The Motown classic Reach Out I’ll Be There, sung by the Four Tops, topped the UK singles chart in 1966. Over 50 years later, the words are highly appropriate for the Fishermen’s Mission team, who are always available to help fishermen for as long as they know their support is required.
Earlier this month, John Periam accompanied mission superintendent Nick O’Neill for a day on the south coast of England
In 2018, the Fishermen’s Mission dealt with 5,344 welfare and hospital visits; 101 fishermen were helped following incidents at sea; 130 children of fishermen were assisted; and 3,352 beneficiaries were in receipt of grants totalling £988,375.
The Fishermen’s Mission is there to help and support fishermen in time of need, and has been for over 130 years, but if the Mission does not know of such problems, how can it help?
At the end of the day, it is all about communication. To find out more, Fishing News spent a day with Nick O’Neill, mission superintendent for South East England. Nick is now in his fourth year with the Mission, and lives in Havant, Hampshire, with his wife and four children. He covers the area from Swanage, Dorset, in the west, to Sheerness, Kent, in the east, plus the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands.
Prior to joining the Mission, Nick spent most of his working life with organisations and charities dealing with welfare issues, including rough sleepers and homeless people, before moving to another charity that had nautical links. It was then that he came across a couple of fishing families and heard about the Fishermen’s Mission. He met some of the staff, liked what they did, and took up his current post.
“Every working day is different,” said Nick. “I try to pre-plan visits to ports and harbours so I can meet as many fishermen and their families as possible. What is most rewarding is when you get a call from someone who finds themselves in a situation, and is in need of help. When you actually go to visit them, and are able to witness their sheer gratitude, and their relief that someone has found time to offer them some support and comfort – that is what encourages me so much.”
The key focus of Nick’s work is being able to be seen. In the South East, there are many smaller harbours and beach fishermen. The Mission is not heard about as much here as in some other parts of the country, with larger vessels and ports. For the first three years, one of Nick’s big challenges has been to make a concerted effort to cover his patch and to become known and recognised. Face-to-face meetings are what it is all about – rather than seeing an image on a poster, and not knowing who that person is.
Nick continued, “Today, for example, we met Martin Rudwick, the coxswain of the Selsey lifeboat. He is on the front line when it comes to helping a fisherman at sea in distress. We need to know of such incidents, so I can have the opportunity to contact the fishermen or families involved. Working with other key organisations plays a very important part, including the Shipwrecked Mariners, who can offer financial support.”
Fishing News asked Nick to describe a specific case that illustrates what can be done to offer real support in time of need. “About two years ago, I had a phone call from the Dover coastguard saying that a Belgian beamer had capsized 17 miles off the coast of Ramsgate. They managed to rescue one man, but two men were still missing. I drove to the William Harvey Hospital at Ashford, Kent, to visit the surviving fisherman. En route I stopped to buy new clothes, shoes and other personal items for him. Later, I worked with the police and coastguard to help repatriate him back to Belgium. What is nice is that he is still in touch with me today. The support we gave him was emotional and pastoral support. It is not always about the material things in life.”
Selsey fishermen Chris and Mike Harvey fully endorsed the work that Nick does. “He often pops down to see us, and is there as and when needed. There are now only 11 fishing boats working from Selsey beach. There are sadly no youngsters coming into the industry here. The price of property has increased, and fishermen at times need help to pay mortgages, when things get hard. People forget we have boat repairs, nets to replace, quotas, and inclement weather, especially off this part of the coast. If we can’t go to sea, we don’t have an income!”
Within the Fishermen’s Mission, there are three sectors, and Nick is in the Eastern one. There is an annual conference, and Nick keeps in touch with his colleagues. There are times when they can help each other. One must not forget the fundraisers, who do a brilliant job in promoting the work of the Mission. “They work hard behind the scenes, making sure that we have a visible presence around the coast.”
Nick has seen changes in the number of fishermen working. This can be down to age and no one replacing them when they retire. Lack of work means some now fish part-time, and go into building work. Regulations and weather have not helped either. Planning for the future is something the Mission wants to make us more aware of.
