Sailing into the oceans’ domain | Sunday Observer

Sailing into the oceans’ domain

Men sorting out fish on pier
Men sorting out fish on pier

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go” - T.S.Eliot

Beruwela has been a desired tourist destination for decades. The small fisheries harbour located a short distance from the main town is an interesting venue, the base of fishing trawlers. For decades it has been a haven for local seafarers. As we walked along the pier there were at least 50 plus trawlers berthed, some unloading their catch of deep sea fish and other crews getting ready to launch. Boat crews were exchanging information on weather conditions. The strong smell of fish had attracted crows and other marine birds. We even spotted a few large pelicans, standing with pomp on the wooden pier. One of the first boats we climbed onto was a trawler painted bright yellow and red.

Two men were folding the green nylon fishing nets, the speed and dexterity of their hands reflecting their seafaring experience. The bearded skipper, Sarath was busy supervising the crew as they got ready to leave on an 18 day voyage. We introduced ourselves, and he went onto say, “We sail for a duration of two weeks and sometimes can go up to about 18 days.”

“As you can see our five man crew has all the provisions they need- including rice, dried fish, vegetables, spices, tea and drinking water. I have been sailing for almost 18 years. Today, we are sailing towards the sea of Trincomalee”. Navigating the ocean from Beruwela to Trincomalee is quite a challenge, he said.

The large trawler has computer based GPS, quite an advanced navigation feature for these fishing boats, whose crew once relied on coastal landmarks for direction.

The crew has confined resting areas, and most of them can cook. Perhaps the main place of value on the trawler is the storage section below the deck which can hold almost 10,000 Kg of fish. Sarath adds “We take loads of ice, which is used to keep our catch fresh until we return to harbour.

The sea has her own temperament, she can be calm or turn turbulent. We have witnessed the sea in her fury. Every voyage has its own risk, and our families are aware of this” We climb back to the pier. The trawler is now ready to leave.

A crew member in his fifties, his forearms displaying tattoos, pulls the heavy rope which had secured the boat to its mooring point. A fat tabby cat resting on the boat’s stern makes a jump back onto the pier! The engine is revved up and the trawler eases its way out into the ocean. The tattooed fisherman spat his chewed betel into the water.

The trawler sounds her horn twice, perhaps, a customary exit ritual. Skipper Sarath waved as the trawler cruised forward in anticipation of a rewarding catch. It reminded me of a phrase from Ernest Hemingway’s book -The Old Man and the Sea ” A man can be destroyed but not defeated”.

We walked along the other side of the pier, and there was a mild drizzle. Soon puddles of water collect on the cement floor. Another trawler has returned to harbour and her crew was busy unloading the prized catch. A bare bodied sailor with a long beard, somewhat reflecting the style of a heavy metal rock artiste, stood on the deck. He used a bamboo pole, to slowly loosen up the fish from the storage section. Two others are busy inspecting the fish.

The fishermen seemed to know from ‘touch’ the condition of each fish. The ‘good quality’ fish are handed over to a man on the pier who sorted them according to size and placed the fish in green plastic crates. The youngest crew member clad in jeans asked me to take his photo. This talkative man narrated the recently concluded long voyage, and how he enjoyed going out to sea. He claimed to have a facebook account, and was surprised that I didn’t have one!

While we enjoy this display of teamwork a truck moves into position and the green crates are quickly loaded. More ice is added on top of the crates.

A calico cat sits nearby and is fed with a small fish. The crew tells us that the prices of the fish vary according to the season. Some voyages are apparently very lucrative in terms of revenue. Once the fish are unloaded the crew began to wash the cargo hold, scrubbing vigorously. Subsequently, the entire deck area is washed. The calico cat wandered off in search of another trawler.

On the ‘landside’ of the harbour there are a few vendors selling the ‘rest from the best’- they bargain and buy an assortment of fish which is not taken in the refrigerated trucks. However, this market is not as vibrant as Negombo.

Adjacent to the car park we encountered a tea kiosk. This is the spot where the boat crews sipped tea and shared their jokes.

Itis a gathering point for everyone associated with the harbour. I doubt if the next generation would take to this business of going to sea in trawlers. It is a concern for the present day crew as well.

The work of these boat crews must be dignified and appreciated by society. After all, they face great risks to bring in our tantalizing seafood. In countries like Norway and USA deep sea boat crews earn well and enjoy a much better lifestyle.

An old fisherman with only one eye, resembling a character from a pirate movie was folding a portion of tobacco.

For these hard working people there is no retirement. They would probably sail into the sunset or find lasting rest in Davy Jones locker. We walked towards the car park. Suddenly the skies unleash torrents of rain.

The salty wind added to the inclement weather. To the seasoned seafarers it is part of their work routine. They stood in the deluge, chatting. Thus the deep sea trawlers and their crew journey in and out of this important harbour. It is a place one must experience and enjoy when visiting resplendent Beruwela.

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