Afloat with one of the last bastions of the artisan fishing industry

Weather permitting, from March to October around twenty beach-launched Under 10m boats, put to sea daily to harvest a species synonymous with the genteel seaside town that hosts the majority of the fleet.


The Bywaters have fished all their lives. Originally working on Lowestoft sidewinders back in the 70’s and 80’s David has worked a whole series of vessels from longliners and trawlers to netters and potters. Simon, a qualified Seafish Safety Trainer who partners him on their current boat, the Leeson Lady YH12, also fishes in his own right, as the brothers work their gear alongside each other, landing their catch separately, but utilising shared resources of fuel, bait and labour, only going their separate ways to process once ashore. There are five brothers in the family, three of them fishing and all from the same beach.

The Brown crab (Cancer pagurus) is a locally-migratory species that is fished all around the UK with an annual production figure in excess of 25,000 tonnes. From the Scottish “partens” to the huge West Country “cocks” this much loved and consumed species is netted and potted for, often throughout the year, with export markets developed for not only European tables, but for the Far East in recent years, where demand is steadily growing, shipped live, predominantly in vivier-equipped transport.



Having always wanted to go afloat with one of these last bastions of the artisan fishing industry, my chance came recently at the invitation of David and Simon Bywater who operate out of East Runton, just north of Cromer, and launch from the beach which is one of few entitled to be badged with the Cromer brand.


I find myself gliding into the yard of the David Bywater’s farm-unit factory at 2.30am on a starlit and breezy Norfolk morning. I’ve been told to be there at 0330, early enough, but even at this hour the converted farm sheds are alive with activity as the previous day’s catch are picked and packed to meet orders for the market stalls of Norwich and various other East Anglian eateries.

The guys are already loading bait for the morning, frozen Spanish scad and whole plaice frames and flounders, the by-products from local merchants. Time is of the essence as we hope to be afloat by 0400 and must be ashore again before 0900, lest we fall foul of the ebb and fail to beach on the patch of sand that is revealed by the falling tide. Too late and a potentially disastrous morning becomes a reality, as a murderous reef of rock appears at low water.



The boat itself bears scant resemblance to the wide beamed clinker-built workhorses of the past. A modern 8.50m Cheetah Cat, sporting twin 100hp petrol Honda outboards, is a swift and stable work platform taking them to their marks offshore within the six mile limit where 300 parlour pots in shanks of 20, sit doing their business along the chalk ground and hard bottom of the reefs where the populations of crabs and lobster abound.


Tractor-launched from a purpose-built cradle, it’s a quick launch.The boat hits the water astern and is pulled from its lodgings as the screws of the outboards bite. It’s all about teamwork though, as Simon on the tractor has to then be ferried out to us by Peter (another brother), aboard his smaller, singlehanded boat. Once Simon’s aboard, David turns the boat on a sixpence and we’re heading for the first shank of the morning, at a comfortable 15 knots.


Although the launch is swift and evidently seamless, Simon is keen to point out that with a Northerly swell running, it can be a different matter and not always quite so easy, with seas hitting the transom and the deck regularly becoming awash.


As an orange dawn breaks over the eastern horizon, we’re alongside the first dahn. The brothers fish traditional East Anglian parlour pots, 38” and 32” with steel frames which they net and rope themselves. Some have soft eyes and others hard plastic and the newer and lighter versions are equipped with bait bags rather than the normal strings, the introduction of which has not only saved enormous downtime when baiting, but ensures that the attractant, herring, scad or flounder, lasts longer in the pot and is not instantly destroyed by the ravenous crabs.