With Plymouth photographer Tony Fitzsimmons. Full gallery of images at the bottom of this page.

Above: William of Ladram punching into weather on leaving Brixham harbour astern.
(Photograph courtesy of Michael Smith)

As part of his ongoing commission to photograph and document the fishing activity of boats working out of Brixham and Newlyn for a local company’s website (greendalefarmshop.co.uk), head office and farm shop, photographer Tony Fitzsimmons captures the action onboard the Brixham beam trawler William of Ladram, fishing in the southwest approaches.

With my STCW 10 certificate firmly under my belt, I was soon ready to head off for my first week of 2017 out at sea, on board the William of Ladram E 88; the penultimate trawler of my Waterdance commission. As much as I was looking forward to getting back out there, I had picked a real doozy of a week. With Doris shaking up quite a torrid tantrum, it looked highly likely that I would mimic my mid-January 2016 behaviour on board another Brixham beamer, Emily Rose, by throwing up incessantly. It had been a pretty rough week back then; judging by the forecast (I was now looking into, and educating myself, about other weather conditions, such as swell height); this one was going to be an absolute screamer.

The only time I ever remember feeling anywhere near as ill as I did that January (my second-ever week at sea) was having my almost-burst appendix removed a few years prior; the subsequent five days of severe reactions to various antibiotics was quite touch and go for a while. Having experienced different levels of seasickness on numerous occasions now, I know I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and while the worst of it did happen a good 12 months ago, following several more trips in some scruffy weather, I really hoped I was finally beginning to establish some form of sea legs.

The more I looked into the cause and effect, the more I found this whole seasickness issue to be very much psychological. And I suppose that the more I thought about it (the obvious psychological thing to do), the more I worked myself up about it all; a Catch 22 situation, leading to some inevitable misery. Despite another packet of Stugeron purchased, and my wrist bands firmly in place minutes after a 5am start, it was pretty much all I thought about from the train and bus journey from Plymouth to Brixham harbour.

Weather-wise, Brixham wasn’t looking too bad just a few hours later; a slight case of early morning drizzle with some occasional sunshine to remind those very aware of the forecast that this was simply the calm before the storm. The harbour was perhaps the busiest I had ever seen it, with vessel after vessel getting ready to head out, or recently arrived to unload their catches. I got to see the Angel of Ladram glide smoothly in, giving my best to skipper Trevor Slater and deckhand Anton. I also noticed the Pamela Jill (known to me before as the Emily Rose, the vessel that kickstarted my ‘Life at Sea’ study) berthed a little way behind the William. Seeing skipper Arthur Dewhirst again really made my day.

The William of Ladram was skippered by Jake Grantham and his trusted crew of four: mate Paddy Burley and crewmen William Prichard, Stanley and Lien Rogers. I was once again surrounded by another great bunch of lads; immediately friendly and certainly well up for being in front of the camera. Jake gave me a tour of the vessel, going over the various safety aspects and layout of the William. Like the beamers Margaret and Angel before, she was an absolute beauty. As I stepped out onto the deck, I immediately noticed there was quite a difference in the width of this vessel compared to the previous two. At least, that’s how it looked; as I moved along the portside and starboard sides of the deck, there did seem to be a definite sense of additional room and, from a photographer’s perspective, this was a good thing.

With everyone onboard and a good few hours of maintenance finally over with, the William left Brixham harbour for what could only be a very rough week. A few hours into our journey, my futile campaign against seasickness continued, as I occupied my bunk for much of the first few days out. It certainly helped a great deal (I didn’t throw up all week in the end), though the unfortunate flip-side of this did mean that I missed out on some potential photo opportunities.

A few days in, and Doris made it very known she was along for the entirety of this trip, ramping up from her opening salvo of Force 8 and 9s, touching on a seismic Force 10 mid-week, before returning to continue in high single figures. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen waves like it, and it was testament to skipper Jake and his hard-working crew that, despite the outside world looking like some real-life version of the film, The Day After Tomorrow, I always felt safe in their hands; despite the dangerous nature of that swirling beast that never once let up, slamming port and starboard sides at every opportunity, the William rode the forceful storm with great vigour and resolve.

Being out in such conditions gave me pause for thought. A storm this severe was bad enough on land, yet out here at sea it became exponentially worse. In the comfort and safety of home, it is easy to forget the many hardships others face, as wind and rain lash hard against windows and walls. We continue to take so much for granted, even more so when we examine what weather can do to an environment; how it can alter a once pleasant and scenic calm surrounding to one suddenly very unforgiving. I have begun to understand those hidden costs that make up my Friday night fish and chips, as the trials and tribulations from source to plate are quickly factored into place from firsthand knowledge and experience – it soon becomes quite a thought-provoking meal.

