The young man and the sea – A Swanage skipper’s life
Swanage skipper Tom Greasty lives a life in three parts, but all of them relate to the waters around Swanage. Joël Lacey got on board with him to find out more.
Published in July ’12
Although the dangers of fishing around the Dorset coast have tragically been all-too-clearly demonstrated in the last few months, the waters in Swanage Bay are millpond calm, the sky is deep blue and, even at seven in the morning, the sun provides a welcome warmth, as the diesel aboard Tom Greasty’s lobster boat chugs out from Swanage. ‘It’s on days like this that I’m glad I didn’t listen in school,’ Tom laughs, ‘although when it’s pouring down with rain and freezing cold, I do find myself wishing I’d paid more attention.’
Tom’s jobs, his voluntary work and even his hobby are inextricably linked to the sea. It is one of these jobs – lobster and crab fishing – that we are engaged in this morning as we head out to check the pots which lie in strings of eight or twenty in various points about Swanage Bay. With us is Doug – otherwise known as Captain Jack – who has fished with Tom on and off for the last fifteen years. Doug also skippers the San Gina, a boat which Tom bought when he was just sixteen years old and which, along with the San Gina II that Tom himself skippers, forms his second job: taking out anglers to go fishing along and beyond the Jurassic Coast.
Tom is also a keen shore fisherman and, hard as it may seem, when he’s not fishing for lobster and crab, or taking anglers out, he can be found fishing from the shore. He’s been fishing since the age of five, starting with coarse fishing and then sea fishing. By the age of thirteen, he was working aboard the San Gina as crew; it was then skippered by Gerry Randle, who had had the boat built specially and knew a thing or two about fishing and the local area. Tom bought the boat in 1999, aged sixteen, when Gerry finally retired (at nearly eighty), then became the skipper of the boat at eighteen. In 2006 he bought the San Gina II. With all this fishing-related activity, it is perhaps surprising that Tom doesn’t actually eat fish.
This morning, though, we’re in Tom’s third boat – a small, bright red fishing boat fitted with an engine-powered winch, with which he’ll lift pots which are hopefully filled with suitable crab and lobster. There’s a second reason for today’s outing; the weather forecast is that the next day will see strong south-easterly winds and Tom is keen that, as well as emptying the pots today, he will also have the chance to reposition his pots to ensure the next day’s winds don’t hang them on the cliffs like a washing line. As we putter out from the shore, Tom lays out just some of the challenges facing those seeking their living from the sea: there are those fishermen who fish illegally (ie without a licence), divers who use knives to cut his catch from their pots – which is all the more incomprehensible as the pots (which cost £45 each) have elasticated hooks which would surely be just as easy to open as it is to cut and damage the pots; there is also the seemingly ever-increasing price of diesel and the cost of bait, which is now just twenty per cent lower than the price per kilo that Tom gets for his crab.
One would ask why he bothers with this element of his work – after all on angling trips, the skipper gets paid whatever is or isn’t caught by the anglers – but under a dark cerulean sky, contrasting with the almost too-bright cliffs to the right, Swanage sitting prettily to our left and with the intense azure sea below and a gentle breeze and the sweet smell of fresh seafood around us, the question seems a foolish one.
About half a mile away we spot Jeff Lander’s boat – one of few Swanage boats to fish all year round. ‘The Landers,’ Tom says as he waves, ‘have been crabbing from Swanage since dinosaurs roamed the earth.’
Like Jeff Lander’s, some of Tom’s catch gets sold locally – some through a Swanage fishmonger, some goes to local pubs and restaurants (like the seventhwave restaurant at Durlston Castle) and a lot of it goes to London or even abroad. The Spanish, it seems, are very fond of the velvet swimming crab. Some of Tom’s crabs and lobsters go to Borough Market in London to be sold directly to consumers; the aim is always to try to get the best price for his catch and as the waters are still pretty cold, lobsters are still pretty small and few in number. On returning to shore later, Tom is quite sanguine as he says: ‘We’ll probably have covered the cost of the diesel today.’
