A woman of the seas

2012-01-28 20:22

Sea life is bred in the bones of this West Coast family

It’s 4.30am on a December morning. Charmaine Daniels, known as “Baby”, fills several large petrol containers at the local garage and returns to her Ocean View home.

There she puts the containers, along with her sandwiches and a thermos of coffee, into three fishing vessels in her backyard.

She waits for Kulsoem Roberts (62), and Roberts’s daughter Faldelah Manuel (34), to arrive with their fishing crew.

Baby is the only woman in the Western Cape with a commercial line fishing permit from the department of agriculture, fisheries and forestry.

She is also a government approved commercial West Coast rock lobster fisherwoman.

Baby owns and profits from two vessels, which she rents out to friends Kulsoem and Faldelah, who also each have a licence for West Coast rock lobster fishing.

Rock lobster fishing is only permitted from November to June. From July, Baby focuses on large trawler line fishing – mostly snoek and hottentot – which she sells locally, in bulk.

For a line fishing licence, Baby competed against sea- hardened fishermen, including her husband Kevin, whose applications were rejected.

Says Baby: “Being granted my licence has not earned me popularity. But so what? I am a woman of independent means.

“Men think they own the sea. I proved them wrong,” she laughs.

On this morning, like every other morning during West Coast rock lobster fishing season, when the skippers and trawlermen are accounted for at Baby’s home and the safety equipment and bait checked, the three fishing vessels are attached to trailers and towed by their skippers in vans to the launch site at Witsand beach.

Before sunrise, they are out at sea, having first logged in with the marine and coastal monitors.

Baby’s vessel, Cincinatti Kid, skippered by her husband, Kevin, is in the lead as he programmes the plotter directing them back to their launch site.

Kevin has been a fisherman for 30 years. He inherited his expertise and a boat from his grandfather. When they married, Baby went out to sea with him, and so began her love affair with the ocean.

“Sea life is bred in the bones of the Daniels family,” she says.

Kenwyn, their eldest son, is a fourth generation seaman, working full-time on a yacht. He has also sailed the Cape to Rio race several times.

“I can smell where to find fish easier than if I shop for them in a supermarket, and I generally have a feel for the weather conditions,” says Baby.

Today should be plain sailing at 25 knots. But the women know the sea is temperamental – they could find themselves shrouded in mist or swept into crashing waves in a heartbeat.

Faldelah remembers well the day she waved from the top of the mountain to her father, down below at sea. He was skippering a trawler on what was supposed to be a routine trip. The water was a postcard picture of undisturbed blue.

Within the hour, the wind turned vicious and the sea changed colour. When her father and his two-man crew hadn’t returned by nightfall, a team from the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) went in search of the vessel.

A body was found on the rocks of Misty Cliffs, the wrecked trawler scattered nearby. But Faldelah’s father’s body was never found.

Instead of shying away from the sea, Faldelah and Kulsoem, felt compelled to take his place, fishing for a living.

Now, Baby works the ropes and puts the bait on the nets; the same procedure takes place on the other two vessels, Babaking and Babalaas.

They spread out to prevent the ropes getting entangled, and after the trawlermen have cast and drawn the nets five times, testing for response, they move towards Cape Point.

“We fisherwomen know the lobsters want to be near sand and they will be where there is lots of kelp. But it’s been tough because the weather has been unseasonably hot. This has caused the West Coast rock lobster to move further south. Also the warm water softens the shells, so only the tails are used and buyers pay us less.

“In a few years’ time, if the temperature keeps rising, the fish will most likely move or die out and we will have to look for different work. Poaching also poses a danger to our livelihood,” says Baby.

In unison the nets are drawn up slowly, and dozens of writhing, crawling rock lobsters are tipped into the “laatjies”.

On a good day like today, five trawls yield between 250kg and 300kg. The law states that all fishing vessels must be in and their catch weighed by 4pm.

The fisherwomen time their hauls, aiming to reach shore after 1pm to avoid exposing their catch to the midday sun.

By the time five trawls of twelve nets have been lifted, it’s 2pm – the perfect time to head for the offloading site where inspectors will have been waiting since 11.30am to weigh the catches.

The vessels gently nudge the sand at the edge of the beach where a government inspector waits with a scale, next to staff from the holding company, who are contracted to keep the lobsters alive in tanks.

Pesca Atlantico, the buyers, wait patiently for the vessels to be offloaded so that they can check the quality of the lobster hauls for export, mostly to Asian countries.

The women unload their catches, often picking up live lobsters by the handful, without ever being nipped. The fish are loaded into cooling trucks.

The allowed catch is 603kg per season. Today, Kulsoem has more than her quota – she evens it out by adding a few lobsters to Faldelah’s haul. Baby has to put a dozen lobsters back into the ocean.

Often, on their way home, the women are stopped and their vans searched by inspectors. If a single lobster is found for home cooking, a fine of R4 000 is imposed, and their permit will be revoked.

For Baby, Faldelah and Kulsoem, the day has barely started. After re-attaching the vessels to their vans, they return to Baby’s yard where they scrub the boats down. Then they clean and store the nets, wipe down the engine, remove all the equipment and lock it in the storeroom.

The women return home where dinner must be pre-pared, children’s homework supervised, the house cleaned.

And then Baby will go out to buy bait for tomorrow’s West Coast lobster fishing.

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