Back to basics the Arniston way

(Originally published in the May 2019 issue of Ski-Boat magaine)

By Johan Smal

STILL somewhat dazed, I became aware of the annoying noise from the alarm clock rapidly growing louder. Momentarily despising the piece of technology that kickstarts our daily lives, I felt the onset of that typical euphoric feeling I’ve experienced so many times before. Suddenly wide awake with waves of adrenalin surging through me, I fully comprehended these now solidly ingrained early morning sensations — yellowtail fever! Originating from the Arniston harbour a couple of hundred metres away, short commands and exciting chatter, sporadically masked by short bursts of revving diesel engines, drifted through the bedroom window.
Jumping out of bed and rushing through the usual morning routines, I reflected on the motive for my delight, simultaneously preparing myself for the exciting day which lay ahead. The last time I fished from a chukkie was way back in 1990, the very first time we came to Arniston. This time, almost 30 years on I would be joining Ou Grote’s crew handlining yellowtail the Arniston way!
It was still pitch-dark when I arrived at the slip but the first boat had already been pushed into the surf and was disappearing into the dark beyond. Amidst excited chatter and morning greetings I passed my gear over Ou Grote’s gunnel for stowing by one of the crew members. With her engine’s test starting successfully completed, we rushed through the short prelaunch caucus. In the crisp morning air the poorly-muffled thumping sounds of the stoter’s (tractor) engine was pretty deafening. The tractor driver was busy pulling the individual boats backwards from their parking lots, spinning them around to face the ocean, and then cleverly executed some manoeuvres to position his pusher behind the chukkie for the final shove into the surf. The whole operation was amazingly slick and without incident.

