Fishing in Rye Bay


By The Reluctant Mate

This is a true account of 8 months as a mate on a Rye Bay trawler, it happened quite by accident when I was made redundant about 12 years ago. My skipper had just lost his boat when it was de- commissioned and he was looking to purchase a small boat he could possibly work single handed.

Fishing Boat at the Old Moorings Rye Fishmarket
Fishing Boat at the Old Moorings Rye Fishmarket

We were told about a 24 foot boat that had been submerged on several tides and went to see it, the engine was a right off, the winch was in bits but repairable, the electrics had gone, but we decided that it was worth a couple of thousand pounds, which we managed to scrape together. We got in touch with the owner and shook on a deal, as it was September by now and we needed to slip the boat at the local boat yard and get on with the task of cleaning and refitting.

Fitting Out

I remember the day when we got one of the local fisherman to drag the boat off the mud flats and tow us up to the slip, she didn’t tow very well because the steering was jammed and it didn’t help that the hull had about a ton of mud on the starboard side. We were soon out of the water and getting on with the clean up, the hull was in pretty good shape considering she had been abused in her earlier days this, gave us encouragement and we got stuck in with the job, I suppose it took us about 3 weeks to clean out the mud and wash out the years of abuse.

We purchased a reconditioned engine from a marine engineering works in Newhaven which took about a month to deliver, which gave us the time to cut out the deck to take the larger engine. The skipper had a friend who was an agriculture engineer, he agreed to rebuild the winch. The next problem was the stem tube which had to have a new liner to fit the prop shaft. This was probably the most important job we tackled as the stem tube was concreted into the hull and needed to be exposed to let us get at the liner, I must day we were relieved to conquer this problem.

The day finally came when our engine was to be fitted. We had the boat towed to the key and a crane lifted the engine down onto its mountings, within an hour everything was connected up and the engine came to life. The next job was to fit the winch, which was quite tricky, as anyone who knows how cramped it is below in a 24 ft. boat, the job completed and now we could get on with the dozens of last minute things on the job list. We had already painted inside and out, rewired the electrics, fitted the radar, wireless, navstar and all things nautical plus safety aids which were rather minimal to say the least.

Not The Life For Me

By now it was late February and no time of the year for a landlubber to be starting a job as a trawler mate, anyway I had a few trips but soon realised that going to sea at unsocial hours in frost and ice, at 3 am was no joke. I decided to give it best and retired from the industry.

I thought that was the end of my fishing career but one day the skipper came to say his mate had ‘packed it in’ and would I consider giving it another try, which I did. So started a new career that was to last eight adventurous months.

This was to open my eyes to the dangers of gear failure, engine breakdowns, rough seas, fog and hanging up on some unknown hazard on the sea bed, as well as catching a known wreck when the skipper was watching the television. I realised this day that the winch had the power to pull the boat to the bottom, we got off eventually with just a bent otter board iron and just about made the tide. I was informed that this year was about the worst in history for spider crabs, we could only tow for 20 minutes and often the net would be that full we had a job to get it aboard.

Body On The Beach

One day on coming into the harbour mouth we spotted a body on the beach, I jumped ashore and soon found out it was a corpse which we reported to the police. We found out later that this was a suicide. I recall it was snowing quite heavily that day.

Good Days and Bad Days

The gear seemed to wear out very quickly and more than once we lost the trawl due to the warps parting, when we got a load of mud.

There were good and bad days as in any occupation and it was always a treat to have fresh brewed tea on a regular basis, we also cooked some of the catch on a calor gas cooker, to supplement our sandwiches. It wasn’t long before I decided to fix up a berth for myself in the forecastle, together with mattress and sleeping bag plus lights, this was lovely when night fishing.

We always had a cup of tea prior to hauling up the trawl, often this would be when I was in my bunk served by the skipper.

Danger Of Being Run Down

You would think that out in the bay in daylight we would be safe from being run down, but on more that one occasion large beam trawlers came so close their wash very nearly capsized us, I think they must have been on autopilot and gone to sleep. We kept a keen radar watch in the fog or at night, mind you after eight hours at sea it was easy enough for both of us to drop off to sleep and blame each other.

We hoped that the majority of our catch while night fishing would be Dover sole probably the most lucrative fish, mind you we did catch an angler fish which was hanging on to the warp one night, also a sting ray. I think the most fascinating time on a trawler is opening the cod end and just seeing what we’ve caught. Early in the year was the time we caught large Plaice (Chuckler) you don’t need many of those to the stone, mind you as soon as the fish are plentiful the price goes to rock bottom.

Quarter Share

When working as a mate your earnings are worked out on a share of the catch, in my case I was on a quarter share, sometimes this was as little as £25.

Prime fish are Turbot, Brill, Sole, Bass on our small boat we were lucky to catch 2 or 3 stone of these on a good day. I am very partial to crab and was lucky enough to be allowed to take most of ours home, on the understanding that I supplied the skipper with a few (dressed).

Cuttlefish was another quite good catch and always sold well on the market, the only drawback is the ink which gets everywhere.

One of the hazards of fishing round the wrecks are static nets with no markers and we did catch up on a few much to the skippers disgust, all you can do is cut them free.

Landing The Catch

When you have France.been at sea for 10 hours the next problem comes with landing the catch at the Fishmarket, especially at night on low water, we had to lift the fish boxes weighing up to 7 stone on a stage which was covered in mud and slime, its a wonder their are no accidents, I know I was always ready for a few pints, at the end of a long day.

The fish had to be in the cold store and covered in ice, this is then sold by auction on the following morning, the buyers come from Rye and Hastings but quite a lot of the catch goes to France.

I write this short account with the fond memories of my few months at sea. I have no regrets but wish I had tried it earlier in my life.

“Rye’s Own”July 2003

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