With Plymouth photographer Tony Fitzsimmons.
In the last of his commission by Waterdance to photograph and document the fishing activity of boats working out of Brixham and Newlyn for a local company’s website (greendalefarmshop.co.uk), photographer Tony Fitzsimmons captures the action onboard the Newlyn netter Govenek of Ladram PZ 51 fishing to the west of Land’s End.
Govenek of Ladram, the final vessel of my Waterdance commission, was featured on Channel Four’s documentary ‘The Catch’ around 18 months ago. The only other time I had seen Govenek of Ladram was when I was aboard Karen of Ladram last year, when I captured a pretty striking shot as she headed into a bright, white, yellow sunset. Despite being excited to get onboard, the idea that this would be my final trip was a mixture of absolute elation and utter sadness. While it had been a fantastic and insightful journey, all good things do have to come to an end, right?
The question now was, had I saved the best until last?
After getting a good look over the boat, she came across as very similar in appearance to the other Waterdance netters, the Karen and the Joy (of Ladram), although I did immediately prefer the Govenek’s interior layout once aboard. It just seemed to work better; less backtracking and a greater sense of ease when it came to any potential congestion when getting from A to B.
Phil Mitchell, the skipper of Govenek of Ladram, was on a well-deserved break this trip, and in his absence, I had the pleasure of Shaun Edwards, Newlyn’s shore manager for Waterdance, who was acting as relief skipper. Shaun has always been my first point of call when it came to arranging any Newlyn vessel, continually going out of his way to make sure everything was sorted; my journey throughout this commission was very smooth because of him.
Shaun has been fishing since he was a young lad, spanning a good 35-year career in the industry, working out on a number of vessels, from gill netting to tuna fishing in various parts of the world. After building a solid reputation and business over the years, his wife suddenly became ill, and he made the decision to sell up and spend more time on land with her. A few years later, Waterdance came knocking with a managerial position that gave Shaun a fantastic opportunity to return to his other love, working with and looking after a number of fishermen under his watch. He was still able to conduct these affairs and more, surrounded by the most important part of his life, his family and his home.
Along the way, you meet some people, and it’s immediately apparent that the world is a better place because of them. Shaun Edwards is one of those people. Five minutes in his company and it is obvious he is one of the boys, Chelsea mad and with a real love for motorbikes, yet he has another side to him that would always put others first. He is someone who could carry the mantle easily as a leader. Someone always ready to fight for what is right, looking after others before thinking of himself. I knew I was in for a cracking week with Shaun at the helm and with the crew now on board; a few minutes with them cemented the fact.
As we left Newlyn in the late evening, I decided to have an early night. Most of the lads had turned in too and my usual ‘take it easy, get some bunk time on the first day or so’ actually worked out quite well, as our destination of Labadie Bank south of Ireland was a good 13 hours away.
Waking up the following morning with a cuppa and a slice of toast, I headed up to the wheelhouse to see what was going on. During my time at sea, I had never known a situation quite like this, and it was a real eye-opener (and head scratcher for that matter). The plan to drop nets and spend much of the week fishing at Labadie Bank was over literally moments after we arrived, as three French fishing vessels completely denied our request. It seemed almost ridiculous; in Irish waters, the French were calling the shots over the English, and we couldn’t do anything about it. As Shaun said, it was a case of first come, first served, but this whole situation did give me pause for thought as to what a post-Brexit fishing industry could look like.
Shaun certainly took the Labadie Bank affair to heart though. As he said, he was there to do a job, and that job was to provide a wage for these lads onboard. Labadie Bank is always a good and reliable source, and while there were many other areas to fish, the fact that we had steamed out here for nothing was merely highlighted by the fact that time was ticking away with nothing to show for it.
Uncertainty slowly entered the fray; where were we going to fish now?
Over the next few hours, Shaun piloted the Govenek further west. Nets were later laid in a few spots, and it was just a case of keeping those fingers crossed. During this time I got to know the rest of the crew.
First up is one of the celebs from The Catch, Sean Smeaden. He has been on the Govenek for around five years, and you can immediately tell that one day he will be at the helm of a vessel. He certainly has his wits about him, and it is clear he takes a great deal of pride in his work. He is one of the hardest workers I have seen since I began my project.
Simon Milne also featured on The Catch and, after six years, is the longest-serving crewman onboard Govenek. Throughout my time with Waterdance, I’ve been treated to a great many meals from the various cooks, and while I don’t want to pick a favourite, the five-star servings each and every night from chef Simon just blew me away and everything dished up wouldn’t seem out of place in some top London restaurant. I’m not joking. Like Sean, he is passionate about his job, as well as the fishing industry in general, and another I can see deserving his ticket if all goes well in the future.
The last celeb from The Catch is Ash Rescorla, a towering giant and a former Coldstream Guard and Corporal, following two tours of Afghanistan. Now a fisherman for around two-and-a-half years, he still has the option to return to the military if he chooses. It is not often you meet someone who has represented his country in two of our proudest, oldest and very necessary occupations.
The youngest of the bunch is Max Berryman, who has been onboard the Govenek now for a year. During the week, the poor lad developed a toothache, which quickly turned into a nasty looking abscess. You could see the discomfort on his face, yet Max continued to give 100%. That is the thing out here. There are no doctors or dentists. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and carry on regardless, accept the problem and find a better solution when you return to port.