When our turn came, sliding down the slip towards the water with some black smoke spewing from the pusher’s exhaust, Ou Grote’s inboard 80hp Ford engine sprang into life the very moment her bow hit the oncoming surf. With throttles wide open and reaching full speed remarkably soon, we skimmed over the well-lit surf area into the tranquil dark waters behind. In preparation for the 90 minute ride to Skipskop bank, our target area for the day, the crew bedded down into their individually allotted “laaie” (fishing holds).
Only the skipper, who happened to be the owner as well, remained in an upright position, standing behind the wheelhouse with the tiller arm lightly squeezed between his lower legs. Seventy-two-year-old James Murtz (Lulu) has worked these waters for as long as he can remember.
With his head neatly silhouetted against the starry expanse hanging above us, the illumination from the instrument displays and running lights created some eye-catching displays dancing all over his face. Appreciating his well-aged but serious expression I started humming, intuitively, Matt Redman’s song Ten Thousand: “And on that day when my strength is failing; the end draws near and my time has come; still my soul will sing Your praise unending; ten thousand years and then forevermore!”
Sometime later I noted that the long awaited dawn had brightened up the eastern sky sufficiently to unveil the details of a magnificent picture unfolding before our eyes. In front of us stretched the most spectacular panoramic view imaginable — windless shades of orange skies guarding over small lazy turquoise swells blending seamlessly into the calm shiny surface of the great Indian Ocean beyond. Bounded only on the portside by a green shoreline interspersed with snowy white sand dunes, it reminded me of a rainbow; beautiful colours intentionally chosen by Him. Deeply touched by the display, the excitement I felt at being able to fulfil my long awaited wish to fight feisty yellowtail from a chukkie with a handline was simply overwhelming.
The upside of such a long boring voyage during night-time must be the idle time which gives one a chance to muse over all sorts of things. Still watching Lulu’s face, I became acutely aware of Ou Grote’s personality. It’s a living organism, I thought! Watching the white post-scrubber exhaust fumes swirling upwards from the ocean’s surface, I realised that the smell of a diesel fuel spill, exhaust fumes and fishing bait inter alia, are very typical of these boats. I also noticed that the rhythmic hull vibrations were neatly in-sync with an atypical blend of the large propeller cutting into the water and the audible sound of the fast rotating engine intermingled with fluctuating power demands needed to ascend and descend the swells.
Whilst quietly enjoying these stimuli, I pondered over the origin of the term chukkie. Having learned that this style of boat was originally called a chug-chuggy, my unilateral decision to call them as such for the remainder of this exercise, was driven more by sincere sentiments than any other motivation. Fortified by the fact that I was actually travelling on-board the very first GRP chug-chuggy built in Arniston, the sudden rush of pride and honour catapulted my joyous feelings to new heights.
With Ou Grote having been built during 1975 and the rest of the fleet only a few years later, they certainly have stood the test of time and served their masters well. However, after 40 years of service in harsh conditions, often enduring the worst Neptune could throw at them, they have become completely out-dated, badly worn-out and unreliable for the task at hand. With their hulls seriously fatigued and drive-trains failing — particularly those four-decade-old engines, they are in constant need of care just to stay seaworthy and afloat. Unofficially they have been branded as a safety hazard and due to the crews’ fear of getting stuck at sea if their boat breaks down, at least two boats need to go out to sea together.
Glancing over the serene waters surrounding us, I recalled Meirion Williams (a retired and well-known Struisbaai fisherman) once saying, Cape Agulhas waters are not the place for unsound boats, inexperienced skippers or fainthearted crews, as water conditions change very rapidly. The place is legendary for its sudden weather changes with gale-force winds whipping up the sea, generating massive, fast-moving swells exceeding ten metres. No wonder the area gained global reputation as the “Cape of Storms”.
We have to remeber that the GRP chug-chuggy was a state of the art inshore fishing craft at the time it was first built. Furthermore, during their sea trials they were pedantically tested in hostile conditions, and the designs were enhanced and modifications done to improve general performances.
One of the most important aspects was the flat bottom which was imperative for quick floating in shallow waters during launching and beaching, compared to the deep water mooring conditions offered in Struisbaai harbour. Their relatively short lengths and light weights again facilitate easier manoeuvrability on the slip, especially when manhandling is needed when the pusher breaks down.
Although craft up to 50ft in length were manufactured in various locations around South Africa, only 20- and 25ft models were built and put to use in Arniston. They performed well and produced the goods. However, having reached the end of their productive shelf-lives they need to be withdrawn from service. Another major downside is that the pusher, an integral part of the safe launching procedure, is also susceptible to to very high levels of wear and tear and, if it’s not rigorously maintained, prone to long let-downs.
When compared to the new generation powerboats which are able to travel much further distances and get their catch to the markets much faster, it’s obvious there are some downsides to the chug-chuggies. Single engine displacement-type hulls are very slow and take about three times longer to get to the fishing grounds. They also constrain the crews’ ability to quickly move between different banks in search of fish; the crews’ days become much longer. Recreational fishers flocking to the Arniston and Struisbaai banks provide additional competition, especially over weekends and holiday seasons. The Arniston fishermen are therefore in desperate need of contemporary planing-hulled boats which provide enhanced reliability, faster speeds and the ability to be trailered and towed around to other fishing grounds as needed.
Suddenly I got distracted by a large flock of low-flying gannets heading straight towards the Skipskop Bank; that is always a very good sign! However, the sudden bout of excitement quickly dissipated as the birds suddenly chose a different heading.
Still staring at them, I reflected on my mission of delving into the history of the Kassiesbaai fishermen who have very successfully managed to survived the more than 200 year long uphill battle they’ve been combating ever since they started fishing there. Today they are in fact facing very unsure prospects. Aside from their hardware’s deficiencies and shortcomings, the added realities of desecrated marine resources and stricter legislation are certainly driving their livelihoods to a grinding halt.
They’ve reached a serious impasse with a future more uncertain than any challenges faced before, but their well-honed assiduousness, ingenuity and fighting spirit to stay afloat is still very much intact and vibrant. Maybe, just maybe, the Kassiesbaai fishermen might get out of their quandary, hopefully without fatal scarring.
Some distance away from us on Ou Grote the first chug-chuggy had already reached the Skipskop Bank and was carefully probing the two most productive areas where yellowtail normally feed. With shiny spinners attached to handlines pulled behind the boats, now clearly visible in the early morning glow, I once again felt the excitement pushing into my throat. Suddenly an individual on the portside went vas, then another one. Desperate to be engaged myself and wishing that we were on one of those modern speedboats so that we coould get there without further delay, I had no option but to sit it out.
By then Lulu, just as excited as I was, had pushed Ou Grote into overdrive. Clouds of smoke were billowing from the exhaust and, although very eager to respond, the old lady’s speed hardly increased despite the deafening sound of the tonking engine now running at full revs. Momentarily providing some consolation however, full marks and appreciation must go to this perfectly timed man/machine interface. Appreciating that we would soon be at the hotspot, some snippets on pre-colonial fishing practices flashed through my mind.

