At Sea With The New Spanish Armada

Greedy Spanish boats scour our seas illegally catching 'British' fish. Well that's what we'd like to believe. One man set out to discover the truth about Los Piratas
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is six o'clock in the late afternoon, 16 April 1997. I am standing on the poop deck of a Spanish fishing boat, the Beti Zorionak, as she leaves the Galician port of Burela. She's a palangrero - a long-liner - bound for an area of the North Atlantic known as the Irish Box. As the captain - Angel - wheels her over to salute the white statue of the Virgin and Child perched high on the vast grey breakwater, the boat see-saws in the swell. My stomach lurches. Last night, I dropped my loose change into the collection box beside that Mad-onna, hoping she would watch over me during the weeks ahead. But now I am nervous.

The deck tilts as we plunge out to sea, heading north-west. It heaves and rolls as the eastern fringe of the Atlantic comes at us from the side. I hang on to the bow rail by the wheelhouse, trying to keep my eye on the horizon. The mist on the hills shines in the early evening sunshine. Angel leans out of the doorway and points out some factory chimneys down the coast. I can't reply.


I am ill, and have no idea how long it will last. Days? Weeks? On one side of the bridge someone has bolted a garden chair, with one of those thick cushions that reach down to your ankles. I don't ask any questions - I just slump into it. As night falls, other crew members congregate on the bridge to listen to the football on the ship's radio. They talk loudly in Galician. I doze but my thoughts, like snatches of tuneless songs, make me feel worse.

I ought to have been grateful. Only later did I realise that the garden recliner had been put there purely for my benefit. I owed a great deal to Angel. Until he stepped in, I couldn't find a boat that would have me aboard. I thought I knew why. British newspapers were full of angry comments about Spain's insatiable fishing fleet, mainly from bitter UK fishermen bewildered by the loss of their own livelihoods. Was it true that Spain had launched a new generation of brigands on the high seas? As an Englishman married to a Spanish woman and living in Spain, I wanted to see for myself.

"They don't care about you being a writer," someone told me before I embarked. "They're worried that you're a spy." I had fallen in with the British skippers working the "flagships", the old British-registered boats bought by Spaniards to fish the British quota. Even they were cagey. One told me: "A-am not talkin to no-a fockin journalist whu's gonna fockin twist ma fockin werds." His name was Peter. He had just picked up his second British court summons in three trips, having been more than four times over his monthly hake quota in Irish waters. The Irish inspectors were cracking down, he said. The fines - once laughable - had shot up. Peter had been working out of La Coruna for 16 years since South Shields shut down. In the modern fishing conflict he's a mercenary, and the Spanish company he worked for was going to the wall because of the fines. The atmosphere was ugly.

What drives them all on is Spain's hunger for fish. The Spanish eat more seafood per head than any European nation except the Portuguese. It is a poor man's protein in a country with a long coastline and fragile agriculture; in the chaos that followed the Civil War, fishing kept many people from starvation. But it is also a sublime delicacy - hake, monkfish, prawns and shellfish are the crowning glory of their national cuisine.

To feed this hunger, the Spanish fishing fleet has become by far the largest in Europe - it supplies a third of the total shipping tonnage in the European Union. But Spanish waters are not well stocked: the Atlantic drops sharply to unfishable depths, and the Mediterranean holds neither the volume nor the variety of fish that a Spanish menu demands. So the Spanish fleet, based in La Coruna, Vigo and Burela, explores more distant seas, with predictable consequences. At home, its fishermen are venerated as pioneers; abroad, they are branded pirates. They are the front line in a fishing war which escalated two decades ago, when countries started to claim more extensive ownership of the seas around them, an act which has led to many squabbles over who owns the wild, dumb animals that swim beneath the waves.

In 1995, in the so-called Halibut War, four bursts of gunfire from a Canadian gunboat stopped the Estai, a freezer ship from Vigo, and the captain was arrested for using illegally fine-meshed nets. In the previous year, French gunboats fired rubber bullets at boats from Burela in a high-seas brawl which became known as the Tuna War. The famous "quota- hoppers", the Spanish-owned British "flagships" in La Coruna, were bought precisely to acquire extra fishing rights. Each country in the European Union is given a strict quota, which it divides between the registered boats that fly its flag. But the boats can be owned by anyone, and many Spanish companies have bought British boats in order to acquire their rights to hake and monkfish, for which there is no serious market in the UK. These flagships are run and crewed by Spaniards, but catch British quota. They sail from the harbours of northern Spain flying the Union Jack - a resonant symbol of Spain's determination to catch other people's fish.

British skippers such as Peter are refugees from the first and most serious of these fish wars: the Cod War. In 1976, the EEC recommended that its members impose 200-mile limits on their coastal waters. Iceland and Norway responded by setting their own limits and defending them fiercely. This effectively sabotaged British fishing, which was based squarely on cod from far-off waters. Spanish shipowners reacted swiftly, snapping up cheap British boats and - most importantly - their precious licenses.


