Garrarus Beach: a short journey on the last boat

This photograph shows how the road has completely gone
Robert Nutt
This photograph taken from the beach looking back up to where the road used to be
Robert Nutt
Garrarus Strand
Paddy Dunne, Waterford
Aerial view of Garrarus Strand
Tim Cunningham

They are all gone now, passed away, the small group of men who had fished their small boats off the beach in Garrarus. Any evidence that they had ever been there at all washed away by the countless tides. It was because of this that I felt compelled to write these few words in their memory. Maybe in the future a student or researcher looking online for Garrarus beach would be led here and read about them. ‘Duck’ Smith, ‘Jimsy’ Dunphy, his son John Dunphy, Joe Henry Power and Nicky Dunne were the men I knew. Before them generations of families had fished the beach the same way pulling their boats up and down the beach to check lobster pots and haul in mackerel six on a line when plentiful. Rowing out into deeper water to fish for whiting out on the ‘slob’, a mud flat, with long lines before the large trawlers came and fished them out.

The boat is prepared for launching

Getting off the beach is an art in itself. Get it wrong and you could end up with your boat being swamped or at worse turned over on top of you. First the boat is pulled down the beach on timber lats to keep the boat from digging into the sand.  Seaweed is placed on top of the lats to provide lubrication and help the boat slide. Next the boat is prepared for launching with the oars in their oarlocks and the bow pointing out to sea.

Every seventh wave that breaks onto the beach is stronger than the other six preceding ones. If you look you can see three larger waves approaching, the third one being the strongest and carries up and then back down the beach the furthest. This is then followed by four weaker waves. As a result the boat is pushed out bow first on the third wave of the three allowing you the next four waves to unship the oars and row the boat out into deeper water and away from the breaking waves on the beach.

Timing is the key!

Coming back in is the same operation as going out except in reverse. This means rowing the boat in reverse to keep the bow facing out and minimize the chance of getting a wave over the stern. You need to look over your shoulder for the three waves and then ‘push’ on the oars to beach the boat backwards on the third strongest wave. The next four weaker waves enable you to then ship the oars, climb out of the boat and be ready to pull the boat further up the beach before the three stronger waves are on you again. Timing is the key! If you do get it wrong though the important thing is to make sure the bow is kept pointing out.

Rogue waves

Incidentally Oceanographers and scientists who study wave formations at sea say that the seventh wave phenomenon is ‘an old mariners tale, just a myth and does not exist.’ All that I can say is that it definitely does exist on Garrarus Beach. I was taught about it by my father-in-law, an ‘old mariner’, well into his seventies and who had been taught about it himself by his father and his father before him. These same experts also said that ‘rogue waves,’ i.e. single waves of terrifying height and force capable of sinking a large cargo boat such as the Munchen did not exist as well. Satellite imagery introduced as late as 2006 proved them wrong.

Setting pots and catching lobsters

Garrarus Beach is the same as many small beaches found around the coast of Ireland. Not  very long, surrounded by rock and earth cliffs it is divided in two when the tide comes  in. The farthest half of the beach is a mixture of mainly stones with some sandy areas. The nearest half is mainly sand. When the tide is out a large expanse of rock is exposed in the centre running out to sea and divides the seaward part of the beach. This expanse of rock disappears when the tide comes back in. Offshore below the water the sea bottom is a mixture of seaweed and clear sandy areas interspersed with isolated large rocks which is excellent for setting pots and catching lobsters. One thing that all the men that fished from the beach had in common was that they all lived or had lived within walking distance of Garrarus Beach, a necessity before the advent of the motorcar and outboard engine. All that was required was to launch their boats and they were on good ground immediately. They could start pulling their pots straight away without the need to row any great distance from any of the local piers such as Tramore or Boatstrand.

The beach is accessed via a single narrow road which leads down to a small parking area and onto the beach at its eastern end. A lifetime ago the road had followed the cliffs and had entered the beach at its centre, but this had been eroded away with time and the road had been changed to its present position. Up to recently it was possible to see the remains of a wall on the cliff side which had been part of the old road but this   about fifteen years ago this too finally disappeared. The cliffs surrounding the beach suffer badly from erosion causing large sections of the cliffs to ‘slip’ and end up on the beach to be then carried away by the sea.

Demand was very local

Lobster pots were made during the winter, each man having his own design and ideas as to what made a good pot. Recently with the advent of outboard engines between thirty to fifty pots were made to fish for the summer season. I am told that before the outboard engine three men would go out in one boat and take it in turns to row around each man’s quota of pots, pull them and reset them before going on to the next man’s pots. At that time each man would only have had a total of six or seven pots and would catch up to five good lobsters in each pot, they were that plentiful. There was no need to fish more pots since the market demand was very local. Nowadays  between a hundred and two hundred pots is not considered unusual for a small boat to fish! The lifetime span of a lobster is slow taking up to thirty years to get to full size. No wonder the lobster is becoming scarce.

