Saturday, 19 January 2013

Away Back Then

From Marine Times, October 2012 edition.

I wrote the poem Away Back Then a while back. I hope it gives a sense of what it felt like to be fish­ing in Ireland in a small boat, at a time when things were very basic. No VHP Radios or mobile phones meant no contact with other boats or with the land. No hydraulics meant you had to rely on muscle-power. If the nets were heading for the rocky shore you needed to work fast. If herrings hit the nets in a lump the same applied. If there was too much fish they would quickly die and carry the nets to the bottom. In the dark there was no way of telling what was already in the nets. Care was needed so as not to overload the boat or risk her stability. Despite best intentions this sometimes happened, herrings being what they are! Then if the wind increased you could be in serious trouble. 

We small-boat men were a part of nature's sea­sonal rhythm. The onset of autumn gales spelled the end of lobster fishing for us because every pot was care­fully hand-made and the rope was expensive and easily damaged. Whatever gear sur­vived the summer's potting would be needed in the spring. Great was the anticipation as we looked for the first signs of herring. The old men assured us: "Be they early or be they late, the her­rings will come."

They were right of course. Suddenly the her­rings appeared in the bays and estuaries accompanied by flocks of seabirds. These "Bay Herrings" were good to eat. They were not too oily and not too heavy with spawn and there was a brisk demand for them. They were sold by the box or by the cran. A box of herrings was about a quarter of a cran, or around forty kilos. Weather and tides and the unpre­dictable behaviour of the fish exercised a natural control over our landings. However, when things went right for us we made good money. None of us ever died rich of course but we paid our crews and raised our families. Drift-net­ting in the yawls and half deckers was a short season and usually by mid-December the shoals were moving off into deeper water, so the party was over for us. 

Alas, we will never see those times again. Herring, the most nutritious fish in the sea, has somehow got down­graded. We don't speak of so many boxes, or of so many cran. We talk of tons or of bins, as if we might leave them out for the bin men to collect. In calculating quotas the Authorities lump the small boats in together with the big trawlers in a "one-size-fits-all" example of bureaucratic stupidity. This results in the tiniest of quota being allocated to the half deckers and worst of all, a small window of opportunity to fish. 

This, either by design or accident, seems to occur during periods of extreme weather or at times when the herrings are unavailable. There is the constant threat that, "If you don't catch your quota this year you won't qualify for next year." 

Surely it is time the small boats were taken out of this crazy system. If all the small registered boats in Ireland spent the winter drift­ing for herrings they couldn't catch what one super-trawler will kill in one week.

Away Back Then

Back in the 60's times were tougher
Came Summer's end and seas got rougher
We brought in precious pots and rope
So herrings became our only hope.  
Then in October's shortening days
We hunted herrings in the bays
While three men crewed each tiny yawl
Each hoping for that bumper haul.

Some nights we fought the furious seas
Sometimes bad weather kept us in the quays
Sometimes we fished in icy cold and wet
And fickle herrings wouldn't go to net.

Then came an offshore wind, bearing seaweeds scent
We hung onto our driftnet, as in for the cliffs it went
And with a prayer we followed it, borne upon the tide.
The Autumn moon behind a cloud, her silver face did hide.

Then suddenly our spotlight, shows the corks are sinking
Our pole-end must be under too, for 'tis no longer winking
We cannot waste a moment lads, haul as fast as you can
Now up she comes and white with fish, there may be twenty cran.

Other poems by Derrick Cranpole have been published in a single volume entitled A Woeful Tale. It is available to buy online.

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What They Said

"Over the years I have known a lobster fisherman from the South-East, a man fond of a bit of ironic, sometimes blunt poetry or ditties, particularly when he was infuriated by official policies on fishing." - Tom MacSweeney, Marine Times

"Referring to the fishing industry and maritime matters especially in the South East (it is) a mainly humorous comment on the maritime society of the area and its 'official regulators'." - CiarĂ¡n O Mullain, Marine Times

"Cranpole's wry observations and humorous anecdotes make the mind boggle, not because they are too fantastic, but because they are all too real." - The Skipper

"He deals with everyday experiences of sailors and of the issues concerning seamen from bad weather to the EU's common fishery policy. When not dealing with such serious matters, his poems are funny and light-hearted as are also the sketches used to illustrate the book. Here and there we even detected a touch of the Kiplings." - Books Ireland, March 2012.