Part 1: History of the men and their boats

(Originally published in the January 2019 issue of Ski-Boat magazine)
By Johan Smal

GENETICALLY encoded by Mother Nature, the prerequisite for any living being to exist principally revolves around three indispensable needs; survival, nourishment and reproduction. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. From the first recorded invention — documented as the construction of a shelter some 500 000 years ago — until this modern era of nano technology, the human race and its exponential progression has thrived on this very same principle. Fishing is no exception. In this series of articles I have tracked the evolutionary routes of fishermen, leading up to the contemporary chukkie linefishermen who ply their trade at the southernmost tip of Africa.
In 2017 we published a series of articles called “Secrets of the Yellowtail” (see May/June 2017 to November/
December 2017 issues of SKI-BOAT magazine). While drafting those articles, in an effort to get information on the idiosyncrasies and circumstances surrounding the yellowtail, we interviewed several Agulhas linefishermen. These discussions augmented our own knowledge and understanding by some 350 years of additional local experience, stretching as far back as 1940. The telling is always as good as the catching and the interviewees were quite forthcoming and eagerly shared their most treasured involvements exploiting those large yellowtail shoals. The footprints of their efforts and attentiveness catching and working those large feisty specimens were clearly visible on those weather-worn faces. At times their body language spoke louder than their words.
For those commercial linefishermen, handlining yellowtail (among other species) was their lifelong occupation. It’s a job that’s greatly reliant on the weather and demands special skills which have been honed into a very fine art. These skills, handed down by their ancestors, have allowed them to make a living from the sea. Buttressed by the fact that many of them are still using old-styled fishing platforms — boats called chukkies — and purposely retaining the original handlining methodology, they are in fact a very unique category — a special breed of finfish gatherers. These deliberations were also a stark reminder that their total existence and that of their families is entirely dependent on the bounty of the oceans. Sadly, this dependence is based on resources which have lost some 95% of their original biomasses and which are still declining.
Mindful of their particular quest, fortified by their great appreciation and respect for the treacherous waters surrounding the southern tip of the dark African continent, they remain dedicated to continuing to catch these fish well into the future. However, most of these fishermen are older individuals, with few youngsters entering the pipeline to follow in their parents’ footsteps. They have, in fact, been branded as “a declining breed” these handlining commercial chukkie fishermen.
Their story had to be told at some stage, I concluded, and that time is now … Part 1 of this series will deal mostly with the evolution of fishing in general, the associated fishing gear and propulsion of offshore fishing craft.

Along with hunting, fishing originated as a means of providing food for survival. It is therefore generally accepted that subsistence fishing originated some 500 000 years ago. Back then it consisted of catching fish by hand or by using rudimentary tools made from natural materials, of which no trace remains.
Anatomically modern human beings (Homo sapiens) have been eating seafood for at least 164 000 years. Caves in South Africa contain the very earliest evidence for humans consuming shallow-water fish, since some 140 000 years ago. The people of that time lived a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but their permanent settlements, shell middens, discarded fish bones and cave paintings show that they fished extensively in salt- and freshwater.
Fishing only really developed after the appearance of Homo sapiens sapiens around 40 000 years ago. Very little is known about the different fishing practices at that time, but a Chinese account written around the fourth century BC refers to fishing with a silk line, a hook made from a needle, and a bamboo rod with cooked rice used as bait. References to fishing around those times are also found in ancient Greek, Assyrian, Roman, and Jewish writings.

The history of tackle runs parallel to the history of fishing. Fish hooks have been employed by fishermen since ancient times. They played such a cardinal role in the evolution of fishing that in 2005 the fish hook was chosen by Forbes magazine as one of the top twenty tools in the history of mankind.
The world’s oldest discovered fish hooks, made from sea snails shells, were discovered in Sakitari Cave on Okinawa Island, and dated back somewhere between 22 380 and 22 770 years. They are older than the fish hooks from the Jerimalai cave in East Timor which were estimated to be between 16 000 and 23 000 years old. Others found in New Ireland in Papua New Guinea, are between 18 000 and 20 000 years old These findings also provided some proof that fishing was a universal activity dating back to antiquity.
The predecessor of the fishhook was called a “gorge” — a prehistoric invention that’s still being used in survival excursions today. Sharply pointed at both ends, the device consisted of a long, thin piece of wood, bone or stone with a line attached around its midpoint. The gorge was covered with some kind of bait, and when a fish swallowed it, a pull on the line wedged it across the gullet of the fish, which could then be pulled in. With the line constructed of animal or plant material, the method was only effective when used from a fishing platform, be it fixed or movable. The practice of attaching the line to a rod — at first probably a stick or tree branch — made it possible to also fish from the bank or shore and even to reach over vegetation bordering the water.
Eventually, with the advent of metals, the hook was one of the first tools made. Improved methods of making fish hooks were devised in the 1650s by Charles Kirby. Later he also invented the Kirby bend, a distinctive shape of hook with an offset point that is still in common use worldwide. The use of a landing hook (gaff) for lifting large hooked fish from the water, was first noted by Barker in 1667.

