Greetings, dear Reader

Martin Ellis

Martin Ellis

I hope you are well and you find my website enjoyable & humourous.

My trade has been fishing, from 1970 until about 2002 when I decided to give it up.

The very first job for 1½ years was in a garage at Penryn – but being indoors all the time was unsettling – it just didn’t seem to be me.

My first boat was a 14 foot bass boat, Seaotter, made of plywood, with 36 pots and 6 nets. I worked them in Kennack Bay for two years (2 miles east of Lizard, in Cornwall). My dad, Ron, then had a boat called Tidos, named after a big piss-up which had been the best ever in mine (and many peoples’) life. So I named it after that event – but spelled backwards.

Tony Jane and myself called it a SodIt. Dad and I worked about 150 pots in her for another two years and did quite well. Then Nigel Legge’s boat, the Samantha Rose  came up for sale – and with a loan on her, we fished with her in about 1974.

We put a frame on her to bard the pots more easily and eventually Dad built a wheel house on her – it was just big enough for the both of us, but only just. The engine was a 16 horse-power Petter that you had to start with a handle by swinging it over and flipping over the cam levers. Eventually, I had a Japanese Yamaha, twice in the following years.

I got married to Sally and reared two girls who have turned out to be quite pretty and healthy and, with respect and manners at times, too. We sometimes went long-lining during the small tides to catch Ling and Conger eels and the occasional Speardog which is a small shark.

Around 1980, I had started to experiment with a ring net made of monofilament, but found it difficult to catch the Gray Mullet which were plentiful in those days. In the end, after talking to Joe & Jimmy Madron – two old fishermen from Mousehole who used to work a big ring net during the 1960s and 70s – I tried for Pilchard or Cornish Sardines. I bought their fishing boat, the Reneval – it was about ¾ of a ton and 260m by 66m and my friend, a true lover of pilchards, Nick Howels of Newlyn loaned me the £200 to pay for it.

The net had to be made smaller to fit the Samantha Rose and it took a lot of time to cut a piece of 116m by 20m, and to set it, but I did it and it worked out. My first catch of pilchards was off Penzance swimming pool – it was 360 stone and another major decision had to be made: shall I stay crabbing down Cadgwith or have a go and work the ring net with a bigger boat?

Our houwes was mortgaged and the bank manageress was astounded by what I had caught. The boat was from Porthleven and called the Penrose, 30 feet long and recently rebuilt by Stuart Williams. She was not the best of boats for carrying and so it turned out that she turned over – but it was what I could afford as anything fiberglass and bigger was too expensive. After fitting the winch on her and ???? together the old Renevil’s ring net to put in her stern, i installed a double tandem pump on to the front of the engine to drive the bolo thruster which came off the Samantha Rose, along with a net hauler that was on a high, heavy metal bracket arm so the net could be hauled in to the boat with ease.

When the net was set, it was twice as deep as a church tower is high and hearly half the size of a football pitch, which gives you some idea of its dimensions. And some of the shoals of pilchards were many times bigger than the net, so when the net was set in a big shoal, its capacity would have been its maximum for its length. And if the fish were 20 meters deep, it could have been 4 or 5 hundred tons of fish encircled. If they had decided to move, I began to wonder what on earth I would do. The boat leaned over at one point another time, and I had become encircled with the whole net moving, so it was all behind me and each time I was unable to even see anything of them as they just wanted to dive and free themselves – which they eventually did by splitting the net where there had been a weak bit. In the long run, I was able to get my net back and mend the hole – even though sometimes the split they made was a big as the end of a double-decker bus, with twine being slippery and stretched like something big had gone and squeezed through.

Occasionally I was able to just take a small piece of the shoal or find one that was not so large and take some fish in to sell, but that in itself was the next big challenge I had taken on: the market system, along with being involved in the promotion of calling the pilchard a Cornish Sardine.

Nick Howel of the old Cornish Newlyn Pilchard works where he used to salt, cure and press 200 tons for the Italian market, was the man who was trying hard to call the Cornish Pilchard a Cornish Sardine. He was a fish buyer for thirty years and could see a feature in those lovely, tasty little fishes. He was keen to get the general public interested in them.

