fences where before he made cupboards and bookcases. He insists however, that wood is cheap. It is not. Particularly if you need something a little bit special for your boat. Even hardwood scraps seem hard to come by.

So I was very pleased when one morning a wave washed a piece of teak up the beach. It wasn’t very big and, judging by the drill holes and saw cuts, had drifted from a boatyard somewhere over the horizon. But it was just what I needed to replace the two stern cleats on OB.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Trawler work

Back in September, finding myself out of work, I seriously thought about trying to get a job aboard a fishing boat. I signed up for a course to obtain the necessary Basic Sea Survival certificate and got networking with the local fishermen. It seemed like there might be a possibility of getting a place on a trawler based in Tarragona.

Catalan Mediterranean trawler fishermen work from 0600 to 1800 and get to sleep in their own beds every night if they so chose. The work in itself is not arduous. On the day that I went out the fishermen boarded at 0600 but disappeared to their bunks for an hour’s kip en route to the fishing grounds. They set the net at 0700 and then more or less got on with what ever they wanted. One went back to his bunk another stitched a jacket for the ship’s dog. The cook cleaned fish for breakfast. There was a brief flurry of activity mid-morning as the boat turned for the run back. Then there was lunch, which, on my boat, was truly sumptuous. Afterwards the skipper and cook had a siesta then, at 1530, the main work of the day began, we hauled the net and sorted the fish while steaming home. We tied up to the dock at 1900, unloaded the catch, tidied the decks, and went home.

But even while I put the new career machine in motion, I wasn’t sure that I had the grit to fish. It wasn’t the long hours or going to sea in all weathers, it wasn’t the cold in winter or the inherent dangers of working on deck in high seas. It was my head—I knew that every day when the net came aboard my mind would flood with questions.

We, and many other boats, trawled for six and half hours. Our boat brought up about 200 kilos of fish—a reasonably good catch by today’s standards. The bulk was hake (merluccius merluccius) and blue whiting (micromesistius poutassou), there were two fully mature monkfish (lophius piscatorius) and a few midsized ones. But there were many unsaleable, juvenile monkfish, which hadn’t yet reached the minimum length of 30cm. The rapid change of pressure as the net rises kills the fish so these young monks were totally wasted. Rather than throw them to the seagulls the fishermen kept them back for their own use. The rest of the catch consisted of shrimps, prawns, crabs and octopus. The only fish to have survived the journey to the surface were the small-spotted catsharks or lesser spotted dogfish as they are also called, (scyliorhinus canicula), these lay doggo until you picked them up. Then they came alive with a vehemence wholly justifiable in those who have been plucked from their habitat. I threw the small shark overboard and exchanged glances with one of the fishermen as he picked a juvenile monk out of the pile. ‘This is the shame of fishing.’ He said, obviously assailed by similar doubts as me.

It’s difficult to write about commercial fishing, the more one investigates the more it appears that the problem goes far beyond greedy, unscrupulous skippers or mesh sizes. But I don’t intend to pursue these issues here. This, after all, is a light-hearted sailing blog.

I finished the Basic Sea Survival course and, still wrestling with moral dilemmas, was about to start the specific Fisherman and Sailor course when the phone rang. There was a job opportunity on the end of the line. I dropped everything.

I’m now a dockhand at Vilanova Grand Marina. This is a brand new marina geared specifically for wintering super yachts. Yes, I know. However, the yachts are permanently manned and many of the crew have worked previously on commercial vessels. Chatting to the skipper of one boat it transpired that he’d worked in the Irish trawler fishery as a youngster. Later he’d worked aboard the controversial Veronica ‘death ship’. And, just to bring these trawler posts full circle, one of his mates was Jason Schofield, the skipper of the Norlantean featured in Redmond O’Hanlon’s book.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Mediterranean trawler

Last September I did a day’s work aboard a Mediterranean trawler. Evidently there was no comparison to be made with the experience described by Redmond O’Hanlon in his book Trawler. The work was easy, the sun shone, the crew were good-natured and friendly. It was a day trip in flip-flops with fantastic food and plenty of wine, coffee, and brandy. But I hadn’t gone to make comparisons.

At the time my near miss with a fishing boat, in the blackest hours of the night while sailing Onawind Blue to Ibiza, was still fresh in my mind. I wanted to gaze down from the bridge of a similar craft as it steamed at 8 knots through the dark. I wanted to try and judge how visible OB would have been and I also wanted to see what sort of lookout was maintained.

I rapidly concluded that a small boat sailor on the sea at night absolutely cannot rely on being seen by commercial fishing vessels. Unless, of course, a small boat sailor happens to be on said vessel. From the bridge of the fishing boat I couldn’t help but scan the sea as if every wave might hide a madman in a rowboat.

As the sun swept the night over the western horizon I left these considerations aside and got on with enjoying the day. We set the net and I helped prepare breakfast in the galley. (Well, I chopped a clove of garlic, covered the table with sheets of newspaper and laid out five spoons and five dented tin cups.) Breakfast was fried spotted flounder (citharus linguatula), dumbo octopus (grimpoteuthis) in a white wine reduction and fried monkfish (lophius piscatorius) liver accompanied with Catalan tomato bread, salad and wine. The cook plonked the frying pans on the table. The skipper poured the wine.