I manage a light lunch of tuna salad. The mess-deck is small for 16 of us - backs against the wall round an L-shaped table. I sit on the edge. "Do we have a seaman yet?" asks Angel. I nod. I borrow a cigarette from Antonio, Angel's number two, smoke it inquisitively and feel fine; it is the first time that smoking has seemed a symptom of good health. At dinner I even drink wine. There are cartons lying on the table, but no glasses. You have to hold the carton and squirt a jet into your open mouth. The others are watching, as if it is a test. Moreno, the cook, is delighted.

"That's right! You've got to xarear!" he booms, tipping up an imaginary bottle to show me how. He is a big, meaty extrovert.

The crew argue over the brandy supply. Mor-eno is in charge of provisions - the crew pays for food and drink. Cartagena, the oldest man on board, eyes a young hand across the table as he fills his steel mug with calimocho - a mixture of Coca-Cola and red wine. There is an edge to the conversation, which grinds on until Angel steps in: "There are only three fundamental things ... " He pauses until everyone is listening: "Potatoes, oil and bread".

The Beti Zorionak is spacious below deck. A corridor below the bridge connects the mess-deck and the galley to the cabins; one for Xuxo, the chief mechanic, one I share with Moreno and Eldelmiro (the cook and the second mechanic) and two dormitories for the 10 deckhands. There is a washroom with basins, lavatories - wall bars help you balance while you squat - and showers. The corridor skirts around the engine room and the relentless groan of its 680-horsepower motor. The boat was built 30 years ago along simple, solid lines. The pipes in the engine room are painted yellow, red, green or blue - for diesel, oil, fresh and salt water. Polished tools line the walls, brightly lit as if in a window display. On the bridge, Antonio takes a reading from the Global Positioning System to transmit to Cork and Madrid. The water is still too deep for the seabed to register on the scanner, which sounds to 600 fathoms.

The Spanish world service radio's daily programme Spaniards at Sea leads with news of the crew of a Spanish ship in court in Bantry after colliding with, and sinking, an Irish boat off Dursey Island. The Irish boats are small and wooden-hulled, and the Irish skipper - a popular local figure - was killed. He was buried with a naval guard of honour. Ireland's Minister of the Marine attended. The Spanish were charged with negligence, which Irish fishermen considered an understatement. According to Spain's embassy in Dublin, this is what lies behind the recent crackdown on Spanish boats in the Box. So far this year, the number of boardings is up by a quarter. The Irish are marshalling pounds 40 million a year and 1,000 Navy personnel to guard their waters. Of the 15 boats in Irish courts at the moment, 10 are Spanish-owned.

We have entered, I realise, the field of conflict.


We steam past a group of seven Spanish long-liners. Angel fences with them over the radio in his drawling gallego. "Me cago en dios! - I shit on God!" are the only words in Spanish, but they pepper every transmission. Among Spanish fishermen, the Galicians are the pioneers. Even when they sailed wooden-hulled boats they had to look beyond their own waters. So this thick, butch gallego can be heard on seas all over the world.

The trawler Pitufo passes by, on her way back to La Coruna, where she is famous. The day we set sail, Galician papers reported that Irish inspectors had ordered Pitufo to port on suspicion of catching undersized fish. She was released, but her skipper says he nearly had a heart attack. The fines, the catch, the crew's wages everything was at stake. The other skippers call him on the radio, laughing, listening, wishing him well. He is a returning hero. I ask Angel what is so special about him. He doesn't answer. He has become tense and quiet as we get closer to the grounds. Finally he grunts: "He always comes back with more than anyone else."

Through his binoculars Angel identifies a Dutch freezer ship, probably fishing for mackerel. He is on the lookout for inspectors, and thought it was a patrol boat. The inspectors infuriate him: he claims that they are breaking the rules. They board without warning at night, when boats are under way. "If one of them falls in," he says, "then he'll be under the propeller in seconds and we'll be blamed. We're not against inspections. They should inspect, but not like this." He says that in Scotland, where they had recently spent 36 days, the inspectors would call to notify boats of inspection and ask them to lower their ladders.

I tell him what I had heard in La Coruna. That the monkfish stocks in Scottish waters have been destroyed by the flagships. That some captains only fill out the logbook when they are inspected, leaving them free (if they escape inspection) to enter fewer fish than they have actually caught. That some skippers do not hesitate to boast about overfishing. That everyone jeers at the inspectors. One skipper said: "A rich man used to put his son in the church, now he makes him a fishing inspector. They're thick." I tell him that none of the other shipowners in La Coruna would let me aboard, and that I can guess why not.

Angel is calm. "I've nothing to hide," he says. "The problem with the flagships is that they have a very small quota."

Down below, on the quarterdeck, the crew are tying hooks. It looks like a sweatshop: each man has to tie 2,000 hooks a day. Sheaves of line hang like hair above the working tables. I talk to Casimiro. He barely looks down as he makes a loop at the end of a line, holds a silver shining hook beside it with thumb and forefinger, winds the line round four times, pulls tight and cuts the end with a knife. The skin of his hands is thick and yellowed with salt water. He's only been on the Beti a year. Most of the others have been with Angel since he bought the boat eight years ago. But Casimiro has been at sea for 20 years, most of them spent fishing for swordfish around the Canary Islands.

