North Devon boat stories

PUBLISHED: 14:10 15 April 2015 | UPDATED: 14:10 15 April 2015

Herrings rise to the light

Herrings rise to the light


Jo Stewart-Smith is making ten short films about fishermen and working boats in North Devon

Swimming with seals by Nick TysonSwimming with seals by Nick Tyson

I was dodging heavy nets of whelks, dripping sea water, one evening last April, as Ilfracombe-born lobster potter, Geoff Huelin, unloaded them onto the quay. I had a lot riding on our conversation.

I planned to make ten short films about local working boats Boat Stories yet I’d been warned that some fishermen weren’t keen on film makers. So when Geoff agreed I could bring a cameraman out on the potting boat to film a working day, I wanted to jump into the harbour with joy.

I particularly wanted to film Geoff because he was one of three local lobster potters who supported setting up the no-take zone (no fishing zone) off Lundy Island - the first marine reserve and no-take zone in the country.

I had another challenge for this shy, unassuming fisherman. I wanted him to tell his story, in his own words. We ended up with our first film Lobster Potting & Berried Hens revealing Geoff as a brilliant ambassador for fishermen.

A passionate conservationist, he advocates that all berried hens should be released to allow them to spawn. Berried hens as in female lobsters packed with tiny bilberry-like eggs – not buried as in burying under the sand, as I originally heard it!

Geoff’s film set the pattern for our big adventure. First the generous welcome the fishers and boat community gave Boat Stories. Second that the films could be narrated by the fishers or skippers themselves, even if they hated the idea of talking to a camera – at first!

For our next film, Salmon Netting on the Taw & Torridge we filmed pensioners Stephen Taylor,84, and his 76-year-old wife Sheila rowing their tiny boat as a howling wind tore up the open estuary.

As dusk fell, I’d planned to interview them by their wooden fishing hut on the fascinating history of salmon netting, but they were tired and wet after hauling the heavy net. Listening to the rushes (the raw film) Simon the cameraman and I laughed out loud. We decided it was more important to let their humour and character shine through, than stuff in too many facts! This couple are wonderful role models for doing what you love – whatever your age.

Sheila and Stephen Taylor salmon netting on the Taw and TorridgeSheila and Stephen Taylor salmon netting on the Taw and Torridge

The Boat Stories films are documentaries – so every film evolves and changes out on the water.

For Life’s Journey on the Torridge I wanted Dave Gabe to describe his life working on many different boats from tugs to trawlers, from ferries to lifeboats as we passed each boat moored on the river. But Dave would rather talk about the history of the river and the wildlife than himself. Fishing for the Long Haul with skipper Paul Stone turned from a film about trawling for squid into a story of young fishermen wondering whether they had a future. It almost became a history piece as soon after we filmed a temporary ban on fishing for ray in the Bristol Channel caused the loss of many jobs in the vulnerable North Devon fishing industry.

Film number five Fishing for Clovelly Herring describes another fishing ban in the 70s which nearly scuppered this way of life and one man (Stephen Perham’s) fight to revive this traditional, artisanal fishery.

The hardest thing for me as a filmmaker (I’m used to working on 50 minute broadcast documentaries) has been producing a story the audience can follow and staying fair to our characters in just five minutes. To tackle the wider issues each film raises, I write a video blog (posted on our website) with clips from the films which hit the cutting room floor! On the plus side five minutes makes each film very watchable – if you haven’t seen them, there’s no excuse. Working on my own patch, with lovely people, revealing a way of life we know little about – each film became a labour of love.

I hope you will take away some of the joy and energy of people at work and at play and hanker to get out and about on the water of our stunningly, beautiful coast.

Our sixth film Winner takes all is about gig racing, a sport which has taken off all over Devon and welcomes newcomers of any age. Just space to say please follow us on Facebook and Twitter @boat_stories for news on the next four films.

You can see all the films made so far at

Ten ideas for getting out on a boat in North Devon

1. Catch MS Oldenburg for a ferry trip to Lundy

2. Pretend to be a lobster potter for the day in the Silver Spirit

3. Potter gently up the river Torridge in the Cheeky Monkey or the Fender

4. Find the highest cliffs in England & old iron ore mines on the Ilfracombe Princess

5. Hop on the Appledore & Instow ferry to cross the estuary.

6. Dive the wrecks on England’s first marine reserve, off Lundy, with Obsession

7. Tour round Clovelly harbour in Neptune

8. Ride in the restored lifeboat, Hampshire Rose, out of Ilfracombe

9. Hit the secret, offshore surf beaks with the catamaran, Hecate

10. Swim with seals near Lundy, from the Jessica Hettie.

Information on these boat trips and more can be found at

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