Watery Reflections: Part 1
I was lucky and fully appreciate I had a privileged upbringing which enabled me to become a skipper. When I say privileged, I didn't come from money (although that would have helped), but from an early age, I was taken fishing by my dad. He was a charter skipper long before I was born and so I was brought up on my dad's charter boats. Really to tell you my story, I feel I should first tell you a bit about dad's story.
Dad, Stuart Belbin, grew up in Upminster. Where my grandad was a keen angler, he took my dad and his two brothers angling from a young age. This would have mostly been freshwater fishing near his home. My nan and grandad acquired a beach hut in West Mersea when he was very young. With a front-row beach hut, it was only a matter of time before they invested in a small rowing boat to fish from. As the years went on the rowing boats progressed into larger dinghies such as their Shetland Suntrip.
With the Shetland being fast, he could now fish further out and tow it to other places if he wanted. While he had this Shetland, named Miss Grace after my nan, he got his first licence (of sorts) in 1973. Being licenced meant he was able to take small parties, up to 4 people, out for the day with him. During the ownership of Miss Grace, he made some good friends who were also running Shetland's at the time such as Paul Maris, Richard Parkinson and Nobby Clarke. Both Paul and Richard later became some of my many godparents. Eventually, dad and grandad traded in their Shetland for their first inboard boat. The Miss Grace ǁ, their second vessel, it was a 26ft clinker boat with an aft wheelhouse. It is at this point that timings get a bit sketchy in Dads memory so if anybody can help that would be great cheers.
At some point in the mid to late 70's the Miss Grace ǁ was chopped in for the Crusader which was dads first boat on his own. She was another clinker boat, this time a 36ft Naval Pinnace which he had the wheelhouse arrangement changed on to make more suitable for angling. One of the local boatyards has a hull the same as the Crusader called the Norden which they use as a harbour launch. Dad was taking regular parties by now as well as working other jobs too. By the early 80's nan and grandad had sold their house in Upminster and moved to Mersea. Dad was still living with them at this point. The Crusader wasn't a big boat for the length although she was 'of her time'.
With his boat now fairly well booked he invested in something with a bit more room for angling parties this came in the form of the Researcher. This boat was another clinker vessel. Although this one was 32ft, she offered a nice clear deck with plenty of room. The Researcher was still moored in Mersea until a few years ago, and I always thought she had nice lines. He kept the Researcher until the mid-'80s. Angling had seen a few changes during those ten years or so, with people like John Rawle and Bob Cox bringing boat casting to us and putting Bradwell, opposite Mersea, firmly on the angling map. The Blackwater and surrounding area had some fantastic sport to offer at this time. The Bradwell boats made headlines with some of the tremendous catches of bass they had seen offshore. With thornback rays in the spring and autumn, hounds and tope in the summer and some massive stingrays to name a few. In the winter they could offer the cod fishing from the Blackwater right off to the barrows. As ever the blackwater estuary was a great asset and meant they could fish in all but the worst conditions. The boats from Mersea had access to the same rich waters with all of the benefits and had a healthy number of charter boats too.
Dad was quite well booked and established by now. The boat was pretty good in its day, and the lads caught fish. By this time he also had a licence to sell fish onboard too, which was quite common among charter boats back then. When he wasn't booked, he would often work with his friend Derek Mole sometimes using gill nets but often using longlines. They would take turns with who's boat they would use and hand hauled the lines. As they progressed, they invested in baiting machines and line haulers. These lines were baited with squid, and it was the high-quality Falkland's squid they used, which found its way onto their charter boats. The squid soon proved to catch many different species and is now a must-have bait on most charter boats.