We spooned octopus straight into our mouths, took up the flounder with our fingers, broke the flesh away from the bone and stacked it on the tomato bread. We ate the liver like it was pâté and gulped the wine.

After clearing the feast away (one of the crew simply bundled up all the newspaper and scraps and threw them overboard), I sat on the bow in the sun and watched the water.

Over breakfast I’d been hard pushed to persuade the fishermen that, in sailing a small boat to Ibiza, I hadn’t passed the bounds of reckless lunacy. I’d explained about responsible preparation, equipment, training and waiting for favourable weather but although they nodded and grunted through mouthfuls of flounder I knew they weren’t convinced.

Sitting on the bow I felt very secure, but paradoxically the sea seemed bigger, and the waves steeper than they would have done from down in Onawind Blue. It would seem counter intuitive but being slightly more distant from the sea made it seem more imposing. For someone used to seeing the sea from this perspective the step down into OB might well be a big one. I wondered if the fishermen would view my voyage any differently if I took them (one by one, of course) for a sail in my boat. And knew they wouldn’t.

At mid-morning we turned around and trawled back the way we had come. I followed the manoeuvre then looked over the stern into our wake. To port and starboard the rest of the trawler fleet were also turning. Our speed was three knots. Deep down the trawl doors were slowly churning up the muddy sea floor, leaving great ruts in their wake. I imagined the cloud of disturbed mud, the lower lip of the net ploughing up the sea floor, the mouth of the net hungrily swallowing anything in it’s path. Everyday each boat was scraping clean 24 miles of sea floor. I turned away from the disaster going on below. Surely this too was madness.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010


I recently re-read Redmond O’Hanlon’s excellent book Trawler. Redmond—writer, naturalist and academic—embarks on an Orkney Islands trawler sailing from Stromness. It is mid January and a Category One Force 12 hurricane is forecast. The entire North Sea fishing fleet is sitting snug in port but the Norlantean’s skipper Jason Schofield has a 2 million quid overdraught and can’t afford to miss a day’s fishing.

Nicknamed ‘Worzel Gummidge’ by the crew, Redmond, knowing little about boats except that their shapes are ‘as pleasing as a buttock’, is sick. But he immediately rallies and, fighting down his stomach while being hurled around the boat by the high seas, launches in to the work of sorting and gutting. Painfully aware of his soft-bellied, south-of-England background, he determines to work the same hours as the crew.

The crew can’t fathom ‘Old Worzel’ though, and at times you half expect them to sling him down the scupper-chute with the off-quota catch. Nobody can understand why anybody would willingly just come along for the ride, would want to go out in a Category One Force 12 hurricane. But as the force 12 arrives we realise that it isn’t going to take centre stage. It stays in the wings crashing and banging about like a drunken thespian doing a quick change. Not that there is anything comic about it, quite the reverse.

This book takes place inside a steel trawler. A male domain with flattened out cardboard boxes for carpet and a galley full of the fug of high calorie cooking and cigarette smoke. The feared sea is a dark presence beyond the rusting hull. It’s something that nobody wants to think about too much. The searing wind, the huge waves, the freezing depths are too terrible to be given quarter within the boat. Everyone knows somebody who’s been lost at sea. Only Redmond has the inclination to gaze at the horizon, but don’t expect a spellbinding description of wind, water and light because even he is too busy and sleep deprived.

Trawler is a manic, shouted text of enthusiastic monologues and sleep-starved harangues, reflecting the mad monotony of trawling. It doesn’t make for particularly easy or enjoyable reading. It’s disjointed, wild and edgy and there are more exclamation marks than in a teenager’s secret diary, but it does come over as an authentic recreation of what the north Atlantic deep-sea trawler fishery is like. As you plough through it, feeling pop-eyed and seasick, Redmond brings you face to face with the sleep deprived crew and you realise that the book is a tribute to the men who risk their lives fishing and to O’Hanlon’s guardian and mentor aboard the Norlantean; the marine biologist Luke Bullough.

This is O’Hanlon’s great achievement. Despite the erudition, the fascinating details of deep-sea species, the comedy and self-depreciation the winning feature of the book is the sense that you are getting the real story. It might not have been his original idea—about two thirds of the way through the book the crew rant about the various injustices facing trawlermen on land. In one of the most emotive passages in the book Robbie Stanger implores O’Hanlon to, if ever he does write the book, “tell the truth; then—we can give the book to our wives, women, our girls, whatever, that’s the point, that why Jason had you aboard…So we can give the book, if ever you do it, whatever, to our women.” Robbie goes on to ask, “Can you get our women to understand what happens out here? Can you? Because we canna tell them ourselves, that’s for sure, because they wouldna believe it—and no matter what, every last one of them seems to think that we want to be out here, that we want to be with the boys, whatever, or that we love the sea…So maybe your book, even if it’s a piece of shite, maybe she’ll read it and understand a peedie bit and love us, and aye, maybe she’ll let us sleep straight out for two days and nights when we get home—and then we’ll have sex!”