This was endorsed by Tony Delahunty OBE, president of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations (NFFO). “I recently retired from fishing at Selsey. I am lucky that I did plan for my retirement. However, the economic climate has changed, and it is so important that we at the NFFO, in conjunction with the Mission, help to encourage fishermen to make sure they have a secure future later in life. Although not an easy task, it is an important one.”
Nick is also concerned about the reduced numbers of younger fishermen coming into the industry. Not so long ago, children were encouraged to come and help their fathers preparing their fishing boats for another day at sea, after school or at weekends. For various reasons, this practice is no longer as commonplace. Similarly, buying a new or second-hand fishing boat is not easy, and getting a licence for it can be very expensive.
“We at the Mission hear this all the time. Watching one’s son go to sea now does not happen like it used to. At Selsey, there are still strong family links. Of course, there will be some issues relating to working with others. This is something I have to try to be aware of, and at times I need to tread carefully,” Nick said with a smile.
People often forget just how hard fishermen work, says Nick. “Take today: we have just seen Dave Robinson bring his tender ashore, with fish from his Holton 24 Betty Peerley. He left Selsey beach on his tender at 3am, and boarded his boat in the dark single-handed. He stepped ashore again after 10 hours at sea, in very cold and wet weather. He is not getting any younger, yet he loves what he does. He supports his family – and should he need any help, I will make sure he gets it. One thing we must not forget is that fishermen are very proud people and don’t discuss their problems. As I said earlier, we can only help if we know.
“One of the recurring areas of support need I am now finding is that of financial help, mainly for mortgage and rent payments. When times are hard, these are often the first that fall by the wayside, especially in the winter months. I have done a lot recently to help keep people in their homes. We talk to other charities, and between us, we see what we can do. The Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society and the Seafarers’ Hospital Society are very helpful – it is all about helping them fill in forms and discuss their needs with the banks, etc.”
Another organisation is the Seafarers’ Advice and Information Line (SAIL), which can be very useful when fishermen need some advice. There is a lot of support out there, and it is just a matter of making people aware of it.
Alison Godfrey, director of business development for the Fishermen’s Mission, endorsed what Nick said. “We love to see our ‘Albert’ collecting boxes situated in areas where they can be noticed by the public. Charity fundraising is not easy these days with so many charities around. Our fundraisers make sure we are visible, especially around our coasts.
“We have a new poster campaign planned called ‘Catch of the Day’. We have had 100 ceramic fish painted by celebrities, artists, fishermen and sports personalities. They really look nice, are very colourful, and offer a great opportunity to have one in the lounge at home.
“Our chief executive, Commander David Dickens OBE, has been busy supporting our new health and wellbeing project, SeaFit, which is run jointly with the Seafarers Hospital Society and funded by Seafarers UK. We have already had one event at Peterhead, and will soon be moving to Kilkeel, Portavogie and Ardglass in March and April.”
Alison added, “The team at the head office at Whiteley are brilliant. They are always at the end of a phone. There are times when Nick needs to ask a question, and they can guide him in the right direction. That is what makes the Mission the success it is – we all work together.”
Selsey fisherman Dave Robinson said: “It is always nice to see Nick around. He often helps to pull the tender ashore, and we can chat as a group, airing our concerns. It is all about being able to listen, and Nick is very good at that. We all have bad days, and that is when we need someone to talk to.”
It is not just the fishermen Nick meets. He likes to talk to fish wholesalers and those behind the scenes who fillet the fish. Mark (Sooty) Horstead from Selsey Bill Fish Market is a real help. He meets most of those who fish in the area, and he hears what is happening, and can guide Nick in the right direction if needed.
Nick concluded, “At the end of the day, it’s all about knowing the industry and being able to communicate with one other. Every day is a learning curve, and at times even I am surprised by some of the cases that crop up. I am so lucky that my family support me in what I do. I am very much aware of the current issues within the industry, and sadly, that times like these can lead to further hardship for fishermen. I cannot stress enough that we are there to offer help and support in any way we can – but we can only do this if we know about it, so please do contact the Mission.”
The Fishermen’s Mission can be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by freephone: 0800 634 1020.