By now, Dad had several regular parties, some of whom he had known for years. Paul Maris was one such angler; I know it's generous to refer to him as an angler. Dad and Paul had been friends back when they both had Shetland Suntrips and used to trail them around. Paul now fished on Dad's charter boat regularly as well as many other parts of the country. The story goes that they were doing a 24hr trip offshore, cruising at 8knts as this was the best way to make the most of an offshore trip, they fished the Knock at first which is around 30 miles out. With the weather very fine and some keen, experienced anglers on board dad suggested they try punching a further 10 miles out to the next bank the 'Galloper'. It was now somewhere around 1984/85 and at 40 miles out this area was near enough untouched. With most boats having limited navigational equipment, limited sea keeping and limited speed they didn't head this far out. Plus, there was usually no need to. On this first trip, they anchored on the bank its self and on a calm summers day they had numerous decent cod along with an unexpected variety of fish. On that first trip off there, without trying, they had over 15 different species of fish.
This first trip set the wheels in motion for Dad to move up a gear and invest in a faster, more modern boat, and he had always wanted an Aquastar. First made back in the '70s, both Aquastar and Lochin were the boat to have. Looking back today, most well-known skippers had one of these boats at some point back then. To get one of these, he would be stretching himself financially and had to offer a share to one of his good mates; Steve Bateman, also to later become one of my many godparents. After searching around, he found what he was looking for in the shape of the Deva. She was a twin-engine Aquastar 32, one of two built for Trinity House - the other being the Tamesis which ran from Plymouth for many years. They had been made to go alongside navigation buoys so, in turn, were very heavily built and a high spec. These boats had a short career with Trinity House, and by the time dad bought the Deva, she was under private ownership in Scarborough. She cruised at a much faster 12knt rather than 8knts, and this speed would make these offshore trips more sensible. By now, he made a couple more runs off to the bank and was keen to try some of the surrounding wrecks. He did just that, and it was a resounding success, over the next few years he gained a lot of publicity for big catches of cod, ling and pollock around the Galloper and beyond. He was particularly thankful to keen anglers such as Paul Maris and Dave (whiskers) Puclil for putting the time and effort in with him on these exploratory trips. Several magazine articles followed, and I will post one we have written by a certain Mick Toomer at some point.
It was around this time that mum and dad were blessed with me. The Deva features in some of my earlier memories. Some are of being aboard, stood on deck as a toddler unable to see over the gunwales. Others are of bright sunny afternoons walking along Coast Road with mum to meet dad as he came ashore. Dozens of noisy gulls would follow Dad as the lads would often still be gutting cod after a 3-4hr steam home! Dad had some cracking hits of fish on the wrecks, as you can see in a few of the pictures.
He may be an old fart now, but it's fair to say Dad was undeniably my hero as a child. As well as bringing home some enormous catches of fish and running, what to my mind was, the best charter boat in the port - I literally can't remember any others from this time. When he wasn't on the boat, he would be coxswain on the lifeboat, a race marshal on the British rallycross and working other jobs when he wasn't at sea. Back at home he had my two brothers and I to keep him and mum busy. I don't know how they had the time! By 1992 with interest rates stupidly high, a young family at home and after a succession of bad weather, it looked like the Deva would have to go. Dad says he had enough of paying the bank managers wages and needed more financial stability. The Deva went to Ireland where she has stayed to this day. She now has a single Caterpillar engine in her.
There was a short break after he sold the Deva before a friend of his, Don Taylor, who used to fish with him, asked if he would run a boat for him. A couple of other people had offered before, to no avail, but this time he came through. Now he would be running another Aquastar, this time a later 33ft model purpose made with a slightly shorter wheelhouse for angling. The wrecking continued, as did the inshore boat casting trips. At this point, I was a few years older, and I have slightly more memories of the Silver Lady. I can remember a bit of fishing and being a bit older and taller and could just about see over the gunwales now. I vividly remember being on board when dad would run trips to the Ross Revenge aka Radio Caroline. It's funny, as the Ross has now returned to the Blackwater and Dad is once again running trips to her. When I went back, I could even remember much of the layout. Running the Silver Lady worked fairly nicely for both Dad and Don. Unfortunately, once again, finances put a stop to the fishing as the stock markets crashed, and once again, financial stability was needed. The Silver Lady was sold and went to Belgium, Dad and Don delivered her in some awful weather, which only helped to further Dads trust in these boats for their sea keeping abilities.
I have chosen here as an excellent point to break this into two parts. The second part will follow soon.