A long tradition of fishing

It was my father-in-law, known locally as ‘Duck’ Smith or ‘Pop’ to his family who taught me about fishing for lobsters from the beach in Garrarus. That was nearly fifty years ago. I was a young man in his twenties who had no knowledge of the sea at all being born in the Midlands in England. I was a very willing pupil though and having just retired Pop  had the time and patience to teach me. At the time he was in his early seventies and came from a family with a long tradition of fishing.

How to fish for Mackerel

The first thing he taught me was how to row a boat by just ‘dipping’ the oars into the water. No frantic pulling that got you nowhere only tired. He taught me to row the boat forwards, backwards and sideways with the minimum of effort. I was taught how to get the boat on and off the beach safely as I have already described. I was shown where to place the pots on good ground where there was a mixture of sand and seaweed. Pop showed me how to make modern creel pots. I was even shown how to make the old type dome-shaped batten pots made completely from interwoven sally switches with a single entrance at the top.  It was my brother-in-law Eric who taught me how to fish for Mackerel. To fish on the coming tide which if the sea was fairly calm you could see coming as an approaching line on the surface. To look for Gannets diving out to sea and when found how to quickly ‘shake’ the fish off the line before the shoal moved away. Eric also taught me the best place and how to trail an eel lure behind the boat to catch large Pollock and keep the boat at the right speed on the oars. The best time being when dark and the eel was illuminated by the moon.

Reading the signs of the sea

Like all the men that fished from the beach I was taught to read the signs on the sea, the importance of the wind and when it was safe to go out and when it was not. When my father-in-law was not able to come out in the boat any longer I had been trained that well that I felt confident enough to carry on fishing from Garrarus on my own which I did when work permitted for many years after.
The most important thing I was taught and which epitomized all of the men that fished small boats off the beach was to always have respect for the sea and to be safe. Never take chances.  Tomorrow was always another day.

New regulations

The recent introduction by the Irish Government of a licence to fish for lobsters has officially banned the old style lobster fisherman such as those that fished from Garrarus Beach from fishing for lobsters any longer.    I quote ‘Under the new regulations, recreational or private fishers can fish up to six pots and can retain five crabs and one lobster daily. Furthermore they may not store  crabs or lobsters at sea or sell or offer for sale any of their catches.’   The reason being ‘The new regulations were introduced to protect the licensed fishing industry which has faced increasing competition in recent years from unlicensed or unregistered vessels that were operating on a commercial or semi-commercial basis.’ I am not here to argue this decision other than to say that to get a licence is very expensive and makes fishing a small number of pots uneconomical. Lastly I would hardly call a fifteen foot punt a ‘vessel’.

The demise of the small boat fishermen

Actually the writing was on the wall for the demise of the small boat fishermen fishing from the beach before these regulations were passed.  The reason being quite simply that it was no longer safe to leave a boat on the beach where it could be vandalised, stolen or interfered with. The days when there would be two or three boats left on the beach complete with oars etc. for a summer season without being robbed or set adrift on the sea are long gone in our modern society. Finally I see that the local county council have a sign banning boats from Garrarus beach.

A proud and independent lady

Before I finish I would just like to mention another person who didn’t own a boat or fish but who had also made a living to support herself and her children from Garrarus Beach. ‘Cathy’ Crowley was a proud and independent lady who lived just up the road from the beach and had spent a lifetime drawing sand and gravel off the beach by horse and cart under a Government Licence issued by the then Dept of Industry and Commerce.  Loading the cart by hand, urging her horse to climb the steep incline and then unloading the cart again by hand to leave the load on the road. The cart had a capacity of half a ton and Cathy had started when she was fourteen years of age.  A hard and tough enough occupation for a man never mind a woman. ‘Cathy’ was a special person and a good friend.
Cathy’s father had fished from the beach in a sailing boat. I am told that boats have fished from Garrarus Beach from the early 1700s and at one stage there was that many boats that the annual blessing of the boats took place in Garrarus instead of Boatstrand as it does at present.

A tribute to future generations

 I could write more about the people that I have mentioned in this narrative as individuals but that isn’t the reason that I wrote it. I am in my seventies myself now and I just wanted to leave a tribute to future generations that these men and women had existed and the skill and knowledge that they had had to fish by boat and work from Garrarus Beach.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Liam and Frances Walsh, Tramore for their help and advice.
In remembrance of Michael and Mary Smith, Tramore and their kindness to me all those years ago.

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