Nick's voiceover for his award-winning film, The Wrecking Season, quoted in full.
Cornwall is a finger of rock sticking out into the Atlantic, surrounded by water on three sides. This coast faces West.
The tide comes in and goes out again twice a day and each time it leaves a strandline. And every item on that strandline has been on a journey and has a story to tell.
Some are local and some have travelled for thousands of miles.
I’m a modern wrecker and one way or another I can trace everything. A quick search on the internet locates any object back to its source.
When I go out first thing in the morning, working the beaches, I say I’m wrecking, not beachcombing.
When I find something I ask three questions – what is it? Where’s it come from and what is it doing on the ocean?
When I was a boy everyone in the parish went wrecking.
The first thing I ever found was a big tin of sherbert. It was sitting there on the strandline one morning, it was yellow. I ate the lot and I was sick in the river.
My son Jim is a marine biologist and every time he comes home he tells me something new about the gulf stream.
The Gulf Stream keeps us warm and delivers our long haul drift. It runs up the spine of the Atlantic then it cools, sinks and runs back down again, part of the conveyor which shifts currents around the globe.
Curt Ebbesmeyer is an oceanographer who specialises in surface currents. He tracks anything that floats. He lives in Seattle, USA on the other side of the planet and he gave me a clue as to what it was that kept the parquet flooring together.
I came across Curt when I was researching a lobster tag that I’d found.
On 11th Oct the following year it washed ashore on this beach
Some servicemen at the local US airbase heard that I was picking up American fishing gear and asked me to come and talk to them about it.
I work 4-6 single pots on marks which my father showed me. I catch about 100 lobsters a year, of which I throw back at least half because they are below the minimum size.
There’s nothing more temporary than a calm sea round here. The trick is to use the ocean whatever its state.
Kevin’s port in Rhode Island sustains an almost identical fishery as my port Padstow, 3000 miles east, where my mate Mike England has a boat, which he inherited from his father, Trevor. Mike fishes for lobster and crab.
These are inkwell pots. They’re made fast to a piece of rope called a becket. That’s joined to the strop by a spinner, the strop is spliced to the back rope. They’re twelve fathoms apart. The backrope is connected to the end weight and the bouy rope runs off that. You’ve got dans secured both ends. You can have thirty pots to a tier.
Even the most diligent of fishermen lose there gear. Inkwells dance in a ground sea, which can lift the lot and dash it to pieces.
Throughout the wrecking season buffs, bongos, dans, gate hooks, bait rings, pot necks, parlours, creels, nantes, soft eyes, the poetry of fishing is scattered along the strandline.
In this parish us wrecker’s have always been fishermen. Jack Brenton and Sid Sandry shot a trammel net across Trescore and Harry Parkin was a quarrier. He had access to dynamite so when the fishing was slack he’d lob a half a dynie in the sea and stun em into submission. He never went home empty handed.
He shoots his traps in St.Eval bight where I shoot mine. Good ground for lobsters, rock onto sand.
Every rock and cove in the parish has a name. Porth & Gear, The Nancy, Rubble Cove, Buttercove, Porthmear, Tottycove, Trescore, The Turtle –
These names show how much this coast was once used but they are nearly forgotten. If that happens their history will have be gone forever, and if a community loses its past its in danger of losing its way.
My grandfather was a sea captain. He spent his whole life at sea. He was wrecked himself twice off the cape. As a sailor he never wasted anything. So naturally he was the first on the beach when anything washed in.
This stretch of coast is notorious for ship wrecks.
That’s the Hemsley. It was on its last passage to Aberdeen to be broken up in 1967. The crew had been told to turn left at Land’s End, but the fog was thick as guts around Trevose head so they turned left there instead, ran into Fox Cove, walked up the cliff, knocked on Gerry Chandler’s door, sat down and had a cup of tea.
Coal appears on this beach almost every day. It comes from a wreck called the Silicia which drifted into Rowan Cove next door when its cargo of coal shifted in a gale. That was in 1895 and we’re still picking it. Over the years the lumps have got smaller but they still burn.
On the 18th of March 1967 the Torrey Canyon struck the Seven Stones off the Lands End. It spilt 100,000 tons of crude oil. The stench was overpowering. My mother was nauseous for weeks.
The old man was an authority on seabirds, but he was also a chicken farmer so he knew how to wring a bird’s neck. The morning trip to the beach to find oiled guillemots and razorbills became a dreaded ritual. They just sat in a sea of oil, waiting to be slaughtered.
Buried in the sands at Boobies Bay is a 2000 ton German freighter called the Karl. It was captured by the British in 1917. It was being towed when the line parted in heavy seas. It was a sailing ship which had 3 90ft steel masts.
The Kodima ran aground in a gail at Whitsands bay. It had a cargo of wood. Not good quality but useful.
Wreckers and there culture have been hijacked by the Romantic novelists. They are portrayed as murderous deviants who lured ships onto the rocks with a light tied to a donkey’s tail. Even though its never been documented and its completely impractical… Ships are wrecked because of Navigational error, loss of control, bad judgement or rough weather.
There’s a noble tradition of saving lives at sea. It was Cornish engineers who invented the Breachers bouy and limelight for light houses.
Wood plays a major part in a wrecker’s life. There’s a vast, horizontal forest, floating on the ocean. Every tree is represented, softwood, hardwood, dunage, for packing freight, pit props, fence posts, telegraph poles, all this lumber suits the Cornish very well, because the land of fish and tin has very few trees.