Being out on the William as my first vessel of 2017 was a great experience. Once again, I was well looked after, and when it came to being fed, William did the honours like some grand Michelin chef; from perfectly cooked steak and chips to a mean and filling roast, with fish substituted any time the rest of the crew had a chicken dinner, I once again ate like a king.

I am always amazed at the level of multi-tasking by the crew, and even more so considering the conditions of this week. From cooking and cleaning, to tackling various situations that can arise, some problematic, some simply systematic, perhaps all this and more was just second nature to them, another day in the life after many working years at sea. Whatever it was, it certainly didn’t detract from how constantly in awe of them I was.

With the portside net severely torn on day six, and Ewan soon replacing Doris as the dominant force out here, we began to steam back to Brixham a day earlier than intended. I snapped some shots from above the wheelhouse looking down at the deck, as Stanley, William and Paddy began work on repairing the net, before watching thick, menacing clouds on the horizon line gather, dwarfing the long, large, cargo vessels in the shipping lane. To say it was looking pretty grim was an understatement.

As I made my way back down and onto the stern, Jake ushered me over, informing me that we were soon to be boarded by the Navy. I think he must have repeated this around a dozen times; I just continued to look at him blankly, a slight smirk to show I was having none of it. Perhaps the problem lay in the concept of how the Navy would board a fishing vessel. In my mind, I imagined Stallone and the rest of the Expendables roping down from some helicopter gunship, securing the deck and our fishy cargo within seconds, before a Schwarzenegger remark owned the moment – if you are not my friend, you are my anemone. Keeping a vivid imagination in check, it’s actually not a far cry from the police pulling you over for a routine spot check.

By the time I finally took Jake’s word for it, the HMS Severn was visible in the distance and fast approaching William of Ladram. I found this all rather exciting and, as an addition to my Waterdance series, it was fantastic and unexpected. I had heard stories over the past year of boats being boarded, and here I was about to experience it firsthand. I had no idea what to expect and moments later, in the distance, a RIB was released and on its way, skimming the surface with intent towards us.

The RIB pulled alongside and dropped off two officers before turning around and heading back to HMS Seven. I immediately began snapping away and tracking their every move. They didn’t mind, though they did inform me that if anything was out of order in terms of the recorded catch, my photography was to stop there and then. Understandable, of course.

Over the next hour, the officers checked over the logbooks and observed the catch with meticulous detail. It was an interesting experience, and throughout the whole procedure, there were no unpleasantries, with both parties considerably accommodating towards one another.

As skipper Jake Grantham said at the time: “We have a job to do, they have a job to do.

When he put it like that, it quickly made perfect sense. On land, there are times when the police earn a bad rap from others, for purely doing their job. Out here, it was no different. Those who are generally angry or aggressive towards the Navy boarding their vessel, or pulled over in traffic back on land, are likely the ones who had done wrong or had something to hide. With everything coming back positive, it was very clear that Jake and his crew were doing their jobs professionally and very much by the book. Given the esteemed standards and reputation set by Waterdance and their entire fleet, I honestly didn’t expect anything less.

With the William now safe and sound in Brixham harbour, and the Navy recently departed and back patrolling our southern waters, I spent a final night onboard, ready to record the landing the following day. I also got to see much of the repair work carried out on the beam trawls. I assumed this would have been completely removed and replaced with something already assembled. What I didn’t expect to see was a new one being stitched there and then from scratch. The crew of the William (with Mark Ellis adding his net-threading skills after a deserved week off) highlighted another ability to the prowess and competency of a fisherman.

There were so many skills, roles and duties constantly performed by fishermen; after another week at sea, this was becoming clearer and clearer. Their occupational description was much more than just the obvious ‘we catch fish, land fish, then do it all again’. For them, it is a way of life, and one I continue to maintain that very few of us could ever do. The lads of the William seriously raised the bar during one heck of a stormy week, and just as it was with the other skippers and crews I had observed over the past 18 months, they were an absolute pleasure to be around.

As I left Brixham for Plymouth with a fish and chip supper in hand from the local Rock Fish, I continued to wonder why this livelihood was so unrepresented in photography, in the media or just in general everyday conversation. As other customers sat waiting for their meal, I wondered what they were thinking as they waited for their delicious dinner to be served. It is often the case that while we praise those who cook and serve the meal; the hard work these fishermen did before the chefs and staff get their hands on it, seldom – if ever – enters the thought process.

Waiting for the next bus to take me to the train station, the weather around Brixham harbour mimicking a lovely summer’s evening, I wondered if anyone even considered for a moment the polar opposite week that William’s crew, together with their counterparts on other vessels, had just endured. Eighteen months ago, I know I wouldn’t, but having been given the opportunity to gain an invaluable insight, now I have total admiration for the work fishermen do day in, and day out.

See the William of Ladram story here or for more features from Fishing News click here

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