"This is the number one boat in Burela," he says. It has a stable crew - a sign that it makes money (profits are shared). Casimiro has had bad luck in the past. He once returned from a two-month trip and was paid nothing. It is not unheard of for crews to end up owing money. But if all goes well on this trip, and the captain does a good job, he could make pounds l,000.

Burela is a small town, but it has become one of the leading bases from which the Spanish Gran Sol fleet - the Spanish-owned and registered vessels - sails to French, British and Irish waters (with the relevant permits). In 1994, when it was at the centre of the Tuna War, the Spanish fleet of liners massed in Burela attacked the French for using illegally long nets. They rammed French boats, lobbed Molotov cocktails, and even towed the Gabrielle back to Burela as a prize. Angel doesn't want to talk about it except to say that it was Asturians and not Galicians who did the kidnapping. He pauses, then adds: "The thing about fishing is it makes you very envious. You get hotter and hotter under the collar until ... " Silence again.

He is toying with his options. Either we stay in the Box - so called because it is the rectangle formed by the waters round Ireland, including the Irish Sea - and go to El Coral. Or we steam to a bank called "Porcupine". If we stay in El Coral it will be the first time the Beti has fished in the Box. Spanish vessels were banned from it until 1996. The Spanish government boasted that getting its boats into the Box was a political achievement, but, according to Angel, most of the cofradias (fishermen's associations) were against it. "We said it would be better if no one fished there. We know that if the fish are left to breed in the Box, then they'll come to the grounds outside." The government paid no attention. The Beti stayed outside the Box last year, but for hake fishermen the Box means El Coral, and El Coral is rich for only three months of the year, from April to June. This is when the fish are spawning.

There are obvious questions here about the long-term damage to fish stocks. But they are not pressing ones for a captain with a crew on a profit-share and a break-even of around pounds 15,000 per trip. "We are not going to be idiots," says Angel. "If other boats fishing there, then we will too ... "


Hunched like a chess player, Angel reaches his decision. He opts for El Coral. But there is a problem. The permit for the Beti to fish within the Box starts on 22 April. We will have to wait for two days without fishing. It seems extraordinary that out of sight of anyone, in the middle of a vast expanse of water, the regulations have any binding force. I wonder if he will really wait.

We pull into El Coral in the middle of the night. It's like arriving late at a party. There are already 10 boats, all brightly lit and long- lining for hake. Angel is glued to the radio, making notes on scraps of paper, drawing diagrams in a notebook and writing names, which he is constantly rubbing out and moving to new positions. The radar shows a bunch of orange blips and a few stragglers: Jose Luisa y Mary, Greenland, Sylvanna, Hermanos Garcia, Madre Querida, Ayr Quin. There are five Spanish-registered boats, four British and one French. But every single one is Spanish-owned, and all the pescas - the skippers - are Galicians. Angel knows them by their voices. The bridge fills up with crew.

"How's it looking" I ask when the radio chat has subsided. He turns his gaze towards me as if he is returning from another world.

"Fucked." He laughs.

We stare out of the windows at the distant blaze of deck lights jiggling around in the dark. Then we hear one of the British captains speaking Spanish. At night the navigation captain, or costa, is usually on duty. These costas are often British, and I think I recognise a voice from La Coruna.

"You should try and learn English, it's in your interest. My captain's certificate is recognised in more places than yours ... " "don't care ... no way, no way," moans a Spanish costa. "I'm taking pills for depression. I don't want to think about it." Angel hands the receiver to Cartagena, who shouts down the line, telling the costa to get on with his job and mind his own business. The airwaves erupt ("Me cago en dios!") with laughter.

"He's sharp," says Xuxo, nodding at Angel. "Muy fino."


Slack-faced and bleary, the deckhands shuffle into the kitchen and take coffee from the Thermos at two in the morning. After a week at sea, and a two-day pause waiting for our permit to become valid, this is the first day of fishing. The mate, Traile, is in charge. A few years younger than Cartagena, he has an intelligent tanned face, a moustache and a crest of unruly hair.

The hands open a hatch in the passageway and start hauling up boxes of frozen sardines. Antonio comes down to supervise; everyone else puts on oilskins. The sardines are dragged to the quarterdeck with long iron hooks and hosed down. In a few moments, when they have thawed, the hands pull out boxes full of flattened coils of thick line, with hooks attached by thinner lines. They bait each hook with a sardine, and restack the boxes.

Word comes down from Angel to bait up 110 boxes, or aparejos. This means that 8,800 hooks have to be baited. With 11 men it will take only a couple of hours. Traile seems happy. In fact they all seem relieved to have started.

At 5.30 they shoot the gear. Angel manoeuvres the boat to the exact position he's chosen as part of the complex etiquette of long-lining, parallel with the other boats and on the outside of the formation. Eidelmiro recharges the battery of one of the buoy's homing devices, and with the boat motoring slowly, the deckhands lug it over the side, followed by four hefty granite blocks which whip out a safety rope from the deck as they sink to the bottom.

