True Grit

I’ve often spoken of the dangers that our fishermen face at sea (and on land) in their timeless pursuit of wild seafood. Indeed, with an unprecedented nine lives being tragically lost in the first half of 2016 alone (Seafish) and more life-changing accidents being recorded than the Alaskan Crab fishery, so graphically portrayed in the riveting documentary Deadliest Catch, the UK’s most dangerous peacetime occupation has certainly been living up to its reputation recently.

These alarming statistics have prompted organisations such as the RNLI ,The Fishermens Mission and Seafish to galvanise and redouble their efforts in encouraging fishermen to wear PFDs (personal flotation devices) and have been handing them out free, to those who qualify, as described in my 2015 post, reflecting the jointly organised and well-documented #SeaYouHomeSafe campaign. This laudable and essential practice of life preservation following a man overboard incident, has not just saved many lives already but sought closure for bereaved families where the deceased’s body has been successfully recovered.

But PFD’s don’t prevent accidents and the catastrophic and debilitating injuries that result from heavy machinery and tackle being used in essentially routine and every day practice, especially when combining elements and perhaps a dose of human error are factored in. Disaster can lurk behind every crashing lump of icy swell and every straining warp, but equally, as identified by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB), many incidents recorded occur in relatively calm conditions, during the fairer weather months from June to September (Seafish).

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Lowestoft skipper Jeffery Melton is only too aware of this and indeed forms part of the galling statistics. Fishing singlehandedly aboard his 14m beamer, Serene Dawn (LT 7), in the Wash, in May 2015, a freak set of circumstances combined to render the 54 year old Jeffery, a well-known, hugely experienced and much admired East Anglian fisherman, suddenly and violently disabled in an horrific, split-second trauma, whilst towing for shrimps some miles off the North Norfolk coast.

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However, 18 months and eleven operations later, he’s back fishing  and I joined him last week aboard the Serene Dawn to hear his story, observe the onboard routines and importantly for me, fish for one of tastiest seafood gems in the sea Brown Shrimps (Crangon crangon).

We leave Lowestoft harbour astern, on a near-perfect but bitterly cold, January morning, steaming into the rising sun, on a glassy sea and on a heading for the many sandbanks and bars that define the inshore waters between this, most famous of fishing ports and the Wash. As Jeffery and I start to natter in the warm of the wheelhouse, crewman Darren busies himself on deck preparing the gear for the first tow of the day. I’m keen, but also slightly reticent, to hear the exact, but incredibly sensitive circumstances surrounding his crippling and life changing injury, but I need not worry, as Jeffery with his trademark charisma and jocularity, begins to regale me with the whole story, chapter and verse from the moment he descended alone from the wheelhouse to the fish room, on that fateful occasion.

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“It was just another day” he smiles, “a routine I’ve practised a thousand times. I got down to the fish room, to look at the pump and began to lift the hatch, which was proving stubborn to move. As I gave it a shove, it freed and I stumbled forward.”

The ensuing seconds remain a blur to Jeffery, but in the following hazy and searingly shocking moments, he realised that where his booted and oilskinned left leg had been, was now a tangled, bleeding mass of shattered bone and torn flesh, below the knee.

“I thought to myself, Jeffery boy, what the hell ha’ you done?”

The next few minutes were to prove critical to Jeffery’s survival. Summoning a herculean and adrenaline-fuelled strength, coupled with the presence of mind and focus to override the now sweeping pain, he crawled painstakingly, from the fish room back up the ladder to the wheelhouse, cradling the remains of his mangled limb, the only thing on his mind being how to raise the alarm.

“I don’t know quite how, but I reached the wheelhouse and collapsed on the floor,” he reveals. “I knew I had to make the emergency call on the VHF, but the set was just out of my reach and I couldn’t summon any more strength. Luckily, I still had my mobile phone on me.”

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On calling the Coastguard, he recalls that the first hurdle he had to overcome was to convince them that it wasn’t a hoax. “They asked me to give my position and I couldn’t stand up to read it, but I’d manage to engage my AIS (Automatic Identification System) and told them to find me with that. I then tried to remain sensible, but everything was becoming hazy. I really thought at that point, this could be it….”

What had actually happened, in that terrible moment, was that a bolt-head on the rapidly turning prop shaft, on snagging his oilskins, had in a split second, wound the fabric onto it, taking the leg with it and tearing it off below the knee.

After what seemed like an eternity, the Hunstanton lifeboat was alongside and a crew member doing what he could for the badly injured skipper.

“They did their best,” he remembers, “but I don’t think it was a scene they’d been prepared for. What actually saved me in the end, were the prompt actions from the SAR (Search and Rescue) helicopter winch man. I heard the helicopter above and then remember seeing the guy come through the door. He stemmed the blood flow and and then they had to get me out to the sling on deck. That was hard, that was the most painful bit, even with the shot of painkillers that he’d given me. ”

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The whole incident lasted an incredible 45 mins from start to finish. Rather than tow the boat back, Jeffery had also had been astute enough to call one of his friends to come out and recover the Serene Dawn and make her safe, whilst he was airlifted to Addenbrokes Hospital for the start of a hard and tortuous period of recovery and rehabilitation.

As we prepare to shoot the gear away for the first of five tows of the day. Jeffery concurs that discussing the whole incident openly and candidly, is all part of the recovery process and coming to terms with what many would see as a career-limiting handicap. Not so the man at this wheel. As we chat further, more about the fishing now, Jeffery removes his bespoke prosthesis, sits back and concentrates on the sonar as we trawl our way towards the Scroby Sands for the next hour and a half.