When Jan Van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape on 9 April 1652, his crew observed that the local Khoisan residents were expert anglers using hand held rods, nets and spears. Within a very short time they were supplying the Dutch with fish. Van Riebeeck also mentions “a troop of Caapmans that brought ten oxen laden with steenbrassems killed with assegais in False Bay.” We assume they’re talking about white steenbras. The journals in the beginning of 1653 indicated that besides fish, penguins and “duikers” (cormorants) were also harvested, salted and consumed.
South Africa does not have any history of native boat-based harvesting of marine resources prior to the Dutch’s arrival, but since the 1600s an artisanal, boat-based small-scale fishery has emerged along the Western seaboard. This development was shaped mainly by the influences of the Malay slaves brought to the Cape, the European sailors and the local Khoisan peoples who had extensive shore-based knowledge of the coastal waters.
The first indications of fishing as an industry came in 1655 when dried and salted harders were found to be nutritious and were used on ships as provisions for sailors. In 1657 freemen were allowed to fish with hooks but not to sell their catches, since that would distract them from agriculture. However, this decree did not prevent them from drying and selling fish to passing ships. In May 1658 this practice was prohibited and they could only sell their surplus fish to the Dutch East Indian Company. In 1708 the demand for fish had escalated so much that slaves were allowed to fish on Sundays and also sell their catches.
With the start of British rule the export of dried and salted fish shrank but the freed Malay slaves still caught great quantities of fish. These were sold for low prices to slaves within an 80km radius of Table Bay. By 1795 all restrictions on fishing were lifted and by 1830 the statistical register indicated there were 40 boats and 200 men exclusively engaged in fishing and two boats and 12 men in whaling. (Information from Sea Fisheries of the Cape Colony by W. Wardlaw Thompson, published by Maskew Miller in 1913.)