The last crewmember is also the newest. Ryan Jacobs has been onboard the Govenek for about three months now, though you can’t really tell. He is as much part of the crew as the rest of them, and there is a strong bond of friendship and loyalty across the whole team.
The Govenek lads are a proud bunch, all very much family-driven, with their own handful of kids, girlfriends or wives; huge hearts on their sleeves, a familiar trend I see when it comes to fishermen. I’ve still yet to come across a livelihood like it. In my eyes, they continue to be an unselfish collective who work themselves completely to the bone, their goal to ultimately provide the very best for those they love, despite more often than not being away from them for such long periods of time.
Midway through the week, the weather did what it had said it would and became a tad fresh, rolling the netter quite dramatically, as large swells appeared under a blustery gale. Nothing quite like the January storms of Doris and Ewan, but you certainly did move a lot more in a netter versus a Eurocutter, as bruises along my sides and legs testified.
With boxes filling up very nicely over the course of the next few days, it was good to see the turnaround in fortunes from an uncertain start to the week. Fishing is a huge gamble at the best of times. Out here, surrounded by nothing but a vast 360° of blue, as well as a great many factors under the surface, with daily environmental changes affecting this further, nothing is ever set in stone. One day could be good, another not so much.
Shaun also showcased his European communication skills in a conversation over the radio with a Spanish trawler, as he discussed with the Capitán the whereabouts of our recently-placed nets. It was an impressive show of lingo, and while Shaun quickly played down his foreign skills, he is clearly a Don Juan against my rather useless side order of ‘Bonjour’; not the best of greetings for a Spanish vessel, by any stretch.
This whole affair took me back to my STCW 10 at the beginning of the year and the session on Social Responsibilities. Foreign communication in the maritime industry is such an important factor and no more so nowadays. The difference with having someone like Shaun onboard, particularly when you consider the initial confusion Brexit may introduce early doors, even knowing the basics could be seriously invaluable. Only time will tell.
For the second trip running, I got to see another naval ship board a fishing vessel, only this time it was the Irish Navy and their stunning vessel, Le Roisin. Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) boarding officers had already conducted a routine monitoring on Karen of Ladram earlier in the day, so we knew it wasn’t long before they came across to the Govenek. Just as with my previous trip, it was a case of waiting and watching the horizon for any sign of visual contact. Once contact was made, it was then a case of looking for the RIB to hightail its way towards us.
With the RIB alongside and the two SFPA lads onboard, the manner in which everything was handled was once again very accommodating from both parties. The two Irish officers took the information concerning the catch, checked the Govenek’s log books against relayed computer data and recorded all this across a variety of paperwork. Everything went smoothly, and we even managed to have a good chat with the Navy lads about their day jobs, their industry versus ours, over a nice cup of tea before they headed back.
With a stunning full rainbow greeting our return, we arrived back in Newlyn, landing the catch ready for the following day’s market. It was great to be back on dry land after eight days at sea and, as final vessels go, I couldn’t have asked for a better vessel and crew to end this commission.
As I sat on the train from Penzance to Plymouth, a carrier bag of frozen fish melting away under my feet, a little smile emerged upon my face as I looked over this week’s images. With a few days and nights of editing to conclude the commission, I was immensely proud of this entire series.
Waterdance had become a wonderful and honest account of fishermen at sea, covering four seasons of a year, set over two gruelling and hardworking months of fishing. Never did I imagine, following graduation, that I would be where I was now, and the gentleman sitting across from me must have wondered why this dishevelled character in dirty clothes projected such a happy, beaming presence. For a moment, I noticed him glance down, only to quickly look back up at me.
“Your bag is leaking,” he said. “It’s okay,” I replied, “it’s just fish.”
As conversation openers go, I don’t think there was much you could follow that with, and I proceeded to do my best and mop up the water surrounding my feet with a towel from my clothes bag. It was more than just fish though. There is a real story behind this source-to-plate lifestyle.
Looking back over this past year, I have plenty to reflect on, as well as plenty to look forward to. Hopefully, exhibiting a selection of my work from my time at sea later in the year will go a long way to highlighting the trials and tribulations fishermen take in their stride, day after day, in pursuing their chosen careers. When I know more about this and where it will be held, I’ll let you know.
In the meantime, the images from the Emily Rose and Waterdance series are available to view in their entirety on my website, at tonyfitzsimmons.com
In closing, I’d like to think that the Waterdance series (along with Emily Rose) has been a pretty truthful and informative account, and one that has allowed many families and friends of fishermen a glimpse into the daily experiences and the constant graft that comes with the job. For me, this past year has been a hugely rewarding experience, and I can certainly see myself focusing on various aspects and occupations at sea for the next five years (at the very least). Considering the volume of water versus the mass of land, you’d think we’d know more about what our brothers and sisters do, on what is truly the most unforgiving, ever-changing, yet intensely rewarding, environment this world has to offer.
I would also like to take a moment to thank everyone who has emailed me during my time on the Waterdance; it’s great to hear that I’m on the right track. To Dave Linkie and his team at Fishing News for their support in giving me a platform to work from, thank you so much for this opportunity. Stay safe out there.
Read more from Fishing News here.