What the camera saw

“The sea life is an adventure, not a living”

Harvest Krotoa’s cook, George Erasmus, has witnessed many changes that have taken place in the deep-sea trawling industry and is proud to have played a role in improving working conditions for fishermen.

George has worked in the trawling industry for 38 years and spent most of that time at sea, but for a period of 15 years, he was a representative of and a shop steward for the Trawler and Line Fishermen’s Union (TALFU). George helped to establish the Bargaining Council for the Fishing Industry that was registered with the Department of Labour on 14 December 2001.

The Bargaining Council provides a forum for employers and trade unions to meet and negotiate about salaries and conditions of employment for sea-going workers.

“Sea Harvest has played a big role in bringing change to our community,” says George. “I was part of that change because of my role in the unions and the Bargaining Council.”

A fully qualified caterer, George plays an extremely important role on Harvest Krotoa. He not only prepares three nutritious meals per day, he also ensures that the galley (ship’s kitchen) and lounge area provide a welcoming environment in which the crew can spend some of their leisure time. And, as one of the senior members of the crew, George provides sage advice and encouragement for the younger members. “I try to encourage them to make a career for themselves at sea,” he says, “the sea life is an adventure, not a living.”

I’ve gained a lot, working as the captain’s “right-hand man”

Wherever you are on the fishing trawler Harvest Krotoa, you can be sure that the ship’s Bosun, Lumkile Sodela, is not far away.

The energetic seafarer, who is known as Wiseman to his crew mates, is responsible for the safety of the deck hands who work in the exposed environment of the trawl deck. He also keeps an eye on the ship’s fish factory, working closely with Factory Manager, Colin Jaars, to make sure that the processing and preservation of the catch proceeds efficiently. But much of Lumkile’s time is spent on the bridge, working side-by-side with Skipper Ryno Blaauw, playing a key role in the smooth running of the ship.

Over the seven years they have worked together on Harvest Krotoa, the two seafarers have forged a strong bond.

“I’ve learnt a lot from the skipper,” says Lumkile thoughtfully, “he allows me to take responsibility and that is a benefit for me, I feel very confident working with him. I’ve gained a lot working as the captain’s right-hand man”.

Lumkile worked as a deck hand for 15 years before qualifying with a Grade 4 ticket and being appointed as Bosun. He places a lot of emphasis on safety and seems to magically appear to assist the deck hands when rough seas and a rolling ship make their work difficult.

“I must be there to monitor them to see they are okay on the deck,” he says. “I don’t want dangerous situations”.

Lumkile’s son has followed in his father’s footsteps and is currently working as an engine room assistant, commonly known as a “greaser”, on a Sea Harvest trawler.

“I started working as an engineering cadet, right after school”

For Chief Engineer, Ronald Cottee, Harvest Krotoa provides a challenging working environment. The vessel is driven by a powerful 3 000 HP Wärtsila engine and carries a complex array of winches used to deploy and retrieve its twin trawl nets.

Ronald and his colleagues, Second Engineer Oscar Seide and engine room assistants Tembekile Mnyaka and Mwuzi Mgiwu, are responsible for operating and maintaining all the machinery on the Harvest Krotoa. The engine room is manned day and night and the engineering team must work hard to ensure that the trawl operation is never impeded or delayed by faulty equipment.

Ronald comes from a fishing family and embarked on a career as a marine engineer at the age of 20.

“I started working as an engineering cadet right after school,” he says. “In the beginning it was tough, but today the fishermen enjoy much more freedom.”

After seven years of training and working at sea, Ronald achieved his Chief Engineer’s ticket and a year later he got his first appointment as a Chief Engineer working aboard a fishing trawler.

Over the course of his 38-year career, Ronald has worked for three fishing companies, all of which operate trawlers in the deep-sea trawl fishery for hake. He has worked for Sea Harvest for 15 years.

“It’s a great privilege to be skipper of this vessel”

You don’t become the skipper of a fishing trawler overnight. It takes years of study and dedication. Some of the studying takes place in a classroom, but most knowledge is gained by working at sea; fishing in different seasons, weather conditions and on a variety of trawl grounds.

Ryno Blaauw, skipper of the 47.6m, 1 111 ton Harvest Krotoa, took 17 years to qualify as a skipper and has now spent 13 years as a member of the elite team of skippers who captain Sea Harvest’s fishing trawlers.

An affable, easy-going man when off duty, Ryno is the ultimate professional when he’s on the bridge directing the trawl operation.

“Being the skipper of Harvest Krotoa, is a privilege,” he says, “to be in charge of a vessel of this size is a huge responsibility.”

The Spanish-built Harvest Krotoa is one of the largest fresh fish trawlers in the Sea Harvest fleet and is unique in that it is a twin trawler with a powerful engine that allows it to simultaneously drag two nets through the water. It also has extremely sophisticated trawling equipment, including an electronic sensor system that accurately monitors the amount of fish in each net throughout the trawl operation.