By the time Lulu slowed down and turned Ou Grote’s bow into the current only a short distance upstream from the pinnacle where the fish were feeding, a few boats were already fighting feisty yellowtail. Poised, standing against the gunnels, we were all more than ready to engage. Finger protection donned and hooks loaded with sandwiches of octopus leg and pike, we chucked the handlines into the dark cobalt-blue waters before Ou Grote reached the target spot.
The fish had risen and were feeding voraciously on the surface; almost simultaneously most of us went vas, all with belligerent yellowtail. The boat’s momentum into the current, however, immediately swept all the lines astern. The ensuing entanglements created chaos, especially with the hooked yellowtail running unconstrained in all directions. We had to take some time out to untangle the lines and regroup, unfortunately wasting some valuable fishing time in the process.
Most of the hooked fish were successfully boated and, with Ou Grote now slowly drifting with the current, lines could be cast perpendicular to her beam. With some of us working the bow area and some the aft space, hooked fish could be constrained and properly fought within their individual fighting zones. Wet, shiny, wriggling yellowtail were flying over the gunnels for a while but suddenly, as quickly as they came on the bite, the shoal sounded. All went quiet with none of the boats catching any fish. Sometime later a few fish were lifted into boats again, but the majority of the fish were gone.
Leaving the lingering flotilla behind, various chug-chuggies withdrew to search for the shoal in the area around the pinnacle. when they didn’t find any promising signs, two boats then targeted another area some distance away but Ou Grote stayed put, patiently waiting for some action.
The crew commenced baiting and dropping their second set of lines, the way they normally fish for yellowtail which are feeding erratically. I was carefully watching Edwin Agnew who silently stared at the shoreline some three miles away, one line dangling from his left hand while he worked the other line with his right hand in a jigging fashion. What an honour to be fishing with these legendary fishermen, I thought. I was glad that I’d had the unique experience of probing their full account and gained a much better understanding and appreciation of their livelihoods and pursuit for continued existence.
I saw Edwin’s hand jerking as a fish unexpectedly wacked his bait. He jumped up and leaned into the gunnel, fully poised to answer the first call in a long time. I was still holding my line and hoping for some action when he slowly looked around and stared at me. No! “Nothing,” he said without even uttering a single sound; his shaking head and the disappointed frown on his face said it all.
Suddenly all hell broke loose. Lines were ripped taught with strikes neatly executed. Arms flew in all directions, in some cases two arms in very close proximity, some belonging to the same person, actually crossing. Caught slightly offguard, my line got ripped from my hands. As it snaked over the gunnel I managed to grab it, but before I could gain full control, it almost cut right through my finger guards. A quick glance at the rest of the crew confirmed that most, if not all lines were now bringing fish towards the boat in some way or another. The dispersed boats had noted the action and were bearing down on us, their boats’ loud droning noises virtually completely muffled by our crew’s excited chatter.
Soon this run also came to an end, with the renewed prospects of making a bumper catch tumbling into the abyss. The last hook-up for the day, however, was made by Andrew Europa. He hooked into a large yellowtail, and the way the heavy handline was stripped from his hands indicated that it was most probably one of those huge loners which habitually patrol the ocean floor.
Skilfully applying his many years of hard-earned experience, Andrew managed to restrain the headlong run. With the wild fish making short dashes all over, vigorously shaking its head as it went, the fisherman had difficulty retrieving lost line. He then pressed the severely strained handline onto the gunnel, pulling it down onto the hull with both hands.
The resultant friction between the wood and fishing line reduced the excessive load on the angler, allowing him some time to rest and regroup. The array of time-worn grooves cut into the top of Ou Grote’s gunnels served as ample proof that this clever strategy has been employed since the boat’s first outing, particularly when fighting large strong fish. Guarding against overstraining the line, whilst keeping pressure on the fish, Andrew was constantly strong-arming it to swim upwards and towards the boat and, most importantly, the waiting gaff.
While I was still admiring Andrew’s adeptness at working and playing the feisty fish, the green and gold colours of the quarry rose from the depths only a short distance from the boat. Only a short piece of 120kg nylon filament separated the well-seasoned yellowtail hand-liner from the estimated 15kg yellowtail specimen on the other end, visibly straining the line.
The fish was tired, slowly swimming in a circle just out of reach of the gaff; very tense moments indeed! Suddenly it took off again and we had to turn our heads away to avoid the huge spray of cold seawater — flapped aboard by its huge, rapidly oscillating, powerful tail — thumping us solidly in the face. All taken by surprise, we watched Andrew absorbing the strain, then clearly heard that familiar, dreaded sound, only this time with the sinker smashing hard into the hull, confirmation that this huge fish was gone. “Hook pulled,” came the final, resigned verdict.
Yellowtail — particularly those large specimens hooked in the shallow waters of the Agulhas theatre — are notorious for these generally unexpected last strong sprints, a desperate final attempt to free themselves. As we know so well by now, some you win and some you lose!

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