Most of the men in this parish were slingers who travelled from farm to farm doing jobs like threshing, hedging or picking mangles, but they would all go cliff before doin a day’s work and if there was wood washed in they would climb down and put it on their back. They would sell it or keep it for building. The rule was, and still is, if you get it across the high watermark its yours. They could get a day’s wages for a plank of wood.
Richard Crow has worked in the timber trade all his life and I asked him if he would identify some of my wreck wood.
All kind of wood fetches up. Oak, beach, birch, plain, rubber, opeppi, maranti.
All coastal houses over a certain age have lintels, beams and doorframes of exotic hardwoods culled from the sea. The wood still comes in but only a few of us build with it any more
Paul Tonkin has kept me on the road all my life. His grandfather, Dan, was a legendary wrecker.
Warwick Cowling farmed Pentire, he had Park Head to Porthmear, prime wrecking country.
Gerald Brenton worked with the old man in the farm but his father Harry was a master carpenter who made exquisite furniture out of wreck.
Ed Schliffke is a sport fisherman and also a great wrecker.
The toredo or ship worm bores big holes into the wood, its no good for building and when you try to burn it, it stinks the house out.
Anything what floats from warmer waters will soon be colonised by the goose barnacle.
Violet sea snails are rare visitors to these shores, they spend all their lives at sea, feeding exclusively on the by-the-wind sailors. These are hydroids, we sometimes get mass strandings of them. There sail can either be left or right handed and they are sorted into groups by the wind.
I often called out cetatean strandings, there have been many dolphin deaths in the last few years, but everything I find is recorded and logged onto a database somewhere in the world.
Anything natural live or dead, I phone Stella Turk.
These are trigger fish, they used to be sub-tropic, twenty years ago they were un heard of this far North.
This ocean wanderer is a sunfish. Its swimming close to the edge of its range here but the sea is heating up and they are more common, sea levels are rising. The Arctic ice is melting so the North Atlantic is getting less salty. This may affect the gulf stream, altering its course, chasing fish like this south again and making our climate much colder like Newfoundland where Jerry Tucker sees sea ice for most of the winter.
The occasional dead whale is buried where it lies on the beach but its worth looking out for the bones which resurface years later.
In 50 years of wrecking the biggest change I’ve noticed is synthetic. There’s a whole plastic continent out there, floating. Marine life suffers dreadfully. Fish are killed by it, birds ingest it. The stomachs of dead fulmars are full of it. On every strandline on every beach in the world there are nurdles. There are millions of them all over the ocean. All plastic products start out as these pellets. They are lost in transit and wind up in the sea. They absorb toxins. Vast numbers of fish mistake them for plankton or fish eggs and eat them. They become infertile or just die. This is a problem made not by those who use the ocean but by you and me, the plastic users.
Life for the small-scale inshore fisherman gets harder everyday. Industrial fishing is efficient but is unsustainable. Species are driven to extinction so people like Kevin have to work more gear for less fish and the price is forever low, he and Mike understand more than most that the ocean, for all its vastness and power is a finely tuned instrument that can not be messed around with.
While mankind continues to use the ocean as a dustbin, nature exploits it in a more amazing way. Deep in the rainforests of Central and South America grow some of the most exotic plants on the planet. Their seeds are hard as rock and when they drop onto the floor of the jungle are washed into the river where they float downstream and out into the open sea… The entada, hamburger bean, ipomoea, woodrose, sea purse, grey nickernut (used by Indians as money), sea coconut, star nut palm, brown nickernut (only 2 found in Cornwall), the mary’s bean with a cross on its back, held by women in childbirth and the sea pea, all are native in the tropics, all can drift, floating on the ocean for decades before being cast up onto a beach at the top of the tide when if conditions are right, they take root and grow.
The monkey ladder vine reaches 100 metres and falls like rope from the jungle canopy, perfect for Tarzan to swing on, its seedpod is 6ft long. The blossom of the oyo de buey, the eye of the bull, opens at night and is pollinated by bats. The flower of the ipomoea blooms for one night and opens when the moon is full. We grew these plants from seeds that we picked up off the beach.
I went to the Outer Hebrides the other day which is a great place for drift seeds. I met somebody there, who lives in castle bay on Barra who picked up a sea purse on a beach over twenty years ago and has kept it with her ever since.
Another wrecker is Dr. Paul Gainey, who has a forensic eye for everything natural on the beach.
I love it when words wash in because there’s always a story to investigate. Quite often just a few letters or a scrap of a sign is left by the ocean but its enough for me to follow a trail back to the heart of a community thousands of miles away.
The few wreckers who are left carry the tradition on their shoulders…
The ocean is utilised in many different ways, and those who use it for whatever reason lend their experience to a common fund. Its impossible for one mind to encompass the complexity of its workings, the subtly of its moods and the diversity of all life within it.
I make my living writing plays, and I have ways of creating a world in which the play can live. Wrecking is like following a master playwright at work. The sea decides what you pick up, everything is random, you chase the story. You have to be curious. There is order in the chaos. The sea is telling you something. Something very important. But you just never quite find out what it is.
Its the beginning of the day, you’re alone, first on the beach. No footprints, there’s a gale blowing, gigantic sea running, and there’s wreck as far as you can see. You’re alive. Your eyes are everywhere, your heart’s thumping, you’ve got such a sense of anticipation – some people jump out of aeroplanes for that kind of thrill. I just walk onto a beach.
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