We know that most ancient populations were dependent on fishing, but we don’t know when fishing line was invented. As with many other things, these lines were also made of materials that did not survive the centuries. We do, however, know that already around 3000 BC the Chinese used line made of silk for angling. This widely used commodity was brought to the Western society via the “Silk Road” around 200 BC. It was also reported that some people used woven cotton made from the fibres of the cotton plant or linen made from flax fibres from the flax plant, with early American Indians also using plants and stalks to make fishing line. The Norse allegedly made their line from sea grasses and stalks.
In 1667 the diarist Samuel Pepys wrote that fishing line was also made of animal gut material. Fisherman Col. Robert Venables reported in 1676 that lute string (a silk fabric of high sheen, formerly used in the manufacture of dresses) was also used. When fishing became popular in Europe in the 15th century, the fishermen in England used braided horsehair for line. This line used to wear out quickly, though, with individual strands breaking and finally leading to line failures.
The horsehair was replaced by silk line in 1908. Also woven, the silk threads were long, much stronger than horsehair and could be made by machines. The downside, however was that it had to be rinsed and dried on open spools after every use. It was also susceptible to damage by the sun’s ultraviolet light. Linen line also appeared and was mainly used for catching big game fish. However, linen line was also susceptible to wear and UV light damage.
Eventually a very peculiar solution was devised to counter the degeneration of these lines — pig’s blood! The lines were regularly covered with the substance, rigorously steamed and wiped clean, a practice widely accepted and applied by the local fishermen. When available, sheep’s blood was also used. Although I’m personally ignorant about the biological processes at work here, reports from the fishermen are all unanimous — “it worked very well!”
The Second World War brought, amongst other things, many scientific discoveries, inter alia the improvements of synthetic materials from which the first synthetic fishing lines were made. Marketed by Du Pont and well known for its strength, Dacron entered the fishing market during the 1950’s. In 1954 the Du Pont chemists invented nylon and made a braided nylon line, but it was too elastic for fishing. This was then replaced with a monofilament made from a single high-strength line which is still in use today. Today’s lines are almost all made of synthetic materials such as Dacron, nylon, polyvinylidene fluoride, polyethylene, copolymers and fluorocarbon.

When people started to fish in prehistoric times, they used their bare hands to catch the fish in shallow water. As this was not practical in deeper water, someone then invented a contraption consisting of a fishing hook attached to a line. However, fisherman soon realised the difficulty in placing the baited hook in an intended spot, especially when having to reach over some obstacles. This then lead to further advancement with the line tied to the simplest organic stick, most probably a shoot from a plant. The enhanced control also enabled the fisherman to cast the hook and bait much further and more accurately. This particular configuration became popular and was widely used by early civilizations. Based on stone inscriptions dating back to 2000 BC, fishing rods were used in ancient Egypt, China, Greece, Trinidad and Tobago, Rome and medieval England.
For thousands of years, the fishing rod remained short — not more than a few feet in length. The earliest reference to a longer jointed rod came from Roman times during the 4th century AD. There’s also evidence that at that time Macedonians were catching trout on artificial flies and actually described how each fly was dressed. The rod they used was only six feet long and the line the same length, implying that the method used was probably dapping — gently dropping the bait or fly on the surface of the water.
The history of sportfishing in England began around 1496, but the first period of great improvement only came during the mid-17th century. About this time some unknown angler attached a wire loop or ring at the tip end of the rod which allowed them to use a running line which was useful for both casting and playing a hooked fish. Rods were also improved as heavy native woods were replaced by straight-grained, tough, elastic woods such as bamboo and also lancewood and greenheart from South America and the West Indies. By the end of the 18th century a technique had been developed by which several strips of bamboo were glued together, retaining the strength and pliancy of the cane, but greatly reducing the thickness. Between 1865 and 1870 complete hexagonal rods (made by laminating together six triangular strips of bamboo) were produced on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the 20th century, rods became shorter and lighter without sacrificing strength. Eventually split bamboo was replaced by fibre glass and finally by carbon fibre to make the rods we know today.