As the boat leaves the buoy, the palangre - the "fleet" of long lines and hooks - begins to pay out. Five boxes of baited hooks are lined up on the conveyor-belt-like tray on the quarterdeck. Traile is at the mouth of the hatch. He watches as the line and the sardines are plucked from the first box, then tosses a small float overboard and shouts to the others working behind him; he shoves a new box into position and pulls the empty box inside. After every five boxes he signals for a granite weight. When the fleet is finished he has more weights thrown, and another buoy.

What is left on the seabed is a strange, fragile contraption 12km long: a huge zigzag line held up by floats and pulled down by granite, inconspicuous enough to present the hake with nothing more than a row of sardines floating in the current.

I go to bed just before dawn, exhausted. The others will carry on until 8.30. I haven't been sleeping well because of the noise, and because I haven't yet hit on a way of lying still. But this time I find the engine's roar almost musical. I curl up in a foetal position, my knees against one side of the bunk, my back against the other. As we steam to drop the second fleet, the boat moves at a lolloping canter. For the first time, I fall into a sweet sleep.


I wake in the afternoon to the smell of fish. Antonio and Xuxo are busy transferring lines from big black plastic baskets to crates in a flurry of movement. They nod greetings to me. I sense that I am welcome, that I can lend a hand.

Everyone except Angel helps to unravel the fleets when they start to come in. In the fo'c'sle I find a sedate, orderly scene. Traile, in yellow oilskins, hair still stuck up like a cockerel, smiles crookedly from his place by the winch where he watches the line come in. The palangre comes on to the deck, bare hooks jumping like flies. Casimiro lays it in tangled circles in a black basket, sinking the hooks into the foam rubber round the lip. The others are untangling the used sets of tackle.

"Where are the fish?" I ask. Chapa, the young hand in charge of gutting, shows me the dark, slimy backs of five fish, about half-a-metre long, in a single white plastic tray. Their eyes bulge like marbles. He motions to me over the noise of the winch. The new arrivals slither down from the platform where they land, with a smack, for the hook to be pulled out. They have bright silvery flanks, bloated bodies, and what looks like an inflated tongue in their jaws. Chapa gaffs one deftly, holds it by the gills and slices into the white stomach, cutting upwards. He digs his fingers into the cut and pulls out what looks like a pair of white lungs. He chucks them into a tray.

"Eggs," he says. "There'd have been even more a few weeks ago." We stare at the pregnant fish for a moment, knowing what this means. I say nothing. Even the crew seems uncomfortable.

The tongue-like thing is in fact the fish's stomach, blown out by the decompression of being dragged up from 300 fathoms. Along with the rest of the guts, the remains of sardines and a small by-catch of unwanted fish, it is sent down a chute into the sea. The gutted fish go into a steel tank full of clean sea water.

They have been at it for less than an hour. Already the rhythm is relentless. The boat has become a small, cramped factory. After lunch, the night shift joins in; now, a dozen men grapple with the incoming lines. They work steadily, in silence. The fish seem almost an afterthought in some mysterious manufacturing process, passers-by caught in a web woven and unwoven every day.


On the bridge Angel tells me that a nearby Irish gunboat has already boarded six boats. I say that I hope it inspects the Beti. Angel thinks it quite likely. I go on to the upper deck to take a look. The gunboat is steaming around the other fishing boats about three miles away, close to the horizon. I expect an official looking launch, and am surprised to see a miniature battleship, complete with a gun turret. It changes shape as it steams in circles in the distance, sometimes looking as if it is heading in our direction. Then it turns and disappears over the horizon.

Angel beckons me into the wheelhouse, hands me the radio and explains that he wants me to make an announcement on the open channel. I take the microphone, and try for an official voice.

"Attention! All those boats inspected this morning are under arrest. Please proceed to port."

Then we sit back and listen to the responses.

"It was this afternoon, not this morning. Me cago en dios!"

"That's just what we need."

"Me cago en la Virgen!"

Angel chuckles. Between pescas, the radio is a continual game of poker. No one reveals what they are really catching - unless they are from the same family, and then they scramble the channel. Some, like Angel, never talk about fish at all.


We are on the edge of the continental shelf, at 348 fathoms, on the western side of the ground. Angel didn't have much room to manoeuvre, but had to choose whether to fish on the "wet" or the "dry" side of the other boats. He opted for the "wet", the deeper side. El Coral is named after a coral bed which makes it inaccessible to trawlers, whose nets would snag on the coral, though gill-netters, the bane of the long-line fisherman, can fish there with their static nets. One gill-netter, White Sands, comes quite close, but for now the zone is covered by liners. We have to wait for some of the other boats to turn for home; then the Beti can move closer to the middle, where the fishing is usually best.

I ask Angel what counts as a good day's fishing.

"Thirty, 40 boxes," he says. "Sixty is a lot. But it depends on the price. If everyone is fishing a lot the price drops. Sometimes you don't fish as much and make more money. At Christmas, when the price goes up, it can reach 1,600 pesetas (pounds 8) a kilo. Then in the summer when there are lots of fish, it falls to 700 pesetas or less. Depends on the size too - bigger fish are worth more."