It had been unfortunate that the politics of the marketing on the catches that I had was to blame for my lack of making very much money with the sardines as the other fish-buyers also would try and sell the fish to the same, bigger outlets further up country. So, even though I had told my bank manageress that I had, say, five buyers interested and they could handle one tonne each, I never thought of the obvious: that they would all be trying to sell their fish in the same outlets as I did. It turned out that I was only able to land between one and three tonnes and my price was not the best as I was only getting 40-60 pence a kiloand they were always on sale for three times what I was making. This is the same today for all the fish in the sea, of which there is a lot, contrary to what the general public are told. All the money I earned was to keep me afloat financially and, by paying off the bank and running expenses like insurance, diesel, food and rental of a sonar – which I found to be a really wonderful piece of equipment.

To be able to actually look ahead as you went along was such a breakthrough as the normal fish-finder finds fish straight below the boat, but this piece of gear looked ahead at a target at any angle without having to go 360˚ if you would like it to and the sound reminded me of the submarines in old war films – where the submarine is being chased by a mine-sweeper above it.

The best day or evening for everything going right while I had the Penrose was to be the last day of her career. My crewman had not turned up, so I was two hours behind and wind was forecast as due to pick up about midnight. Two Newlyn fishermen, Caral and Patch, offered to go out with me as neither had seen a sonar and ring net work before. They were very enthusiastic and happy to be out with me as they had seen my trials and tribulations over the many months at Newlyn with the Samantha Rose, as well as the Penrose.

We did not take long to find a shoal of sardines with the sonar and a run-through on how the winch worked was taken in as both had been fishing for lots od years so it was really nice to have experienced crew on board. The net was set in a circle and the first end over, picked up again while the net went down to the bottom.


The winch was put in to gear and eventually the rings connected to the bottom of the net were up alongside the rail on her side. The net-hauler fitted high in the air so as to help pull the net back aboard from where it went out. After about 15 or 20 minutes, the majority of the ???? had ben put back in the st???? by the laughing and joking rugby playing crew and myself.

I can remember that I had bought a powerful torch and had shone it on the fish, which were in the net in their thousands. They made a hushing noise as they swam everywhere and anywhere to try and find a way out. We sat down for awhile and watched them while we regained our strength to take them out of the net. The net-hauler pulled a bit more to make them have less area to swim in so that it was possible to use a brailer to take them out. The brailer is a brilliant piece of gear I had drawn how they worked when I went to France to see how they caught sardines. The Sea Fish Industry Authority paid for my trip there.

It is like a shrimp net of aluminium circle with a handle with a sliding tube on the long handle, connected to string passing through and around the bottom of the netting, like a ???? ring net. It had been connected to a landing derrick – or, in my case, a Scots Pole. So when the crew pushed the brailer net into the thousands of pumping, splooshing, noisey, beautiful little silver darlings, it would be pulled along by the winch to fill it up with them and lifted up the side of the boat. As easy as that.

Caral and Patch regularly played rugby, so they were very fit and made it look so easy as the 20 stone of swinging fish in the air stopped moving when Caral caught hold of it.

The noise of all those little fish was really quite loud as there were hundreds in the air all the time. The smell was such a pure, oily smell – something quite sweet and very pleasant. The gulls were all shouting their heads off, often hitting us in the head as they were so excited on seeing such an easy meal. They were so close in that we were constantly battered by their wings as they swooped – so close that it was possible to reach out and pick one out of the air, like taking clothes pegs off a washing line.

After taking out the net of what we thought was a safe catch to carry, we let go of the rest – far more than we could carry. They swam away and a few hundred sank with their white, shining bodies mixed in with millions of scales the size of your fingernail – shining like mirrors back at us as they seemed not to sink, so light and small as they were.

The surface of the sea for at least 200 yards was like glass from the oil of the fishes. Although it was dark, our deck lights showed us a little way out and the hundreds of gulls – all looking like they had eaten more than enough, like they did not want to fly – they seemed to be farther down in the water than an empty gull would be.

Gannets are very large, white sea bird, with a six foot wingspan and they fall from the sky like an arrow into the sea. During their dive, they always tell the ones below that their on the way down:

“cadalla, cadalla, cadalla” repeated quickly and a sroomping as they enter the water to catch the fish they’d had their eyes on. If they had not gone down far enough, they actually fly under water like penguins. There were always a lot of gannets as well as gulls in the black sky.

I once saw a seal trying to bite his way into my net, but left after I poked him in the tummy with a long stick. Occasionally we would catch some bass that had also been feeding on the pilchards.

