In England — Now!: The Fishermen of Selsey
Celebrating English achievement, enterprise and creativity in the 21st century
Selsey in West Sussex has a strong fishing heritage with its fleet of vessels at anchor either side of the slipway by the RNLI’S Lifeboat Station. They are reached each day by small tenders from the beach.
Shellfish is popular with tourists in the summer months, so the fishermen have ample opportunities to source local restaurants and pubs with their daily catches. The Selsey crab has an established name within the fishing industry similar to that of Cromer in Norfolk and Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. It is something that the town’s fishermen are proud of, and the name helps promote their crabs around the region.
Established fishing families including the Langfords, Harveys, Delahauntys, Wilsons, Birketts and Reeves have worked this part of the coast for generations. Grandfather to father to son have carried on fishing from the town’s shingle beaches. Behind the promenade are their working huts where they prepare the shellfish ready for sale — along with a couple of fish wholesalers.
The fishermen know each other well, and do share their concerns relating to the industry. As one fisherman said, “Rest assured if anyone was in trouble at sea, we would all be there to help each other.”
Dan Langford is a 21-year-old third generation fisherman and one of the youngest to fish from Selsey.
“My current boat Rapid Return L177, is a Colvic Fast Cat 38-foot fishing boat that was built in Poole, Dorset, in 1989. I have had it for 15 months after buying it from its previous owner who fished with it from Milford Haven. It is well equipped with two plotters, radar, two VHF radios as well as a GPS Navigator.”
It was at 6am that Dan and his crew Brad Shaw (second hand) and Toby Fairminer (third hand) moved the tender down the timber runners over the gravel bank loaded with bait and supplies into the sea and motored in the darkness towards Rapid Return’s mooring.
After boarding, they got underway. Dan finds his pots by using his Global Positioning System (GPS). The first pot buoy is found with the help of a searchlight and hauled on board. It is teamwork at its best, and all runs smoothly. “One of the problems that we encountered today was that in one haul half of the pots were filled with pungent grey-coloured silt. These pots had no whelks, resulting in no income. It takes us extra time and strength to remove this silt from the heavy-weighted pots,” said Dan.
After four more whelk trawls they went further out into the Channel whilst at the same time bagging up the whelks and washing the deck down and preparing the bait, ready for more pots.
Crabs and lobsters were next on the list. Each pot is opened and the measuring gauge was used. The base skin was also checked for softness and if any did not meet the specification they were returned to the sea.
“It was not a good day,” said Dan as we returned to our mooring. “We were at sea for six hours and caught a quartertonne of whelks, 50 kilos of crabs and five kilos of lobster. Fishing just two miles off the coast we would have expected to do a lot better.
“Once back on the mooring the catch is transferred to the tender and bought back to the shore. The whelks are then dropped off at one of the two fish wholesalers and the crabs and lobsters taken to my dad’s unit, Selsey Willows, where they are shelled and packed by
the experienced Dave and Rhiannon. Once processed they go into our cold storage units ready for delivery to our local outlets.”
Weather is a major problem along this part of the coast. Strong easterly winds mean that at times they need to moor up in Chichester Harbour as they cannot launch from Selsey. “People seem to forget that weather acts as a quota,” explained Dan, “In the past few weeks we have only been able to go to sea for a couple of days. The forecast looks the same next week; later today I will take Rapid Return into Chichester to keep her out of harm’s way.
“Currently we fish within the threemile limit — whelking inside the twomile — then pot between the two- and three-mile. We also go mid-channel to fish for crab and lobsters. It can take up to three hours to get there, and it is very much based on weather and tides. We can stay up to 10 hours. It makes for a very long day, sometimes up to 17 hours with very early starts.”
Dan started fishing at the age of 15, going out with his dad in their Orkney 21 ft. Fast Liner called Lauren Dan.
“It was too small for the both of us so the next step was to get a Holton 24 called Coralie Dawn from Alderney in the Channel Islands.”
They fished that for four years prior to getting their current boat Rapid Return.
“We needed this as we had to go a lot further out into the Channel — it has proved to be an excellent and reliable working boat. I am glad I made the decision to follow my dad — I have no regrets going into fishing. I like it but like any job there are worries. It’s hard work and you know you have got to earn money all the time. My partner Isla who comes from a fishing family background and I want to settle down together and eventually get our own house. I think she knows what she is taking on,” said Dan with a smile.
The future is what it is all about with the Langford family. Grandfather Michael still likes to keep his eye on things.
“My how things have changed now the family is in its third generation. I started fishing by working with a fisherman called Bert Holm; we used willow pots attached to seven-fathom lines with corks at every fathom. Sometimes we used to say ‘It’s a soldier’s wind’ and then put our sails up — we did not have a lot of pots like they use now — 10 was often our maximum and being willow there were often issues retrieving them. In my day more people went prawning with a small ketch; there were more punts, as we called them, rather than crabbers.
“We used to come in and then get on our bikes and cycle seven miles into Chichester with our prawns and put them on the train to Billingsgate Fish Market, then cycle back home, which we did every time we went to sea.”
Richard, his son, came in with him and they had a French crabber called Pisces, and worked together for eight years. “It does not happen now. After school the children used to come down and help out on the fishing boats, washing them down, unloading fish and at times going to sea. Sadly now it appears to be computer games and mobile-phone texts.”
Selsey lifeboat has played an important part in the family with all having been crew members; Dan is currently on the crew. There is a new boathouse to house the latest designed Shannon lifeboat which will launch from the beach (see the article on page 69).
There are exciting plans for the future for the Langfords: an expansion into the regional farmers’ markets.
“It is something we have been looking at for a while now,” said Richard. “I recently acquired from retired fisherman Shaun Connors his company called Selsey Willows Seafood. In the New Year I will concentrate on running this side of the business whilst Dan will run Langford Lobsters.
“Farmers’ markets seem to be part of community life across the region and I will be visiting about 12 of them a month in Sussex and Surrey. The idea is to take the fish direct to the customer, cutting out the middle man. People love fresh fish and if laid out and presented properly on a nice market stall it attracts a lot of interest. People visit these markets to buy a full range of country produce, and we fit nicely into this.”
The Fishermen of Selsey
Toby carefully packs and stacks the crab and lobster pots on the deck.
Returning an undersized crab to the sea.
Michael, who fished in the days of sail. Dan, Brad and Toby aboard Rapid Return.
Shaun Connors (left) and Richard Langford at Chichester Farmers’ Market on the Selsey Willows Seafood stall.
The crew work together to haul pots, riddle the whelks and put fresh bait in the pots.