"What about the fish we've caught so far?"

"They're a good size. But you don't get the really big ones any more, six kilos or so. In the summer, when we go to the beach."

"The beach?"

"Seventy, 80 fathoms. Here Angel spreads a map in the wood-panelled hallway between the bridge and the cabins.

"In the summer the fish are smaller."

I pore over the maps. The main banks and particular spots - some official names, others known only to fishermen - are marked on the spiralling contours of the seabed. Angel points out the places, such as El Coral, which all the pescas know: Pistol, Swimming Pool, Penicillin, The Jungle, Knife, Head of a Dog, Anton's Avenue, Marisol's Tits. Some are named after the shape of the contours, others from some now-forgotten incident. On another map the fishing grounds are marked in red, blue and green symbols according to the species they hold. A neat group of green triangles - hake - is marked El Coral, about 65 miles due west of the south-western tip of Ireland. The map is dated 1976.

"This is still valid?" I ask.

"More or less," says Angel. A pesca not knowing this map would be like a lorry driver not knowing cities and motorways.

Angel has decided I have much to learn. He pulls out books from the drawers and cupboards on the bridge, darting back to check on Traile and the line coming on to the platform. He inundates me with data, showing me the fishing regulations drawn up by the northern Galician cofradias in 1994 (since dropped because they were ignored by the boats in La Coruna). He shows me the logbooks and an almanac of the Spanish fleet. I struggle to concentrate on the pages of print. Outside, the fish are hauled in.


Chapa shows me how to repack the line, feeding it out of its bowl and into the crate, coiling it and sticking the hooks into a strip of foam on the edge. The bowls spin on metal spokes, and the line inside is twisted. It comes alive as soon as I pick it up.

"Just send it the way the line asks you to," says Chapa. The line's angry loops ease into flat coils. Then it seems just to scuttle into the crate. It is all done with the fingertips, without forcing.

I try, but it is like getting a snake to lie down. The boat is pitching, and the hooks on the smaller lines snag me when I try to untangle them. I find myself flailing. My gaze rests enviously for a moment on my neighbour's tidy bowl.

My first box takes three hours, with help from several hands, who have taken about half an hour on theirs.

I grab Traile's oilskinned arm and, raising my voice above the winch, ask him what I can do. He smiles. "What am I going to tell you? You watch and then join in. Wherever you like."

Eldelmiro tries to talk me out of it. I'll get wet. But when I persist, he lends me a set of oilskins and boots and I am greeted in the fo'c'sle with amused encouragement.

"Be careful, they bite," calls out Littbarski. Most of the men go by nicknames: Littbarski is named after a German footballer.

I pick fish out of the tank and lay them head to tail in white plastic trays. "You have to pamper fish," says Chapa, repeating a phrase I have heard Angel use. Sorting them here on board means that the fish will be handled as little as possible on land.

Hake are ugly brutes, like fat eels with big heads, but once the effects of decompression subside - the eyes returning to their sockets - they have a certain sleekness. Any fish with a cut in the flesh, or that has lost a few scales, is put in a discount box. The Beti has a reputation to maintain. Angel says that Burela's hake sells for a few hundred pesetas more per kilo than La Coruna's.

Later, Chapa broods for a while when I ask what lured him to sea, as if trying to compress different things into his answer. He looks healthier than when we set sail - he has already told me that he sleeps even less at home than in the boat, so as not to waste time when he could be enjoying himself.

He did badly at school, and his father, a seaman, said: "At least he'll do for the sea." To scare him. Everyone knows that life at sea is hard. But he saw friends coming back from fishing with lots of cash, buying nice cars and motorbikes. "Now it's difficult to get out," he says. "What kind of job could I find on land, at my age?" At 30, he is one of the younger deckhands. He has been on the Beti for eight years.

He is meticulous about his job, a useful side effect of the profit-sharing system, so I too am careful to be gentle with the hake. While we are talking I see the end of a hook in the gills of a fish I have just boxed. It is flapping about, as hake often do even after they've been gutted, so I reach in to stop the hook damaging the other fish. A pain like an electric shock makes me jerk my hand back. I must have cried out because the others are smiling. I have been bitten by a hake. Chapa advises: "I know it's difficult, but it's best not to pull your hand away when that happens. It makes the cut worse."

The hake's teeth have sliced clean through my rubber glove. When I take it off, I find my hand covered in blood and two neat razor slits in the tip of my finger. Hake bites bleed so much that they don't swell up like other wounds at sea. But my new-found concern for hake conservation suffers a momentary dip.


At dawn, as we steam to drop the first fleet of the day, I am huddling in the lee of the wheelhouse with Cartagena, Casimiro, Chapa, and Manolo, an energetic new hand who is deaf. The sun is rising slowly, spreading a yellow light over the heavy sea. The Beti crashes down from the crests of the waves. Feeling sick again, I concentrate on a gannet skimming the surface; it often seems about to plough into a bank of water, but the water always falls away at the last moment. I notice the others watching too. "Not a single mistake," says Manolo admiringly.