The phlegmatic way in which both Tom and Doug return undersized lobsters and crab (as quickly as possible so the crustaceans are not far from where they were caught) is striking. Each one is first measured by eye and the clearly undersized ones immediately put back in the water (along with those varieties rather less easy on the palate), then a specially formed metal measure – one for each species – is used to measure from the eye socket to the base of the body to ensure that each animal is at least the minimum size. At one point a lobster which is clearly larger than the minimum is gently returned to the sea; she is carrying hundreds of eggs: ‘That’s the next years’ lobsters there,’ says Tom, as he places her back in the water.
We come in close to the cliffs to pick up another string of pots. Doug sets the boat up so it is holding station, even as the powerful winch starts to tow the rope to which the pots are attached. A clearly well-practised routine plays out; Tom heaves the pots onto the boat as they clear the surface (towed by the rope), he places them on the edge of the boat where Doug opens the pots, gently removes the unwanted catch, puts the desired brown crab, velvet swimming crabs and lobster into a holding crate (the lobsters are placed tail down into the compartments of a milk crate to calm them – were they not to have their powerful movements so constrained, they could easily damage each other) and then re-baits the pots with some frankly unappealing looking fish. The use of a small boat allows Tom to get closer into shore than he could safely do in a bigger boat. The dangers to craft are demonstrated by the pieces of a hulk of a storm-damaged boat, which sits on a small patch of accessible shoreline: ‘We pulled that out of the water to stop it fouling nets and lines,’ Tom says.
Running a small boat in the shadow of a cliff is a regular occurrence for Tom, not just in his crabbing work, but in the third strand of his maritime life: he is an RNLI volunteer, senior helmsman of the inshore lifeboat (ILB), which is often called out to help for cliff rescues, as well as more ‘normal’ inshore rescues of swimmers, sailors and jet-skiers.
He’s been a volunteer lifeboat crewman since the earliest age permissible and says the Swanage Lifeboat team is more like a family. ‘There’s a picture of me with the son and nephew of the current ALB Coxswain, Martin Steeden, when we’re all aged ten and where we’re all dressed up as lifeboatman. There’s another picture of us all in full rig as trained lifeboat crew.’
As well as being a senior helmsman on the inshore boat, Tom is training to be a coxswain of the Swanage Mersey-class vessel and, for the last two years, has also been a member of a lesser-known branch of the RNLI – the flood team. In recent years the Swanage members of the flood team (although not yet Tom) have gone to Cockermouth, Gloucester and even Mozambique. Unsurprisingly, he cannot speak highly enough of the organisation: ‘The RNLI really has the best possible equipment and training; nothing is left to chance.’
Perhaps this is why Tom is quite happy to have thirteen as his lucky number; his grandfather was the thirteenth man to get on a troopship numbered 13 leaving Madagascar (and this ship was the only one not torpedoed); Tom’s wedding is also planned for next year: 2013.
Back on board, Tom checks the latest addition to the catch that Doug has put in the crate, and settles on the side of the boat to perform the tricky job of putting elastic bands around the lobsters’ claws. Doug meanwhile looks out to sea to see if there are any dolphins around yet: ‘It’s good to see the dolphins, and the pods seem to be growing in size each year.’ Doug complements his fishing and angling work with building and landscape gardening as, although there are certainly compensations to being out on the boats, there’s no doubt that the bounty of the sea alone is rarely sufficient to support a family.
All the strings have been checked, the catch landed and we’re puttering back in towards Swanage. Tom will not be angling today; he’s got to attend a planning meeting to see if he can get permission to site a pontoon, which he’s already paid for (on the basis of agreement from local councillors, but which is now enmeshed with the travails of the planning system), but which will be for the general use of tenders for boats visiting Swanage, and which will allow him to enable less physically active clients to get on and off his angling vessels. One senses he would rather be anywhere but indoors on a day like today, and who can blame him?