Fairweather sailor Jonathan Lee takes to the high seas on a restored Victorian fishing trawler and discovers some war-time secrets.
The bow plunges, kisses the spume, and rears skywards. We hang in the air for a second, dip, then soar again. I jam my foot against a rail to steady myself and untie the staysail sheet.
A wave floods the foredeck. My rope, half free of its fastening, becomes an angry hydra, snapping hungrily at my fingers. I fix my eyes on the horizon, trying to quell a creeping queasiness.
And this is meant to be a leisurely day out.
I’m sailing on Pilgrim, a wooden fishing trawler built in Devon in 1895.
Pilgrim is the oldest Brixham-built sailing trawler still operating today: 106 glorious tonnes of English oak, Douglas fir, larch and Canadian Pine. In late Victorian times, up to 300 such boats plied the waters out of Brixham, making the town home to one of the largest sailing trawler fleets in the world.
With local fish stocks dwindling, Pilgrim was designed to head further afield into deeper waters and rougher swells. She helped revolutionise the industry, eschewing ‘longline’ fishing – where hundreds of baited hooks were hung from single lines – to trawl the sea bed using a single net attached to a 40-ft beam. These trawlers scooped tonnes of turbot, plaice, brill, monkfish and sole from around the South West, the Isles of Scilly, the Irish Sea and the North Sea.
Standing on deck I have a sense of Pilgrim’s scale: 74.5 feet bow to stern, 17.5 feet in the beam (across the middle bit of the boat); two mighty masts and seven sails in a fair wind.
Pilgrim was commissioned by Silas Pine for £667, seven shillings and sixpence; a vast sum for a 28-year-old skipper.
She was typically crewed by just four souls: three men and a boy. We too have a four-strong crew today but have left the nets at home to embark on a day sail along the coast.
There are four of us ‘visitors’, each with a personality worthy of an Agatha Christie plot: the Accident-Prone Yachty (“I once ran into a spot of bother on the rocks you know”); the Kitted-Out Pragmatist (“These trousers are just marvellous at keeping out the cold”); The Enthusiastic One, and me. The Enthusiastic One bounces on deck sporting a purple pixie hat with built-in pigtails. She’s never been on a boat before. Oh, and she can’t swim but is taking lessons.
After a safety briefing and life jacket fitting, we chug across Brixham harbour under twin 120 BHP engines. I wave to pastel-hued terraces. Terns and black-backed gulls caw and swoop. The clouds throw a gelatine-silver haze.
The first mate says we can help out or sit back and enjoy the ride, it’s up to us. We are all keen and so are soon hauling out the bowsprit in a tug-of-war: “Two, six, heave! Two six, heave!” bellows the first mate. We puff and pull. The 34-foot bowsprit clunks into place. Pilgrim looks a piratical picture.
Next, raising the mainsail. We swing on the halyards like novice bellringers, using our weight to hoist the billowing ochre canvas up 72 feet of mainmast. “She’s stuck – tied on somewhere!” The snag is unpicked, we heave again and the sail is in place, casually catching the steady force five breeze in her palm.
To a weekend dinghy sailor like me, these are “let’s stay in port and do some varnishing” conditions. But Pilgrim is a sturdy sea trawler: she needed a force six puff to pull her nets along the sea bed.
We glide across Torbay harbour, fringed by red sandstone cliffs and rejuvenated seaside resorts. This is a safe haven of flat water and steady breeze. Pilgrim’s timbers creak reassuringly. I flex my knees in synch with her gentle rise and ebb. I inhale the Devon air and start to muse: was I a sailor in a previous life? I was born to this.
How wrong I was.
Minutes later we are nosing past Berry Head and conditions shift. This headland marks the gateway to the English Channel: you can still visit two 18th-century forts, built here to repel an imagined invasion by the French.
Blue-grey calm is replaced by a complex weave of current and counter current. The wind gathers pace. Pilgrim gets into her stride, troughing and rising with the swell.
Accident-Prone Yachty leaps to his feet: “I’m going to be ill!” He is guided to the stern, clipped to a line and left to commune with the depths. Kitted-Out Pragmatist is unflustered. The Enthusiastic One snaps away on her phone: “This is brilliant!” She has the best sea legs of us all.
I fix my gaze on the horizon. The nausea comes and goes. I flex into the next lull, wondering how fishermen cope with this relentless motion. “Lunch soon anyone?” offers one of the crew brightly. Maybe later.
These trawlers usually spent five or six days at sea, speeding back to port in time to sell their still-bright-eyed catch. Some brave souls endured forays lasting months, using couriers to bring their catches back to shore before heading back into the fray.
It was gruelling work. The lad cooked, tidied all gear away, mended nets and even helmed, all without pay. The crew sifted their catch on deck by hand, swiftly filleting and gutting, before sending their piscine prizes down below into ice-lined baskets.
Suddenly the skipper — a storm-proof South African with muscles hewn of Dartmoor granite — hollers “ready about!” and the crew leaps into action. “Lee ho!” shouts skip and the booms swings, the foresails dance, the boat sweeps a wide 180-degree arc and magically we are heading back towards the bay. The leaden sky fractures into slivers of silver and blue. A dolphin leaps on our port side, guiding us on our new course.
Calmer waters mean lunch. It’s not piping hot stew, but simple fare of sarnies and orange juice. I pick on a crisp, discover I have an appetite and wolf down the lot with no ill effects.
A couple more forays back and forth, with us visitors taking turns at the oak helm, and we are ready to anchor for tea. The spot of choice is Elberry Cove, one of Agatha Christie’s favourite beaches and a location in her Poirot novel The ABC Murders.
By the time Christie was writing her first novels, Brixham’s glory years of sailing trawlers were all but over due to the advent of steam power. In 1912, Silas Pine saw his beautiful vessel sell for just £165 at auction.
Chequered years of utility followed: an engine-powered Pilgrim lugged sugar beet and ice, brick and stone around the Baltic and North Sea. During World War II she shipped guns for the Norwegian resistance, came under enemy fire and bore the bullet holes to prove it.
In 1943, it’s believed Pilgrim sailed to Germany to deliver a slab of granite for a statue. The intended subject? Adolf Hitler, although the likeness was most likely never carved. Pilgrim then fell into disrepair before a group of Brixham trawler enthusiasts stepped in with a 14-year restoration programme.
We glide back to port past modern trawlers, their echosounders, icemakers and cutting-edge hydraulics helping land more than £30m of fish a year here.
We disembark. Accident-Prone Yachty has largely revived and looks almost human. Kitted-Out Pragmatist remains as cool as a proverbial sea cucumber. The Enthusiastic One is grinning from ear to ear and deems it one of the best experiences of her life.
We have learned a little of the extraordinary feats of trawlers and trawlermen, past and present. Above all, we have a new-found, deep respect for the sea.
Pilgrim sails along the Devon and Cornwall coast and to the Isles of Scilly, the Channel Islands and to France. She sleeps up to 10 guests. www.pilgrimofbrixham.org.uk