I have surprising dreams aboard the Beti, ones that take me back to people and places in the past I thought I had forgotten. Many leave me with a feeling of regret, of not having done or said something, of not knowing then what I know now. It's a common enough sensation, but at sea such dreams seem unnaturally clear. I wake in my bunk and can recall everything, even adding extra touches, fresh details of rooms and people at certain moments.

I tell some of the crew, and they listen sympathetically. They agree that it is easy to get mixed up in stupid thoughts at sea. Eldelmiro says there are two thoughts in particular you have to hold at bay, fears about your family - because only in very serious cases involving the immediate family will you get a message from home - and regret over things you have said or done.

This badly hidden side to their bravado, this strategy for forgetting, is something which seems to shape the fishermen as much as the constant physical tussle with the sea and the cold.


I am losing track of the days. We must be over halfway through the voyage, but there is no date set for our return. I think back to my local market near Barcelona. On Saturdays the aisles between the fishmongers are jammed with stout senoras. Hake goes so fast a porter is constantly emptying two- or three-kilo boxes of palangre on to the ice: if they are line-caught they are marked palangre, and if they are trawled they are just called merluza or hake. The senoras will pay more for palangre, because it is better quality. It's been pulled out of the sea on a hook, not mashed up with a mass of other fish in a net.

Before my voyage, I had called up Carlos Roberto Jones - Charlie the Fish to his English friends - an international fish broker. He took me down to Barcelona's wholesale fish market, one of the biggest in Europe, at five in the morning. Charlie, half-English, half-Argentine, grew up in Madrid and went to university in Oxford. His father persuaded him to go for "a proper job" in the City. He ended up broking fish.

He moved to Barcelona four years ago to be closer to the buyers. He's big in prawns, especially Australian kings. He's a force in Nile perch, a delicious freshwater fish from Lake Victoria which is served up all over Spain as grouper. He dabbles in lots of fresh fish - he doesn't do frozen - and has developed a good line in South African hake. He can switch from Oxford English to fish-market argot, and does the same in Spanish, as comfortable in his black leather jacket fingering a consignment of Mexican octopus as he is hobnobbing with smart clients in Santander.

He's been complaining for a while that a once-sophisticated market is in decline. Every species - and there are five or six of hake (merlusius merlusius, the British-Irish one, being the real McCoy) - used to have its own price. That suited his taste for intricacies. The Spanish eat 38.4 kilos of fish per head per year, more than twice the British or Irish consumption and three times the German. As significant, 70 per cent of the roughly pounds 1 billion they spend on fish a year is spent on fresh fish.

This requires a culture of standing in line at the fishmonger. But that is slowly dying. Today, price sets the agenda: it comes down to what supermarkets can sell for under 1,000 pesetas a kilo.


Up on the bridge during the night, I talk to Antonio. He is more militant than Angel about the palangreros, preaching the superiority of long-lining over other methods. Gill-nets are too efficient and indiscriminate, he thinks. Spanish boats have never been allowed to use them outside their own waters and there are only a few licenses for coastal waters - but British and Irish boats are keen on them. One gill-netter, a British flagship, caught seven tonnes of hake in one day a month ago. Antonio despises such catches. "You know the fish we put aside to sell off cheap? Their fish is all like that." Liners catch only hake, and only hake big enough to eat a fairly large sardine. The only significant by-catch are a few beautiful red bream with eyes like golden paperweights.

Antonio says all this in a friendly way, but he is bitter about the Irish inspectors, and pessimistic about the future. "This way of fishing is coming to an end," he says. "We depend too much on other countries, England, Ireland, Portugal, Namibia, Morocco. We're the ones who pillage and rob. It's always been the same." We smoke our cigarettes together. The fishing has stalled. Only 19 boxes today. Hours pass with not a single hake coming up.

It is becoming obvious that, given a choice, none of the crew would think twice about taking a job on land. "This is not a life," says Nicolas. Antonio, the deckhand opposite, agrees. He is waiting another year, trying to save enough to start a business - a bar or shop - with his wife.

Later, we are chatting with the chief mechanic, Xuxo, in the mess-deck, at around 11pm. Xuxo is tall, lanky and pale, with thick, pointed lips; when he speaks he sits sideways on the bench, hangs his head and shuffles restlessly like a child.

"I am upset. Very upset," he sighs. "There's a saying: the night is for foxes and the sea for fishes. Out of choice no one comes out here. No one." His two-and-a-half-year-old son came down to the docks to see him off this time and called out to him. If there were other jobs going there wouldn't be anyone left on the boat, he says. Xuxo is one of the luckier ones: for every two trips at sea, he spends one on land, unlike the deckhands.

Nicolas tells me how his son, when he had just learned to talk, asked him where he was going.

"To the sea."

"Don't go, Daddy, don't go."

"But I have to go, to earn money to buy clothes and sweets."

"I've got money," said the boy, and went to fetch some toy coins he'd been saving. "Here you are. Now you can stay."

