As a kid I was brought up in the seaside town of Budleigh Salterton on Devon’s southwest coast in England’s red soil country. Our garden backed onto the footpath which ran along the beach where the local fishermen kept their boats in this part of the four kilometre long pebble beach. As I grew older I became more and more involved with the fishermen and their boats. We kids would rush down to help launch or haul up the boats. Most of the boats were dinghies of around 3.7m with Seagull outboards. One was 4.9m long with an 8hp Stuart Turner two stroke inboard. Another was a traditional, old deep hulled 5.9m net boat with a 10hp Brit engine. These deep craft were used to drift for herring in the season and they all worked crab pots and fished for mackerel with hand lines for the summer months. Because we kids helped the fishermen we would sometimes get a small crab or some mackerel as thanks.
The smaller boats could be hauled up the beach by hand over holly log ways which had been greased to make the task easier. Holly was used as it is a tough timber, but as it only grows in small bushes it never became a commercial timber.
The beach profile would change with every strong wind forming ridges and troughs. To haul the boat up and over these each fisherman had a capstan at the top of the beach. Beside the capstan was a box containing spare fuel and lines. The owners of the larger boats also had sheds for nets and gear, but mostly it was strung about the beach drying or being mended. Crab pots were woven from slender willow withies grown for the purpose
I became the assistant to Bert Hillman, the owner of the 4.9m boat. By the time I was twelve I was going out fishing with him and spending most of my time around the beach. At the ripe age of 13 I was out to haul pots before dawn, and long-lining and netting during the evenings and weekends. School really did get in the way of what I wanted to do.
In winter the boats were hauled to the top of the beach and even onto the footpath. One was put over the wall of our next door neighbour’s garden when an extra large storm threatened!
Making pots from willow withies, repairing old ones and making up lines and maintaining the boat and its gear were all a part of the life we led. It was a hard, financially poor life, but honest, satisfying and idealistic to me. The fishermen were honourable men. Locks were rarely used. Outboards were left on boats on the beach and gear left ready to use, just how things should be.
Hauling pots by hand is hard work. The 50kg wet pots were set in between 3m and 15m of water and must sit on rock if the catch was to be any good. Knowing the locations of the rocks was a large part of their skill. We worked 40 pots at the height of the season. I would be up by 4:30am and we would be hauling by daylight, before the crabs got out. It was a hard but good life, until the fisherman died suddenly of a haemorrhage at age 52. I had just turned 15 and I was devastated.
In the end I became a boat builder, not a fisherman. I could not handle the cold!