End of an era: Skipper Riaan Thompson tells how in 2016 he was asked to help save a boat in distress. Another was nearby but refused to help, sailing off to look for fish. Kassiesbaai’s first doctor, Wilhelm Afrika blames the stopping of fishing rights for the change in the community and how people no longer care for one another. Picture: LIZ MCGREGOR
End of an era: Skipper Riaan Thompson tells how in 2016 he was asked to help save a boat in distress. Another was nearby but refused to help, sailing off to look for fish. Kassiesbaai’s first doctor, Wilhelm Afrika blames the stopping of fishing rights for the change in the community and how people no longer care for one another. Picture: LIZ MCGREGOR

The cabin "was already under water. I was the last man on the boat. That is what a skipper must do. He must make sure that his crew is safe and only then can he get off the boat. I jumped into the water and tried to swim to the Dorothy [not the boat’s real name].

"I had just grabbed onto the edge of the boat when the men screamed at me that there was a big wave coming. They held on to me, dragging me along with the boat, as the wave broke. Then they pulled me in."

Riaan Thompson looks directly ahead as he tells this, his voice slow and heavy. He is a big man. At least 6ft tall and, at 43, still relatively young. But in that remembered moment, he appears again to be gripped by a paralysing fear. We are sitting in my car, out of the chilly wind. Behind us is the sea and I am imagining him lost in it, a chaotic and ruthless sea, poised to suck the air out of his lungs and drag him down to its depths.

A group of fishers troop past. We watch as they file into the hall opposite. Today, April 6 2016, is a milestone day for Kassiesbaai. Or, as the more sceptical might say — yet another milestone day for Kassiesbaai fishers. They are being invited to apply for the right to fish. There is irony here — this is a community that has lived off this slice of the ocean for nearly two centuries.

New ways: Communities are forced to form   co-operatives and the government   grants fishing rights collectively.  Picture: LIZ MCGREGOR
New ways: Communities are forced to form co-operatives and the government grants fishing rights collectively. Picture: LIZ MCGREGOR

But a bungling government has interfered time and again, taking away what the community considers to be its god-given rights to the fruit of the sea and then doling them out again in a haphazard and divisive fashion. Having acknowledged it has screwed up, the government has come up with a brilliant plan. The community is to form a co-operative and, henceforth, fishing rights will be granted collectively to the co-op.

Today, April 6 2016, officials from the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries have arrived to preside over the accreditation process. The weather is on their side: a 45km gale has kept all boats pinned to the harbour floor.

Thompson is one of the sceptics. And his near-death experience has served only to confirm his scepticism.

He has lived in Kassiesbaai all his life and has been a fisher for 27 years. "I love it," he says. "I have the sea in my blood. It’s lekker to be away from the house. Days like today are boring because you just have to walk around and sit here and there and lie here and there, but at sea it is always wonderful.

"The time goes quickly. When you come home at night, the day is sweeter. My evening is just: wash and eat and then it is time to sleep."

Monday October 24 2015 was a fishing day. He had been out at sea on the boat he normally skippers, the Mary Ann, and was walking home when a neighbour, Gerald Swart, stopped his bakkie beside him. Swart was agitated. Another boat, the Agulhas, still out at sea, was in trouble.

"Gerald asked me if I would take his boat, Mrs H, and go and fetch the Agulhas," Thompson says. "Gerald said he didn’t want to send just anyone with his boat because not anyone could drive it. I was familiar with its engine. I said to him, well, okay, if you can’t find anyone else, I will go.

"I had already hung up my oilskin and was getting undressed when he phoned. He fetched me from my house and when we got to the harbour, I checked the boat’s engine."

One of Swart’s sons also agreed to go. "And then the guy who drives the tractor [which tows the boats down the slipway and into the sea] said: ‘I will go.’ In the end, there was me and another four outjies.