Like many of the professionals who captain deep-sea trawlers, Ryno is modest about his achievements and quick to acknowledge the role that others have played in his career. He names skippers Clive Lewis, James (Jimmy) Baker and Zennen Ruiters, and mate Harold Arries, as particularly important mentors and friends.

“I spent almost nine years as a mate with Zennen, and I spent a lot of time with Jimmy when I was a cadet, a bosun and a mate,” he says, “I learnt a lot from them.”

As a skipper, Ryno is not only responsible for the safety of his crew and the vessel they work on, he also makes decisions about where to fish, when to fish and how to fish, i.e. with one net or two. As such, the Harvest Krotoa’s catch performance is largely in his hands. Ryno appears to carry the responsibility lightly, but he sleeps only for short periods and spends long hours on the bridge monitoring the plethora of variables that combine to make a good catch. When the trawl nets are hauled, he watches and guides the operation with razor-sharp attention.

That Ryno leads by example is evident from the teamwork and commitment demonstrated by his crew who safely and efficiently deploy and retrieve the trawl net and process the catch as fast as possible. Their work takes place at all times of the day or night and regardless of the wind and waves that often create an unsteady and sometimes uncomfortable working environment.

Ryno emphasises the importance of mutual respect on a fishing vessel, quoting the French military leader, Napoleon, who is reputed to have said “there are no bad armies, only bad generals”.

“I try to live by that,” says Ryno, “I still believe whatever happens on board a vessel reflects on me and I don’t want to be a bad general.”

“But credit must go to the crew. Whether its 3 o’ clock in the morning or 5 o’ clock in the afternoon, they work hard, they go about their business. It’s just another day on the trawlers.”

At home on a stormy sea

Johanna Loos, Anna Toontjies and Celeste Swartbooi are three of the women who work on Harvest Krotoa. Their crew mate, Rafieka Visagie was on shore leave when this photograph was taken.

In 2007, Sea Harvest became the first fishing company in South Africa to offer women the opportunity to work at sea and Johanna Loos, who had worked in the company’s fish processing plant in Saldanha for 18 years at the time, was one of the first women to take up the opportunity.

Johanna Loos, pictured in the galley (kitchen) of Harvest Krotoa.

“It was always my dream to work at sea,” reflects Johanna, who is fondly called “Mumsy” by her crew mates on Harvest Krotoa. Speaking in Afrikaans, with a characteristic west coast lilt, Johanna remembers:

“When I was working in the factory in Saldanha, I would see the fishermen coming from sea, and I always thought to myself, if the company gives me the opportunity, I would love to work at sea.”

Johanna was one of a group of 30 women who in 2007 were trained and prepared to work in Sea Harvest’s ship-board factories.

“My motive was always to make a better life for my family,” says Johanna, explaining that the wages for sea going factory workers are higher than for those who work ashore.

Anna Toontjies, at work in the fish factory of Harvest Krotoa

From the first day that she worked at sea, Johanna enjoyed the work and was curious to find out everything she could about the operation of a fishing trawler. Today, a ten-year veteran, she has developed a deep love for the sea and her way of life. She has also smoothed the way for other women to work at sea, as her friend and colleague, Anna Toontjies, describes.

“I was terribly seasick,” says Anna of the first time she worked at sea, “but Mumsy looked after me, she got me through it.”

Anna is dwarfed by the male crew mates who stand side-by-side with her in the fish factory of Harvest Krotoa, but she is valued for her skill and efficiency in sorting and handling hake, kingklip and other species she helps to process every time the net is hauled.

The diminutive Anna has worked at sea for six years and in this time she has overcome debilitating seasickness and a fear of storms at sea. She is fond of her crewmates and happy with the life she leads on Harvest Krotoa.

“We are like a family,” she reflects. “We are very comfortable with each other and have a very good understanding on board, especially with our captain. We can talk to him and he is always there to solve our problems.”

For Anna, the best thing about working at sea is the experience of travel – she enjoys visiting the different ports where she sometimes joins the vessel and she likes seeing the different types of fish that are caught.

Another valuable member of Harvest Krotoa’s fish processing team is Celeste Witbooi who is proud to be continuing her father’s legacy by working at sea:

“My father was a fisherman,” she says, “when they asked me at school what I wanted to do for a living, I replied that I wanted to be a fisherman! So I went to Sea Harvest and I gave them my CV and I didn’t stop asking if I could work at sea until they gave me the opportunity!”

Celeste Witbooi is pictured with a very large specimen of the deep-sea fish John Dory.

Celeste has worked at sea for the past seven years and in that time she has had an opportunity to work on deck and in the fish factory. She would like the opportunity to train as an officer.

“There is no woman bosun, mate or skipper,” she says pointedly, “that is the next step for us, to get training, to be given a chance.”

Although the three factory workers acknowledge that their choice of career is unusual for women, they believe it is the right choice for each of them.

Says Anna: “My family don’t really understand the work I do at sea, but my father was a musician and he was known as ‘’n man van durf en daad’ (an adventurer, a man of action). Now I just tell my family, ‘ek is vrou van durf en daad’ (I am an adventurer, a woman of action).”

A fisher’s life