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Beam trawling for shrimps is all about knowledge. The gear, in this case all made by Jeffery himself, is pretty standard kit with a 20-25 mm mesh although with a sieve-net laced into the main trawl to separate out unwanted large fish species which not only take up valuable room in the cod-end when shrimps are the quarry, but also impact on fuel use, downtime and damage. The detail, however, the mind-map of mastery of the seas and the rich seams of fish that abound there, are down to the forty years of experience accrued on vessels from sidewinders to seine netters.

With the gear in the water and the first tow under way, Jeffrey takes me round the boat and explains the route the shrimps will take once they leave the cod end. Firstly though, we inspect the “try net” a diminutive version of the main 5 metre nets that have been deployed.

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The try net is shot, in order to ascertain the population of shrimps below. It gleans a representative sample and allows the skipper to make a decision on whether to continue trawling or to up sticks and move, depending on the catch and the other benthic (bottom living) species in the mix. Razor fish, Jeffrey tells me are a good sign. Although the crangon sample this time is not huge, we continue the tow and after about an hour and half and several mugs of tea, its time to haul. I stand aft, out of the way of all the exertion, whilst the winches groan into gear and labour on the straining warps as the trawls are tugged ever near the surface, the ends of the derricks twitching expectantly.

As the gear breaks surface, the gulls eagerly cluster astern, wheeling and cavorting in a raucous cacophony of creaks and screams. Jeffrey and Darren await the inboard-swinging cod ends that end up above the stainless steel hopper and automatic grader that is already turning and awaiting the haul. Not a massive shot this time, but enough shrimps to be encouraged and a surprising amount of juvenile bass, whiting, dabs plaice and soles that on being washed out of the grader are quickly despatched through the scuppers, to either dart away in the murk or be picked off by the squabbling throng of herring gulls.

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The grader is a smart bit of kit. The catch is transferred by a conveyor from the reception hopper and then dumped into a perforated rotating drum through the holes of which fall the shrimps, with fish, crabs and seas stars being ushered to the door. The shrimps are then washed out into a basket where Darren dutifully inspects them for their pink imposter cousins which will spoil the sample. The next and wonderfully aromatic stage comes when Darren decants the graded shrimps into the diesel-fuelled boiler, where once bubbling to temperature they’re cooked in seawater, each batch taking about five minutes, before again being washed and cooled in the “masher” which again takes out any remaining residue of by catch.

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The whole process is over in hardly any time at all and while Darren finishes the routine by salting and bagging the now saleable crop, Jeffery is already shooting the gear away again for the next tow as we alter course slightly, towards the famous Scroby Sands, the tell tale rotors of the wind farm, already hoving into view through the haze.

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The next tow lasts for nearly two hours and the try net has yielded a good sample of “black tails” which I’m assured are the ones we want. The paler-tailed fish are not desirable and although may appear in the try net, won’t be replicated in the main trawl for some unexplained and quirky reason.

On we steam, past and then across the Scroby’s in anything from 6-12 metres of water. On the landward side we encounter their burgeoning population of Grey Seals, stretched out, hauled up on the sands and eyeing us quizzically. As we draw near, bobbing heads appear astern, occasionally with a sizeable dab or whiting in their jaws, as they follow the trawl waiting for the larger fish to be selectively released from the maw of the net.

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Time to haul again and on this occasion the yield is much better with about six baskets of prime brown shrimps, the tally. I’m really very encouraged not just by the target quarry, but also the sheer volume of juvenile flat and round fish that are discarded, mostly live. Jeffrey explains that the whole area is a nursery for many species, including plaice, Dover soles, turbot and bass, the latter being surprisingly numerous, especially in light of the recent scientific findings and population advice that have led to the current raft of restrictive measures being imposed.

I’m in my element and with a smile on my my face like the proverbial Cheshire cat, pick away at the freshly cooked gems, as you would at a box of chocolates. Heads and all. Sweet and saline in equal measure and with an unmatched succulence.

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We toil on through the day, bouts of intense activity being tempered by the hours of steady steaming and the accompanying and welcome mugs of tea. As sunset draws near, every tow seems to yield more saleable catch and although in no way anything near the sheer volumes that the Serene Dawn can harvest further North on the sands of the Wash, at £6/kg the mounting nets of shrimps are more than going to make the trip and turn in a profit for the day.

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Dusk falls and the breeze freshens with a sudden and icy chill developing and as the sea turns from a twinkling golden to a dark pitch, the deck lights come on and we plough on into the night lit up like a Christmas tree. A solitary workhorse in the black expanse of sea amongst the red and green winking of the various buoys marking the navigation channels and hidden dangers of these most easterly waters.

We shoot again for the final tow and steam back South towards the Holm Sand and the distant, twinkling lights of Lowestoft. It’s been an incredible day. Full of passion, experience and humour but defined by a determination and strength of character that I’ve come to recognise now, as being a hallmark of this industry.

Sadly though, professionals like Jeffrey Melton are in decline. It worries me greatly that these artisans with such an encyclopaedic local knowledge of fish and the grounds they inhabit, will be all but lost within a generation, if realistic and financially appealing opportunities for succession, are not made available for youngsters wanting to pursue careers as fishermen. The fishing industry will survive, there will always be fish in the sea, but I fear unless something is done to protect the essential heritage of this ancient profession, then the secrets and crafts of their trade will slowly fade and become nothing but memories, of a once proud, passionate and expertly knowledgeable group of hunters, with the determination, fortitude and drive of men, like the one I’ve just sailed with.

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3 thoughts on “True Grit

  1. I have just read your blog, really enjoyed the narrative in fact stirred my imagination so at times I felt as thou I was with you. I hope that the powers that control our lives will take heed. People like the skipper are I am sorry to say, in all traditional trades, fast disappearing those who have so much to offer.

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