I suddenly see the Beti Zorionak in a very simple light, as I sit missing my own daughter. It is a ship of absent fathers.


Angel comes into the galley while I am waking up over a cup of coffee. "The gunboat was here last night," he says casually.

"But they didn't come aboard," I say.

"Oh yes, they came aboard."

I let out an angry whine. "And nobody woke me up?"

"Tranquilo, they didn't come aboard this boat."

Angel is relieved. Inspections are risky. The Beti has twice been arrested and escorted to port. Once it was justified: Angel and Antonio were caught fishing in Zone VII, where they did not have a permit. The other time, though, they were arrested for not having an identification number on the buoys - a technicality, since the buoys did carry the boat's name in large letters.

The Irish inspectors had tried to surprise their targets. To evade radar, they dropped their launch six miles away from the fishing boats, at 3am, and approached through a thick mist. The first boat they boarded, the Madre Asuncion, was a Spanish-registered vessel. They gave it a formal warning for not having the logbook correctly filled out. The day's fishing has to end at midnight and the log be filled out for the day, even though for a liner the day does not really end until the last fish have been pulled aboard in the early hours of the morning. It was only a technical infraction, but it was punishable.

Over the radio, the Madre Asuncion told everyone to get their logs filled out fast. The inspectors boarded five more boats, but found everything in order.


We know now that we will stop fishing on the evening of 4 May. The Beti is booked in to sell its catch in Burela three days later. Cartagena calculates that he has to shoot the gear only one more time. Moreno serves pulpo a la gallega, octopus with oil, red pepper and potatoes, to celebrate. The faces around the table look exhausted.

I go to the fo'c'sle, where the evening sun comes through the winch door like a slab of butter. The walls are plastered with pictures from porn magazines: huddles of bodies frozen in climactic moments. "Now we're heading home," explains a deckhand, "we have to get in the mood."

Angel is locked into a lengthy debate on the radio. The Beti is about to leave El Coral, and he has to allocate new positions for the other boats, writing and rubbing out names on a list again. Even over the radio, his voice has an edge sharp enough to cut through arguments. He has not once been down to the fo'c'sle. His only orders have been about the tackle boxes before the first day's fishing. I have seen him lose his temper only once, when a few fish fell off their hooks before coming aboard and had to be retrieved with a long gaff.

But now he cracks. We are about to finish the last fleet and turn for home. I am in the mess-deck, reading. Angel appears.

" ... dios!"

He snatches open a cupboard above my head and flicks a bank of switches down. All the lights go out, except the one in the kitchen. Moreno comes to the doorway. Some kind of emergency?

"What's up?" I ask.

Moreno shrugs. "When a Galician loses it ... "

I take a look down the passageway to the fo'c'sle. I hear only the sloshing of the bilge water and hushed voices in the dark.

Xuxo comes up from the engine room. I follow him up to the bridge. There is nobody there, but I can see three deckhands struggling with a buoy up by the prow. Looking back, I glimpse Angel in his cabin with his feet up. He mutters to Xuxo.

The lights come on. Everyone asks quietly what happened, and then cottons on. The last palangre got entangled with the next-door boat's, often a messy problem. This time it was easily solved. But Angel flipped. Fatigue, the pressure of maintaining the right tone on the boat, the fear of arrest, the financial and navigational worries - everything came to a head. "He hardly knows what he's doing when he's like this," says Xuxo, shaking his head. The incident is over quickly. Nobody mentions it again.


I have been trying to find the right moment to ask Antonio about something Angel has told me. Last year the Beti lost a man. Antonio was in charge when it happened.

We are on the bridge, in the dark early hours of the morning.

"What happened?"

Antonio looks straight ahead, out to sea. "It was on the second or third of July. When we set off it was clear Iaki wasn't well. He was cramped and ill, but he was always like that for the first four or five days. Then he cut his thumb with a hook. On his last day he didn't have any lunch. We were still a few hours from reaching Porcu-pine where we were going to fish. The crew woke me up at about five in the afternoon. We're missing Iaki, they said. We searched the boat from top to bottom. Someone found his slippers on the poop deck. I put the boat into the search routine. We steamed up and down along parallel courses. Nothing. There was a force- eight gale blowing. So we turned back to Burela to report it to the Guardia Civil."

Iaki was 27. His family said he had problems with drugs, though none of the crew ever saw him take anything.

"How did the crew handle it?" I ask.

"That day you suffer. I didn't eat. I smoked three packets of cigarettes. And on the way back ... but then you get over it."

He turns round and stares at me.

"This life is shit. Do you call this living?"


We have been lucky with the weather, and no one is more grateful than me. Now it seems our luck is about to change. As we head for home, the printout from the meteorological office in Bracknell, England, shows a depression coming up from the south. The BBC is forecasting gale force eight.

