Saturday, 25 August 2012

Lining for mackerel

We were talking last night about some famous, award-winning sailors who cannot swim, and ended up commenting that it was amazing how many people who spend the best part of their lives on water that don't swim.

My friend is the chief engineer on a huge oil-rig boat (one month on, one month off) and only learnt to swim because part of the safety training for his crew involved being strapped into a steel pod without air, dropped into an industrial-scale swimming pool, turned upside-down and given 30 seconds to break loose and get to the surface.  When he broke loose, he was disorientated by the inversion and began swimming to the bottom before a nearby diver took hold of him and - physically - pointed him in the right direction.  If he were really in a helicopter which had ditched, there would be no such help to hand, and it could well have been dark.

There have been - over the years - many attempts to teach me to swim, and most of them terminated in a near-death experience which has not endeared me to water that comes any higher than my chest.  The last time was in the clear, warm, turquoise waters off the coast of Cuba, and was cut short by a shark which took interest in what was going on.  I have not been back in since.

Despite my dislike for any water which goes over my head, I have no fear of it in general, and often hire small boats to go out rowing on my own down the river on a dreamy, summer afternoon.  I have fly-fished standing up in a small boat in a large stretch of water in the Lake District, and would have found the experience very relaxing if it were not for the howling wind and hideous hangover.

I was looking through on-line catalogues recently, trying to find a life-jacket which would not interfere with one's arm-movements when slithering about on slimy stones on the bed of a fast-flowing salmon-stretch.

For a start, they are all a very unbecoming, bright orange colour which would not go well with the carefully selected, Highland tweeds of the rest of my outfit, and the ones which are permanently inflated look as though they would hinder your neck-movement, and my neck movement is already quite hindered without them.

I eventually settled on one which had a video demonstration of it's use.  It was still bright orange, but lay flat on the wearer's shoulders and chest until he stood up in the small boat and deliberately fell backwards into the water, whereupon it instantly blew itself up and he bobbed around nonchalantly and without the slightest signs of panic.  Then I saw the price - about £200.  No thanks, I'd rather drown.

One of the people who insisted that he could teach me to swim in half an hour was a fisherman in the Cornish Newlyn Fleet.  He was the only one of a crew of 5 in the only boat of a fleet of about 30 who could actually swim, but it wouldn't have done him much good in a dire emergency.

Dire emergencies seem to be  a daily - and nightly - possibility when lining for mackerel.

For a start, they only seem to go out for mackerel in the winter months, and they all chug out of Newlyn in the pre-dawn darkness.  The fishing grounds are about 50 or 100 miles off shore, and the best ones are carefully guarded and kept secret by misleading radio communications between rival boats, so the other skippers have to do a lot of reading between the lines to decide if their opponent has discovered a rich shoal or not.

So the skipper of one boat would radio another, and the conversation might go as follows:

"Anything happening where you are over?"

"Nah.  Not much.  I'm thinking of heading out to bearing *** to see what's happening there.  I've got a good feeling about it over".

"Me too.  there's bugger-all around here, bearing ***.  I might see you over there out".

Both skippers are playing a game of poker by this time, trying to ascertain bluffs, double bluffs and triple bluffs.  For all both of them know, their onshore drinking companion maybe hauling in ton after ton of shiny mackerel as they speak.  If they lie about their location and are not picked up by radar, they are truly on their own in the event of a capsize, or whatever.

With ice forming on their eyebrows in the dark and the little boat heaving and lurching through the deep troughs as you begin your three hours on after three hours sleep - right through for two weeks - you would think that the situation was hellish enough, but no.

Because mackerel instantly die by crushing each other when netted and hauled, the only way to catch them for eating is to line for them.  Any other catch is only useful as fertiliser, and the Soviet super-trawlers would catch them for just that purpose - by the hundreds or thousands of tons.

As the boat turns to face the line of approach which it hopes will be above a great shoal of mackerel, the crew begin chopping up bait which they have previously caught with a net until they have a sizeable pile lying within arms reach on the slippery steel deck.

They each get hold of a largish buoy which has a line attached to it, and they chuck it overboard as the boat steams on.  At regular intervals on the line, a series of sharp hooks are interspersed, and as the line pays out, the men deftly attach bait to each of the hooks.  By the time about quarter of a mile of line has payed out, the drag on it is measured by the ton, not ounce.

Occasionally - through being utterly tired, cold and exhausted - a man might misjudge the hook as it flashes past him and his hand gets impaled on it.  In a flash, he would dragged overboard and if he is noticed as missing, the skipper begins a laborious and slow manoeuvre to turn around and pick him up. In the freezing waters, this takes a little more time than it takes to die, so each man has a sharp knife to hand, so that he can cut the line before it drags him overboard and under.  He may, however, make another wrong decision and cut the line on the wrong side of the hook, thereby losing all contact with the boat forever.  They get paid quite well, depending on the size of the catch.

Having just finished writing the above, I am filled with a strong feeling that I have already told this story a year or two ago.  If so, sorry.  I like to remember it as I lie in bed on dry land, of a winter's night.

When my fisherman friend tried to teach me, I just about managed to tread water in the local pool, thrashing my arms around with such energy that the surface immediately around me looked like a frothy cappuccino.  Not my element.

(Photo courtesy of Alexandra Patrick - not that she had any say in the matter)


  1. My own water/boat phobia is so extreme that, before the Channel Tunnel, Other Half and I would go to France separately. Him on the ferry with the car. Me on the plane. He picked me up at CDG, and dropped me off there on the way back.

    One year, customs officers were on particularly high alert. I rang him from Heathrow to let him know he might get a bit more attention than usual coming through. And indeed he did. Because he had all the suitcases. One of which was full of ladies clothes.

    1. That's quite a phobia. Most people are like that with planes! Customs are always worse on boats, but I don't think they look out for transvestites.

  2. I've eaten plenty of Mackerel, but never actually caught one. Suits me fine.

    1. I saw someone catching one after the other on Chesil Beach once. He threw the line out and pulled it back with one every time. There was a queu of old ladies waiting to buy them from him as he fished.

  3. I can't swim either..the experience of lessons with one's head held under chlorinated water was enough to induce an attack of African foot rot which kept me safely away from the school baths for years.

    I sailed though...and what you say about life jackets is spot on, so I did without.

    My sailing was on the east coast, and very few of the fishermen I knew could swim....and very few thought it worthwhile trying.
    Into the winter seas and you don't have long to live.

    1. African foot-rot, eh? Sounds as nasty as what I've got. I became a prefect just so I could opt out of games. Not waving but drowning...

  4. Drowning would be second only to burning. I hardly breath when I drive across long bridges. I open my eyes as little as possible, too. And the worst part of going across is one generally must return.

    1. Given the choice, I would prefer to freeze to death.

  5. I imagine the sight of you in a swimming pool deep end is therefore not a pretty sight Tom. I was reading in today's Guardian travel section about a holiday swimming with sharks in the Azores. I presume it is not your kind of holiday.

    1. I don't know how you want me to take that, Weave. If you mean that you want to save me, then thanks, but it's too late. If you are casting nasturtiums on my corporeal form, then I might have to tell you the worst Limerick I know which begins, "There was a young woman from the Azores..."