The necessity for a reel came long after the advent of rods, line and hooks. Apparently the fishing reel was invented in China during the Song dynasty (960–1279 AD), where the earliest known illustration of a fishing rod fitted with a fishing reel was revealed in Chinese paintings and records dated about 1195 AD.
Fishing reels first appeared in England around 1650, the time of growing interest in flyfishing. The first English book on fishing was produced in 1496. Named A Treatise of Fishing with an Angle, it made no mention of a reel. A primitive reel was first cited in the book The Art of Angling published in 1651. By the 1760s London tackle shops were advertising multiplying or gear-retrieved reels and by 1770 a rod with guides for the line along its length and a reel was in common use. The first popular American fishing reel appeared in the USA around 1820.
The first true reel was a geared multiplying reel attached under the rod, in which one turn of the handle moved the spool through several revolutions. In the Nottingham reel the wood was replaced by ebonite (a hard rubber) or metal, so that it became even more free-spinning. However, since the reel revolved faster than the line runoff, a considerable tangle could result. In 1896 William Shakespeare of Kalamazoo, Michigan, devised the level-wind, which automatically spread the line evenly as it was wound on the reel.
In 1880 the firm Malloch, located in Scotland, introduced the first turntable reel which had one side of the spool open. During casting, the reel was turned 90°, bringing it in line with the rod guides so that the line slipped easily off the end of the spool. The reel was used mainly for casting heavy lures for salmon fishing, but it influenced the reel invented by the English textile magnate Holden Illingworth, which the British called a fixed-spool reel and the Americans a spinning reel. In this kind of reel, the spool permanently faces up along the rod and the line peels off during casting. After the 1930s the fixed-spool reel was taken up in Europe and after World War II it created a boom in spin casting in North America and the rest of the world.

The evolution of sportfishing boats has already been dealt with in a comprehensive six-part series (How the Wet was Won) published in SKI-BOAT in 2014 and 2015, so we won’t go into too much detail here.
Boats have served as transportation since very early times. Circumstantial evidence such as the findings in Flores Island near Indonesia suggest that boats have been used since very ancient times. The earliest boats are thought to have been “log-boats”, with the oldest recovered sample in the world being the Pesse canoe, a dugout or hollowed tree trunk made from a Pinus Sylvestris (Scott’s pine) somewhere between 8200 and 7600 BC.
Some 5 000 years ago, the Mesopotamian civilisation was one of the first kingdoms to flourish and they reportedly invented, inter alia, wheels, cuneiform (the earliest form of writing), and most importantly sailboats. Their boat designs were simple with hulls made from natural materials — primarily wood although reed, bark and animal skins were also used. Since then boat design developed steadily to enhance speed, manoeuvrability and cargo load, reflecting unique aesthetic and technological innovations as the industry advanced.
Rowing or sailing by utilising the wind, were the principal means of watercraft propulsion since inception. Sails could be used in favourable winds, but human strength was always the primary method of thrust independent of winds and currents. Destined to transform the status quo for these ways of propulsion forever, the era of mechanisation eventually dawned. Reciprocating piston engines were conceptualised which craftily manipulated the stored energy of compressed steam.
The first steam-powered boat, Perseverance, propelled by a bank of oars on either side of the boat, was engineered in 1787 by John Fitch. He was also the operator of the first steamboat service in the United States. The first iron-hulled steamship, the Aaron Manby, crossed the English Channel in 1822. On her maiden voyage in 1838, the oak-hulled, side-wheel paddle steamer, the SS Great Western was the first purpose-built transatlantic steamship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
The development of the piston-engine steamships was a complex process, but progressed considerably over the rest of the 19th century. Although the first steamboat used oars for propulsion transmitted from the engines’ power, these mechanisms were replaced by paddle wheels, either stern or side-fitted. Although this design was effective on the calm waters of rivers and inland lakes, it was not suited to the open seas. In heavy seas the waves could lift one wheel right out of the water while the other one went right under, unduly straining the engines. They were soon replaced with rear fitted screw type propellers.
As these technologies became reliable, designs were changed for faster and more economic performances. Initially these ocean faring steamships were still fitted with masts, enabling the vessels to hoist auxiliary sails. The sails were not just to provide ancillary propulsion if needed, but were also used in rough seas to keep the ship on an even keel to ensure that both paddle wheels remained in the water, driving the ship in a straight line.
However, sailing remained the dominant form of commercial propulsion until the late nineteenth century, and continued to be used well into the twentieth century on routes where wind was assured and coal was not available.
In the early 20th century, heavy fuel oil came into more general use and began to replace coal as the fuel of choice in steamships. Reciprocating engines were replaced by steam turbines, also fuelled by coal and later, fuel oil or nuclear power. .
The reciprocating marine diesel engine first came into use in 1903 when the diesel electric river-tanker, Vandal, was put into service. Soon after diesel engines offered greater efficiency than the steam turbine, but for many years had an inferior power-to-space ratio. The advent of turbocharging however hastened their adoption, by permitting greater power densities.

And so we come full circle back to much smaller diesel-powered boats closer to home — the chukkies, so-named because of the “chuck, chuck, chuck, chuck” sound made by their inboard diesel engines when starting up.
Their simple, robust design meant they could be manufactured in a reasonably short space of time at relatively low costs. Ideal for their purpose, the chukkies became popular among inshore fishermen for many years to follow, and the Struisbaai and Arniston commercial fishermen still use them extensively. Sadly the remaining boats still in use are out-dated and generally beleaguered by many downsides, and are rapidly reaching the very end of their shelf-life.
In part two of this series we’ll take a closer look at the history of the chuckkie in particular as well as the diligence and ingenuity of the local fishermen needed to stay afloat.

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