Ocean Conversation with



P.’s sailing boat, The Makaira ("Makaira" is the name for the blue marlin in Latin. It comes from the Greek Μαχαιρι, which means sword). The boat is about 10m long and we climb on it through the sides, where its closest to the dock. To enter, you have to open a blue tent structure made of sail-fabric, which is a bit precarious. It’s cold and raining, so we sit inside the boat, in the living room. Still, there’s no electricity or heating. We sit opposite each other, on the two narrow couches on either side of the hull. Between us is a small wooden table on which P. unfolds a nautical map in order to show me the most dangerous parts of the North Sea. He cooks water in the gas stove of the boat and makes coffee for himself and tea for me. The boat moves continuously from the wind and moves us with it. During the conversation, the clouds become progressively darker, the wind becomes stronger and there is heavy rainfall. The noise of the wind is very present as it whistles as it passes through the sails and ropes of the ship. Water is all around the boat now, leaking from the ceiling and also from the open cabin door. This does not particularly bother P., who is used to similar weather conditions.


P’s voice is friendly and with a singsong to it. His mother tongue is Dutch but he speaks English fluently (with a slight accent).

M.M.What’s your relationship to the ocean?

P.v.C. I want to say from the start, that I have never been on the ocean. I have only been on
the North Sea, the East Sea and the West Coast of Scotland. Even though it is said that when you can sail on the North Sea, you can sail everywhere.

M.M.In which way?

P.v.C. Because of differences of sea level → the tides, - and because of the depth of the water.

While looking at a nautical map of the east coast of England:

The wind makes the sea always different. Different waves form with north wind than with wind from the east. The north wind creates large layers of waves (i.e. wider waves) while with eastern wind, waves are shorter (i.e. narrower).

Walls of 40m can form for example, because of differences in depth. The ocean pushes upwards + creates strong currents. Hence what’s marked as an "area to be avoided" on the map.

M.M.What’s your relation to the ocean?

P.v.C. When I was young, I was a fisherman (until my 40s).

The sea is never the same, you don’t know what to expect. The sea is always different; sometimes we were very angry at the sea because we could not do our job properly.

When at sea, you have to figure out how to stay alive. Never start a dispute with the sea – you’ll always lose. If the weather is bad – you’ll have no more money. You make a deal with the sea, → respect the sea be very “low”/calm – don’t try to challenge it. If there is no other way, you have to do it. Let the sea do the work.

As a fisherman, your life is completely free. You’re paid by the percent of the catch. The more we caught, the more money we would make. You have to be fast. You’re awake for 48 hours to work on it.

As a fisherman, you’re not only responsible for the catch but you also have to repair the nets when they are damaged. It’s a lot of work to fix the nets but you are not paid for it. There are different kinds of nets – trawling nets are used on beam trawlers.

The reason we use beam trawlers is: we’ve used them for generations. People therefore have the know-how to use them very well. Especially on dirty -rocky- grounds. The Dutch don’t go there. Only the Belgians go there → and fishing a lot of different kinds of fish.

The nets should be well protected. Otherwise, they are damaged within hours. There are systems of chains to prevent big rocks from tearing the nets.

Six days at sea, you can catch up to 15.000 kilos of fish, on average. Mainly trout and sole: as they are the fish that live on the bottom of the sea. Each trip lasts about six days, then you unload the fish, for example, in England + they come back on a truck. Then the boat sails again.

A beam trawler uses 3.000 liters of fuel in 24 hours. A skipper gets paid 10.000 euros/month. But you have to work a lot for that money. When you’re at sea you always work. Even if you don’t work, your muscles are working to keep you straight.

Just being on the ship is work. Humans are not made to live on the sea – we are made to live on the shore. We’re handicapped at sea.

All nets are industrially produced, you buy a piece of net + then you “make” them yourself, fitting them in the trawler. You need extra material for reparation. They are made out of very strong nylon → 10 mm. You repair them with your bare hands.

During the trip, you do not get much sleep. Every two hours the nets come up. So you can sleep for only one hour each time.

There’s a system to measure the power of the net → if there’s a lot of tension, you know they are full.

Only when the boat is in the harbor, can you sleep for six hours. Or when the ship is reaching the fishing grounds.

M.M.Are trawlers dangerous?

P.v.C. Twinriggers are safer. The Dutch use electricity fishing. But it kills the sea fauna.

After I became 40 → I started working at a school teaching young students seafaring. This is a course on how to navigate at sea.

Teaching is not less stressful than fishing. Because your mind is always working. Even when you leave the school, your mind is still working. You also have to deal with all kinds of difficult children that are stealing, or even violent, etc. You encounter different intelects and everyday is a challenge. They are often rebellious + aggressive children. But I was always “straight” + honest with them.

Five mins of a lesson takes an hour to get through. All the rest of the time you have to take care of the children. It’s 5% teaching, 95% psychological work.

I never knew my father he was away a lot. I would see him for two days every eight days. So I chose to work in the school because I wanted to see my children grow up.

M.M.Is there an element of the ocean that is particularly important for you?

P.v.C.The freedom that you have at sea + the team spirit. Everybody pulls on the same rope.

However, there is a certain culture of abuse towards younger people. I avoided that because my first skipper was a friend of my father’s. He took care of me and made sure everyone respected me.

A fisherman is the only professional hunter in the world. There’s nothing more important in the world than having – and providing – food. Nowadays there are lots of laws and quotas regulating the fishing industry. Before things were more free.

To be at sea was always an adventure because you’d never know what was going to happen. You would be on the ship with six other people. When we would come back on shore, we would have a special feeling of accomplishment. If someone was in trouble, the others would help to get him out of trouble. Now its more difficult.

In the old days, there was no connection with the shore during the journey. Our families would ask us: When do you come back? And we’d say: We don’t know yet. Because it’s not possible to plan on the sea. Because you never know what will happen. You should never say how long a journey is going to take. As a skipper, you should never show that you have negative thoughts.

Humans are very vulnerable at sea. There’s huge Unpredictability: every time there is something that you don’t expect. That’s why the skipper is next to God.