On the third Saturday in June, Brixham’s fishing fleet lets its hair down in the famous annual Trawler Race. Mike Warner gets right up close to the action aboard the Lady Maureen.
I have longed to go afloat on a trawler under steam. Of all the craft that ply their trade on the high seas, fishing vessels – be they trawlers, seiners, gill netters, scallopers, potters or drifters – hold an allure for me. So imagine how I’m feeling on arrival at Brixham Harbour, resplendent in a new polo shirt that bears my allotted vessel’s name – Lady Maureen (BM 7) – for the famous annual Trawler Race.
This much-loved maritime pageant has its roots in the days of sail: back in the early 20th century, sailing trawlers competed annually for the prestigious King George V Cup. Steam superseded sail and when, after a break during the Second World War, racing was resurrected in the 1960s it was with the diesel-engined trawlers that were then working the ports around the UK.
Today, the excitement is building like a looming squall as the Lady Maureen’s guests pile the day’s “nourishment” by the case and crate load on to any available space on deck. Then Skipper Dave appears at the open wheelhouse window, sounds her siren and, amid mounting cheers, nudges her bow away from the adjacent Kerry Marie’s hull and glides her toward the open sea and the circuit.
As we clear the breakwater, more sirens follow us as our competitors slowly peel away from their berths and follow our track into Tor Bay, their bunting fluttering like multi-coloured spring leaves in the morning breeze.
We steam slowly toward Berry Head and the assembly area, where the fleet gathers and steams in line abreast as a tribute to Jock Strike, fellow skipper and Brixham legend, who died recently at the premature age of 57. As the boats pass the end of the breakwater, the skippers all sound their horns sound together. It’s a moving tribute to their departed colleague.
Leaving the breakwater astern, the boats then shuffle up to the starting line, each skipper having been assigned their own start time. This year, 17 “beamers”, beam trawlers, and four smaller under-10m day boat vessels will be racing in various classes over the course, which is two clockwise laps around Tor Bay. The race is run on a handicap system: each skipper considers the distance and speed of his boat and estimates his fastest time. The slowest start first and the fastest last, so they all race toward the finishing line together, and when the spray has settled, the skipper in each class who gets closest to their estimated time wins.
As the Lady Maureen’s zero hour arrives, Dave Langdon pushes forward the throttle and, with a belch of diesel exhaust from her funnel, suddenly we’re under way. As we steam purposefully towards Paignton and Torquay, the Dutch pulse trawler Jan van Toon (TX-36) gains ground abaft of us to port. A welcome visitor to Brixham for many years now, she is an integral part of the proceedings and plays an important role as an ambassador to the Dutch fleet.
As I move round the vessel from wheelhouse to fo’c’sle, it’s clear that for many this is rapidly turning into a maritime drinks party. Laughter and merriment are the order of the day and the whole atmosphere is incredibly intoxicating.
In the wheelhouse I manage to grab a few more words with the skipper. I ask him just what the race means to the men who work this mixed fishery. Speaking in his lilting Devonian burr, he tells me of memories of races past.
“I’ve got a picture of me sitting in my pram on the deck of the original Angel Emiel skippered by my Dad’s mate Jonny Perkes. The race is really a celebration of Brixham fishing, of everything that we do here and we all love it. It’s a chance for skippers, crew and their families and friends to get together and to have a few beers!”
As I make my way back for’ard I glimpse the fastest boat in the fleet the Christina (FD100) overtaking us to starboard, whilst on the port beam the Carhelmar (BM23) and Our Lady Lou (BM110) jockey for position. Pleasure craft are darting in and out of the race field, some with crews in fancy dress, some motoring at speed and hitting our wakes, bumping off in clouds of spray.
The various fishing boats’ engines are building to maximum revs as the skippers seek out their best track. On the bridge, our crew are in constant contact with other vessels and Race Control over the VHF: the ensuing banter is legendary, ribald and jocular remarks being batted to and fro, resulting in gales of laughter that fill the wheelhouse.
The sight of so many working vessels in formation is stirring to say the least. I’m beginning to understand why the people of Brixham, even those unconnected with fishing, go to such lengths to include themselves in this wonderful festival that for 24 hours takes over their town.
I take another tour of the boat and have a beer thrust into my hand by one of the crew, who, grinning, hates to see me short. I have a quick chat with Barry Young, Chief Auctioneer and MD at Brixham Trawler Agents – and the man who got me on board today. “I’ve been working here for just over 20 years,” says Barry. “I started washing fish boxes on the quayside aged 16, spent time at sea as a deckhand and worked for my skippers ticket in my early 20s. But unfortunately a bout of epilepsy meant I had to stay ashore.
“My dream was to become a skipper, but instead I’m now heading up the market, which really is the next best thing. Brixham has the finest quality mixed fishery anywhere in the southwest and we take massive pride in everything we do. Our industry is continually under pressure, but our guys continue to perform. We’re efficient, innovative, responsible and sustainable – that’s what we’re about.”
Looking out to sea again, I can see we’re on the final leg. There are trawlers ahead and abaft, diesels hammering, every last knot being squeezed out of them, in a final effort to make their time. The Lady Maureen heels over hard a’ starboard, cutting the buoy close, and we’re all done. Throttles back, revs drop, and our race is over.
We slowly motor to the fish quay and take our berth alongside the Barentszee (BM 361), placed second last year, where the party has begun in earnest as they wait for the results to come in. By now completely overawed, I extend my heartfelt thanks to Dave Langdon and Barry Young and wish them all the best. Later, back on shore, while I’m pondering on the day over a large bowl of moules frites, someone asks me if I’d come again next year? “Well, of course I’ll have to,” I say without thinking. “I’m now part of it…”
Brixham Trawler Race results 2015
1st Carhelmar (Skipper Gerry Podschies)
2nd Emily Rose (Skipper Arthur Dewhirst)
3rd Barentszee (Skipper Gibbs)
1st Danielle (Skipper Peter McLeod)
2nd Sylvia T (Skipper Antony Shine)
3rd Van Dijck (Skipper Andy McLeod)
1st Joanna C (Skipper Derek Meredith)
2nd Saint Pierre (Skipper Fred Broome)
3rd Mysha Lucy (Skipper Andy Cutler)
1st Redshank (Skipper Dennis Kimble)
Smartest start Lady Lou
Best finish Jan Van Toon
Best dressed vessel Christina Conoco
Highest value catch Barentszee
Most race entries Dennis Kimble
Oldest working fisherman Dennis Kimble
Best visiting boat Jan Van Toon
Mike Warner is an ardent seafood fan who blogs at A Passion for Seafood. He is based in Suffolk and finds inspiration from the diversity of life in Britain’s inshore and shallow seas. Mike is a supporter of the under-10m fishing fleet, advocate of sustainably-caught fish and shellfish, and fount of maritime knowledge.