The Rye Fishing Fleet

Tough Men Doing a Dangerous Job

‘Harry Hotspur’, Silver Fern,‘Rother Lass, Bold Venture’, ‘Kerrigan’ it seems a bit like an accumulator bet for a race meeting – in fact the names are not those of horses but of fishing boats.

Fishing is a traditional Rye industry, men from the Ancient Town have provided food for the nation since the first recorded history of the town, the first road from here to London was made by the endless tread of Ponies hooves as the ‘Rippiers of Rye’ carried their loads of fish to Market in London.

Rye Bay fish are said to be the best in the world for taste, this argument is supported by the fact they were served at the Queens table in the time of the first Elizabeth. This ‘Rye fish for the Queen’ tradition was revived in 1966 when HM. Queen Elizabeth II visited the town. Local fisherman, John Button,  presented Her Majesty with a trug of Rye Cured Bloaters.

What induces a man to become a fisherman? The work is hard and uncomfortable and at times highly dangerous. Some say it is in the blood, and no doubt this is true in many cases. Probably the main attraction is the freedom. Fishermen are their own bosses in a way no land bound man can ever be. Even if they work a boat not owned by themselves they are completely in charge of when it goes to sea and where it fishes.

Nearly all fishermen enjoy their work, taking the view that a rough day will always be followed by a smooth one when the sea is calm and the sun is warm and the fish are plentiful.

The skills required to be a successful Trawlerman are not gained in a day. The bay is full of wrecks and obstructions and to ensure the nets and gear do not snag these obstacles requires a knowledge of the sea bed that may take years to acquire. Modern navigational aids, ‘Decca’ which pinpoints a position to within a few feet and ‘Echo sounders’ which project the depth of water onto a chart and indicate obstructions, have been a boon to fishermen in recent times, but even with these gadgets a high degree of skill is required to trawl without becoming     en -snared in underwater obstructions.

Fish are found in different locations at different times of the year, every specie has its own special habits and movements. Plaice. Soles, Sand-dabs, Cod, Haddock, Mackerel and Whiting are all caught in large numbers in season.

Fish Movements

Besides knowledge of the sea bed and of fish and their movements a further and most important asset is a good idea of local weather law. The weather forecasts are usually accurate, but on occasions they can be completely wrong.

Weather conditions are of paramount importance to Rye Fishermen because of the nature of Rye Harbour. Generally speaking, it is not possible to enter the Harbour Mouth for two six hour periods in each twenty four hours. It can usually be entered from approximately three hours before to approximately three hours after high tide. Therefore it follows that a boat caught out in a sudden Gale may be forced to ride it out for up to six hours. On top of this it is sometimes highly dangerous to enter Rye Harbour, even if there is enough water, if the wind force and direction are not favourable.

Rye fishing vessels, nowadays, generally have a crew of two and usually fish short periods of twelve hours or so. At the beginning of the century the pattern was rather different – steam trawlers put out from Rye, crewed by five to eight men and their trips lasted for up to four weeks.

The boats would travel for two or three days non stop, then, when the hold was full, put in to the nearest port, it might be Folkestone, Dover, Margate or Newhaven. whichever was handy at the time. The fish were not always so fresh when landed in those times.

In the early nineteen-fifty’s there was an acute shortage of fish in Rye Bay, the situation became so bad that eventually there were only a handful of fishing boats operating out of Rye.

By the early sixties the fish had returned and slowly the fleet has increased, until at the present time there are about 20 vessels working regularly out of the Port.

Traditional clinker built boats are the general rule at Rye, but in recent times there has been some deviation away from this type of vessel. The most unusual craft working out of Rye at the moment is the catamarang RX6 ‘Harry Hotspur”- skippered by Jimmy Arkley.

It is rumoured that a Rye fisherman is about to introduce a new type of boat a concrete one, this will no doubt cause a lot of interest.

Longest established Rye Trawler man is John Button – he works his very handsome craft, the ‘Coral Anne’ from Rye.

Most of the boats operate fairly close together, at this time of the year, generally six or seven miles south east of the Harbour.

The Luck Factor

Some boats are more successful than others when it comes to catching fish and there is a friendly rivalry among many crews to be ‘top boat’. Fishing inevitably has a certain ‘luck factor’ built in, but over a period of time skill and knowledge are the essential ingredients required to get consistently big catches. Nearly every boat in the harbour has, at one time or another, brought in the biggest catch, but only the top men maintain a high average all year round.

Fishing folk generally are an optimistic bunch, this is born out by the names of their boats – ‘Gratitude’, ‘Bold Venture’, ‘Endeavour’, ‘Moon Raker’, they are also colourful and sentimental -‘Silver Fern’,  ‘Carrick Lass’’ ‘Coral Anne’ , ‘Jeanne d’Arc’ , ‘Rather Lass’, ‘John’s Model’, ‘Our Pat’ and sometimes they are humorous. ‘Harry Hotspur’ and ‘Kerrygan’  but how do you classify the boat named ‘Violet’?

Trawler crew are, almost to a man, great characters – Stan Pepper. Robin Morphy, Bill Drew, Jimmy Goodsell, Peter West, The Simmons Brothers, Tim Ruck, Mick Payne, Roy Self, John Button, Chris Phil­pott, each and every one is skilled at this job and can tell a good tale, but probably the greatest Fisherman that Rye ever produced was Harry ‘Crusty’ Crampton. Until his death, several years ago, Harry was a lively storyteller – Journalists and writers came from all over the world to meet him. His name and his stories crop up in any number of books and publications. His picture, a fine oil painting by Rye artist Jack Wood, hangs in the public bar at the Ypres Castle Inn.

“Rye’s Own” March 1970

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