The Fishermen Who Still Work Original Boats

Extracted from and by courtesy of The Boatman Magazine and Jenny Bennett

Jenny Bennett talks to Harold Gardner whose father Thomas commissioned the boat which became the template for the Character Boats’  Lune Pilot.

Sunderland [Point]’s shipping history lasted for the best part of a century commencing 1690 and dying off in 1787. The community’s fortunes were linked closely with those of Lancaster whose trade with the West Indies grew throughout the century. In the early 1700s, Sunderland’s residents and merchants built warehouses, a jetty, an anchor smithy, block makers’s shop and a rope walk, all to accommodate the small trading ships and their cargoes. But in 1787, the Glasson Dock was opened and, as the ships moved across the river, so too did the men who worked for them and Sunderland’s shipping days came to an end.

Those villagers that remained on the Point continued or went back to farming and fishing. For a time the village became a Regency holiday resort but its isolation and the problems of a tidal road, were always against it and its popularity was soon to be overshadowed by Poulton (later Morecambe), a seaside resort that survives to this day.

Unlike the shipping and tourism, however, Sunderland’s fishing industry has survived, the moored boats far outnumbering the Point’s houses. The older, wooden boats, are giving way to the more utilitarian GRP motorised whammel boats but a few have survived to remind visitors and locals of past ways. The Mary is idle, awaiting repairs; Pip Smith’s old boat (now passed to brother Tom), Daisy, built for musselling some hundred years ago and used in latter years for whammelling , has not worked for three of four years; Mimep, a seventeen footer (5.2m) built as a pleasure boat, is still owned and used by the Gilchrist family. However, the days of commercial fishing under sail would seem to be over. But not quite… LR86 Ivanhoe built by Woodhouse in 1905 and LR33 Sirius, built in 1923, are two lug rigged whammel boats which are worked from Sunderland Point by their respective owners, Harold Gardner and Tom Smith. [Mimep provided the mould for the Character Boats’ Lune Whammel].

Thirty-six years ago Harold, now in his sixties, moved away from Sunderland Point to live with his wife and two daughters in Lancaster. Despite this, his working days have been spent on the Lune estuary working as both pilot for Glasson Dock and self-employed fisherman from Sunderland. It is here that he has an old shed just above the beach, and where he keeps Ivanhoe, the ‘double-bowed’ clinker boat he has sailed man and boy.

Harold started whammelling with his father Thomas (then the pilot for Glasson) at the age of fourteen when it was a profitable business and one boat would earn enough to support two men. It was, and still is, a method of fishing that required cooperation between boats – an aspect that has never been so strong as it was in Harold’s early days. The fishermen of Glasson and Sunderland Point had formed a cooperative and were working in company. It gave them the edge over the upstream boats from Overton as a ‘company’ boat would always be first at the fishing grounds and would thereby gain the longest possible fishing time. The fourteen year old Harold was not, however, welcomed with open arms by the older men. Regarding him to be too young, the company driftmen refused to grant him a full share of the income and his father decided that they would fish on their own.

“We were outside the ‘company’ for two seasons before they asked us to join them (we were a bit of a nuisance I should think, being keen and always out), and they offered me a full share, so that was that. We fished in company for twenty years.Then more boats came along (there’d been five), and there weren’t enough fish to support two men in each boat. Next the engines started and the rest is history.”

The history is that prior to 1948 the number of licensed Lune whammel boats was unrestricted but with incomes to be had from musselling, cockling, shrimping and other types of salmon fishing, there were only five or six working whammels. Then, in 1948, the whammellers had an excellent season, catching more salmon than had been known in living memory. The following year, encouraged by the ‘bumper crop’, there were eleven boats in the fleet and by the 1950 season there were thirteen. The controlling body, first the Lune, Wyre and Keer River Authority and then the Lune Board of Conservators, decided to restrict the number to twelve. In Harold Gardner’s mind even that was too many. “Strictly speaking there shouldn’t be more than six: any more and the queue gets too long, there’s not enough fishing time between tides to make a decent living.”

Today there are ten licences (now controlled by the National Rivers Authority) of which, according to Harold, “six are trying to make a living of it and the others four are just part-timers”. Of those ten, eight are running with engines while the Ivanhoe and the Sirius continue to sail. In Tom Smith’s view there is little advantage in having a motor. “You’re nearly always going with the tide: out on the ebb and home on the flood and, while you’re fishing, it’s drifting. I suppose fishing under sail is primitive. I know it’s tiring if the wind dies and you have to row out or back but I don’t understand engines! If an engine packs up I haven’t the foggiest, but if the wind drops, now that I do understand.”

For Harold, the introduction of engines has created another problem. “When everybody was under sail, we all knew what the other boats were capable of, we were all governed by the same elements and it was easy to cooperate. Now, with the motors, they can just fire up and go anywhere, backwards and forwards, up and down wind – I don’t know what they are capable of and they don’t know about me.”

Despite the modernisation, the basic method of whammelling has not changed. The season runs from the beginning of April to the end of August with no fishing between 6am Saturday and 6am Monday. The restrictions are designed to protect the fish stocks and, according to Tom, have good and bad points. “The weekend ban is a good idea. You can fish both tides for five days and that’s enough. But the season itself should change. There is a natural evolution with the salmon that means they run ever later in the year. Now, the best of the fish are running in mid October. When my father started in 1919, the best fishing was always in the last six weeks of the season. Between then and now there was a spate of spring fish and June became the best month. Now the spring is very quiet and in the autumn, just as it gets really good, we have to stop! They could have the whole of April for just two weeks of September but, no.”

Whatever the controversy surrounding the dates, three hours after the first high tide of the season the whammel boats make their way down river to the ‘baiting bouys’ in the estuary. Once there, starting from one side of the channel, the fisherman makes his way across river, paying his net out as he goes. On reaching the far side, the sail is lowered and boat and net drift down on the ebb for about one mile. Beyond this there is a shallow bar across the river bed and the net must be hauled in to avoid snagging. Once across, another shot will be made before hauling in and heading back up for another go. On the spring tide, the first boat may get five shots before the tide is in flood, the last boat only three. On a neap, no boat will manage more than one or two before the tide turns.

The idea of whammelling is to meet the salmon coming up river to spawn. To the layman it sounds easy – just drifting down while the fish swim into the net – in truth it is highly skilled work. Despite being about 300′ long (100m) and 12′ deep (3.7m) the nets are very light. To hold them in shape, they are kept bouyant along the top with floats and held down with small weights along the bottom. Both boat and net must be controlled in a line across the channel as they drift down tide: if the net goes faster, it will collapse in the middle, if the reverse is allowed to happen it will stream uselessly behind the boat. For Tom and Harold this means keeping the oars shipped and dipping them to speed up of slow down. Toward low water, the net is allowed to curve to a U. Harold explained: “It doesn’t matter if your net ends are in the slack because for a while the fish come down to meet the flood – if you’ve got a U shape, they’ll swim down into the narrow.”

When a fish swims into the net,the floats will put together and, when two or three are caught, the fisherman will haul them in. Catches vary depending on the tide, weather and time of the season but Harold “can tell you every fish I’ve caught in m’life nearly. Taking it over a season, I suppose it’s an average of nearly 200 – enough for a living.”

Lune Pilot Thumb

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