To reach the Agulhas, Thompson needed to navigate the treacherous Saxon Reef. More than a kilometre long, the Saxon forms part of the Agulhas Bank, the southernmost tip of Africa. The seabed around it is littered with wrecks.

Thompson decided that sailing around the Saxon would take too long so he opted for the only route through it: a deep, narrow gap which generates explosive swells and can be safely traversed only when the wind and the currents are at their most benign.

Mrs H made it safely through to the other side. "And there we found the Agulhas. We managed to secure her to Mrs H with the tow rope," he says.

"Now we had to get through the Saxon again. Even though it had been okay when we came through the first time, we didn’t know how it would be now."

Another boat, the Dorothy, arrived. "We were almost through the Saxon when the waves came up," Thompson’s voice is sombre now. "They were high. A side-on wave came up over the reef and broke behind the boat and over it. The water came into the boat and the engine died.

The Agulhas, anchorless and rudderless, drifted to the shore and slammed into the rocks. Mrs H sank to the bottom of the ocean. It was the first time in recent memory that a Kassiesbaai boat had sunk at sea

"If I hadn’t been towing the Agulhas, I would have got through. If you have to drag a boat, the pull is strong. You can’t move easily. But I had the Agulhas behind me and I couldn’t cut the rope. I was alone at the back and there was no knife to cut it.

"Perhaps the knife was in the cabin, but it all happened so fast. I couldn’t do anything. The water flooded the boat and the tow rope snapped. The boat started sinking. The Dorothy came up and threw a rope and rescued the other guys. Once they were all safe, I jumped into the water and they picked me up. Another three tjakkies [traditional fishing boats] came. The Dor Jac picked up the crew from the Agulhas. Ou Grote also came. But it was too late for Mrs H."

The Agulhas, anchorless and rudderless, drifted to the shore and slammed into the rocks. Mrs H sank to the bottom of the ocean. It was the first time in recent memory that a Kassiesbaai boat had sunk at sea. But even more devastating was the sense of betrayal. This parallel story came out slowly.

It appears that when the skipper of the Agulhas first realised he was in trouble, the Dorothy had been close by. But it had refused to help, sailing off into the horizon to look for fish.

The reason given was that the Dorothy did not have a working bar to which to attach a tow rope.

Thompson does not buy this. "Skippers older and more experienced than me said they could have worked something out. It was unnecessary that Mrs H had had to leave the shore to help the Agulhas, given that the Dorothy was near the Agulhas."

We go into the hall, where Thompson sits down to fill in a four-page questionnaire to convince the government that he really is a fisher.

There must be close on 200 people in the room. Skin hues range from light tan to almost black. Their ancestry includes slaves brought from Malaysia, Mozambique and Angola and shipwrecked Europeans who decided to stay. At a table in the centre sits the family of the owner of the Dorothy, which failed to help the Agulhas but succeeded in saving the lives of Thompson and his crew. Towards the back is Swart, owner of Mrs H, and, beside him, Andrew Europa, who crews on Ou Grote.

Europa’s nephew Wilhelm Afrika is Kassiesbaai’s first doctor. Now working in Knysna, Afrika is still intimately involved with his home village but has an outsider’s eye on its problems. He is clear about what precipitated the events that led to the loss of Mrs H.

"I blame the stopping of our fishing rights. When they stopped our boats going out to fish, they changed our lovely caring community into this bad community that doesn’t care for one another," he says.

"When I was a child, I used to listen to the radio. You could hear the guys talking to each other out at sea.

"They’d say: hey guys, there are fish here and they would all go to the one site. Because it was all about providing and about helping your neighbour. "

Afrika was 14 when it all came to an end. "I remember thinking: ‘today is a good day. Why isn’t my father going out?’ We children tried to work it out. Maybe Denel was bombing again? But no, fishing rights had been stopped."

• This is an extract from Sea Change, McGregor’s forthcoming book on struggle and resilience in fishing communities.

Please sign in or register to comment.