The wind strikes, but it comes bang on the stern. So it just pushes us on faster. We ride the waves like a surfer, the prow hanging over a trough for a moment before sliding back with a motion that would have had me retching three weeks ago. The deck tips into extreme, almost vertical positions, as we roll off sideways - but gently, in slow motion. At the bottom of each trough I look up at walls of water ahead and steep hills surging up behind. On the crests, the horizon bursts into view. On any other course we would be in danger. On the radio we hear that Spanish boats on the north coast are confined to port. Those on an outward course will have to turn back or point their bows into the wind and sit it out. But for us the wind is a godsend. We're making 11 knots, instead of the usual nine and a half. "When the wind is behind," says Angel, "all the saints help."


Traile is tying hooks alone in the fo'c'sle, dressed like a jogger in an old sea-green tracksuit with a hood. I ask him how he became a fisherman. He stops smiling for a moment. Puts his head on one side. Finishes a hook.

"Money," he says finally. "I was a painter, working for myself. I painted my uncle's flat. He was in the Guardia Civil. May he rest in peace, he's dead now. And we were in a bar drinking wine and there were fishermen who had just come back from a trip talking about how much they had earnt. My uncle said that if I wanted he'd find me a place. The first time I went out we sailed from La Coruna to Ferrol, and at Ferrol I asked the shipowner to let me go, I was really sick. But he encouraged me to stay."

A pause; he finishes another hook.

"You know how to recognise a fisherman ashore? He can't converse. He doesn't know what's going on. Football, politics, anything. I find it even with my children. We're illiterate. We know how to read and write, but we're illiterate."

Xuxo joins us. He too earnt more in the past. These days, the boat has heavier expenses, and the owners have recently increased their cut of the revenue from 50 per cent to 60 per cent, to cover the new, higher social-security payments.

"What about the disputes with Britain and Ireland?"

"I think there should be more inspections, or a biological rest period like they have in Morocco. Then prices would go up. We'd earn more and so would the owners. The more we fish, the more fish there seem to be, and the price is lower."

"The owners in Burela tried to have a month with no work," says Traile. "But they gave up when they saw others fishing."

For our last dinner, someone produces a bottle of whiskey. We have Irish coffee.


On the bridge at two in the morning. I see the light from the land from 20 miles out and then the shape of the breakwater becoming clearer with every sweep on the radar.

We slip into the quiet harbour. I've picked up something - I hope it is only flu - on board, so when I step ashore I feel almost as bad as when I set out. The crew unload 780 boxes - 14 tonnes - of hake, the 10 boxes of eggs, and a few crates of conger eels and bream. The sorters, pillar-like women in green oilskins, rearrange the boxes, rapidly weighing and counting. The chilled fish gives off a strange, unfishy acrid smell. Angel stands by and makes a methodical map of the expanse of boxes, stacked two high and spread out to cover half the warehouse.

The auction begins at eight. It starts with the freshest, smallest fish and works up in size. The auctioneer, a neckless man in glasses, stands on the edge of a box and sings what sounds like a single, many-syllabled word; then he stops dead as if someone has flicked a switch. Thirty or 40 buyers with mobile phones follow him, balancing on the rims of crates without ever slipping into the precious merchandise beneath their feet. The price starts at 1,180 pesetas a kilo and holds steady. It has been a successful trip. The deckhands will clear close to 250,000 pesetas (pounds 1,000).

It is time for goodbyes, but there is still work to be done. The ship has to be cleaned, boxes have to be stacked. And in any case there is little to say. Back on land I have quickly ceased to be part of the crew. And they leave too often to make much of farewells.


Back at my home near Barcelona, there are strange adjustments to make. Not having to hold my plate when I eat. Clean clothes. Opening the front door and going for a walk.

I am telling friends about the trip, trying to explain what I have learned. But it is hard to summarise, apart from saying that humans are almost supernaturally adaptable. Most people want to know how blatantly the Spanish fishermen are flouting the regulations. I can only say that the Beti is a successful, legitimate boat; some are not. It doesn't take much to see that 30 metre boats with three-tonne monthly hake quotas are either losing money or overfishing. Or that while most Galician ports shun gillnetters and are campaigning to have them banned, in La Coruna some palangreros were being fitted with gill-nets. For a reduced fleet of Spanish-registered boats, the quota is accommodating enough to make rule-breaking unnecessary, but the rules themselves seem faulty. Conservation is wheeled out to mobilise public opinion; mixed with nationalism it is particularly potent. But it slips easily off the political agenda. Some fishermen want more regulations, as long as they are good ones. They, after all, are in the best position to feel how disastrous jealous rivalries can be.

I sense that my friends want a simpler answer. But what can I say? I guess I had expected to find greed and perhaps recklessness among the fishermen, a disregard for the future. Instead, I found hard-working men convinced that their way of life is doomed. Pirates? Even in a good month they earn only pounds 1,000. I feel a brief fisherman's prickliness at not being understood.

I am struck by a strange feeling. I look at my watch. By now, Angel will be once more riding the heaving motion as his boat hits the swell. The men of the Beti Zorionak are at sea again.

! This article appears in the new Granta, 'The Sea', available now in bookshops, price pounds 7.99, or direct from Granta for pounds 5.99 (freecall phone/fax 0500 004033 for details).