Captain Grumpy & the Happy Hooker

Annie and Ian Gilbert, aka Captain Grumpy and the Happy Hooker

Staring down the throat of a storm battling waves the size of houses and raging winds to match would force many to at least question the wisdom of fishing for a living, but not Ian and Annie Gilbert – perhaps that’s why their fifteen-year career as commercial fishers is as long as their marriage, almost to the day.

‘We were married on a beach in Mauritius and within a couple days of coming home were at sea fishing,’ says Ian, better known to the three thousand or so Twitter followers that he and (mostly) Annie have, as @captaingrumpy04 and @HappyHooker1157. They inform and entertain from their boat, the Happy Hooker II, a 7.9m Cheetah catamaran that has been their workplace for nearly a decade.

Before that, though, in the original Happy Hooker, things could get a little dicey: ‘She was half the length of this, an open boat with a centre console and a hand-held radio that wasn’t reliable,’ Ian says. After one particularly nasty run-in with the weather, when they got caught up in the notoriously rough race off St Aldhelm’s Head, they resolved to reduce the risk. ‘We’d pushed our luck a fair bit – not as much as some youngsters might, but enough. This boat is unsinkable, although she could roll, the engines are more powerful, there’s a cabin and we have more space.’

No loo, though: ‘No, bucket and chuck it,’ Ian laughs. ‘Annie’s as quick as a Formula One pit stop crew!’

As one of the UK’s few female fishing skippers, Annie recognises that she is something of a rarity and is at ease with the attention this attracts in both traditional and social media. She has been featured on BBC’s Countryfile, Radio 4 and several newspapers.

‘I’m the skipper first, as is Ian,’ she says. ‘Being female is secondary, but I’m keen to draw attention to it to show girls that fishing can be for them – it’s not the first thing that comes to mind in careers classes at school. I’m never far from my phone and take a lot of photos on the iPad, so we can share a bit about our lives. We have this amazing commute to work each day, down the river from our mooring at Ridge. And look at our office – it’s not bad.’

Ian has been fishing for some fifty years and Annie since she was a teenager. He grew up in London but spent summers by the sea at his grandfather’s home in Lilliput, while Annie’s parents moved to Stoborough to run the Lookout Stores. Through her dad’s love of boats she found herself hooked on fishing.

Many years later, she went to work for Ian, who then owned the Lord Hardware shop in Wareham and as their circumstances changed and they both found themselves single, they got together. Having taken the bait, it was an easy decision to sell up and go to sea.

Ian with the Spalding basketball they recovered from the sea half covered in goose barnacles. Shared on social media it went viral with more than 4.5 million views as people likened the discovery to the film Castaway in which Tom Hanks’s character loses his beach ball companion Wilson. ‘We think it must have drifted from US waters so we put it back in the sea to continue its journey,’ says Ian.

‘Some people think it would be tough to work this closely, but not us,’ says Ian. ‘Although one morning Annie was dropping a lot of bites and I suggested she might want to strike harder – that turned out to be unwelcome advice at that particular moment.’

Annie laughs: ‘I stormed off to the back of the boat and didn’t speak for ten minutes, then he came over and said: “Go on, give us a snog,” and that was it, all over. We don’t have screaming rows – that’s as bad as it’s ever got.’

Every morning they are ‘mugged’ by George Bob, their ‘pet’ herring gull that scrounges the mackerel they catch as live bait for sea bass. Even by herring gull standards, George Bob is pretty brazen when it comes to getting his way. He lands on the live bait tank and pecks the lid, or pecks at the ice-filled polystyrene boxes where the cleaned fish are packed.

‘He’ll have a cup of tea as well,’ says Annie. There’s little indication of the “Grumpy” in Ian’s nickname as he explains: ‘George Bob usually mugs us just off Old Harry, but he has found us up to twelve miles out to sea and we know it’s the same gull from his broken leg that reset with a big bend in it.’

Ian and Annie land a variety of species including cod, pollack, Dover sole, cuttlefish and squid, but specialise in line and rod caught sea bass, fishing for it on spring tides in ten months of the year. In February and March, while the sea bass spawn, they use trammel nets in Poole Bay.

‘Sea bass is high value,’ explains Ian. ‘Restaurants like to say it is rod and line caught Isle of Purbeck sea bass that can be traced right back to the boat. They don’t want trawled sea bass and now that recreational anglers are not allowed to keep a single fish, not even for the table, there is less black market sea bass. We are limited to five tonnes a year, down from the year before, and we’re hoping that level will stay the same as we transition to Brexit.’

As with any small business, there is no shortage of obstacles for the commercial fisher to overcome and the weather has presented Ian and Annie with stern tests, from getting stuck in sea ice off Rockley to sea bass not wanting to feed on the hottest summer days, but it is the man-made hindrances that irk them the most.

Happy Hooker II on its way to work

They argue for tighter regulations exercised fairly by UK fishing authorities. They rue the quotas set every December by the EU’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council and dispute the calculation of sea bass stocks by ICES, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea.

‘How can fish stocks be determined by a mathematical algorithm?’ asks Ian, incredulous. ‘We have fished sea bass shoals this year that have been as big as football pitches and as deep as the sea from just below the surface to the bed and we know shoals like that are not uncommon. The regulation is that sea bass should be 42 centimetres. We won’t keep anything less than 43 centimetres. We catch them one at a time. They are caught, killed and packed in ice in less than five minutes. It’s the most sustainable fishing there is. If they’re not big enough for us they go back and we’ll see them next year. Nobody wants to see fish dumped in the sea because fishermen have exceeded quotas, but neither am I naïve enough to think all will be rosy after Brexit.’

Uncertainty is a constant for the commercial fisher, but for now at least, the benefits of putting their lives on the (fishing) line far outweigh the tribulations for the twin skippers Captain Grumpy and the Happy Hooker.

• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.

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