That night, I phoned Nick Howels to say that we had about 500 stone on board, that the sea was flat calm, but the wind had started to get up a little. Our position was about three or four miles off Mousehole in Mounts Bay, and that we were on the way in. Unbeknownst to me at that time, Nick had phone Falmouth Coast Guard to tell them that we were at sea and, apparently, the Penlee Life Boat had been put on stand-by as well as a rescue helicopter.

After only half an hour, the wind had got up like it was forcast to do (but a little earlier) and then my phone rang with the Coast Guards asking if we were ok. I said that we were, but the wind was increasing rapidly and that there were three of us on board. I gave them our position and course and if they could ring again in about ½ an hour to make sure we were all right. After only five or ten minutes, it was obvious that we were not clearing the water off the deck of the Penrose, and I pointed out to Caral and Patch that there was some fish rolling around in the surface water on the deck.

We were not visible at first as we were steaming in with only our navigation lights on. The waves were getting bigger and we had to head straight into them to get some shelter from the cliffs of Mousehole.

For many months, I had been concerned about safety when we were out in the dark on our own, but I had a different problem with the scales. On boats that have sealed decks, there are scuppers which are doors in the bottom of the gunrails - or sides – to let the deck surface water out and over the sides. Obviously, I didn’t want my fish to go over as well as the water because the fish would end up on the deck – they were always jumping out of the boxes. So I put a mesh over the holes – or scuppers – that were about one foot by six inches and the metal mesh was an inch in size. This stopped the fishes, but not the scales as when you’ve got ever such a lot of them running up on the square mesh, not all of them will get through and, eventually, a wall of scales builds up, keeping the water from going out.

That being the case on my last night with the Penrose, I offered Caral and Patch the life-jackets, but they said “No, everything is ok”. Eventually, though, one of them put on a life-jacket and I put on the other and told them “I don’t like this, men”. As there had been a series of larger-than-normal waves coming over the bow, and a lot of water on the deck, I decided to slow down just a little. That was it – the realization of our situation was easy to read on all of our faces. There was only one word for it: FEAR.

Patch had gone to the top of the wheelhouse roof to free the life-raft, with Caral helping. They threw it over the stern, clear of the boat, as she was starting to list to the port. My last sight was looking into the door of my wheelhouse and seeing my mobile phone, barrer coat and all the electrics getting very wet as the boat was on her side.

My realization again was that the horizon was much higher than normal, not that I could see a lot, but we did have our deck lights on. That was because I was momentarily in a hole, as the Penrose’s raid was facing me with the sea loud on the other side. It was obviously time to abandon ship, so I made my way back aft, under and over the rigging and stays and off before the net floated again.

There had been another thing on my mind for many months regarding safety. I had always wondered about the life-rafts, painter or rope. If a boat were to sink and the life raft came to the surface by means of the ?????? – how or where does it separate or come off? Because I had jumped in to the rope that was connected to the life-raft and the boat, I had a turn around my leg that had ended up in my groin. I wasn’t panicking because it was clear by then the the Penrose wasn’t going to sink straight away as she was on her side with her engine shuffling away, lights on, bright yellow dye that I’d had in the wheelhouse making the sea a fluorescent yellow-hazy green as the lights were on even though they were under the water. It was a bit like a disco, only wet and cold. It took some time to get this rope off my leg as it was difficult to reach down because of the life-jacket’s bouncing which stopped me reaching my leg and foot.

By the time I did get the rope off, Patch and Caral had pulled it and pulled it until the life-raft inflated so it was easy for me to get in with them pulling me in. 

It was months after that I realized if the Penrose hadn’t been knocked out of gear – which I did just before we abandoned ship – and she was able to move forward, or if she had gone down, I would have gone down with her because I wouldn’t have been able to get that painter or life-raft’s rope off my leg if I was being towed along.

Apparently , when a vessel sinks and the life-raft inflates, there is a special patch on the underside that gets ripped off as the sinking vessel goes down deeper. Phew! That was closer than I thought.

It seems that the Coast Guard rang us some time when we would have been in the life-raft and with no answer coming their way, they alerted the crew of the helicopter and lifeboat just as they were all sitting down having cups of tea, ready to help if they were needed.

Thank you again, pilots of the Seaking helicopter at Culdrose. And thank you again, the crew of the Penlee lifeboat.

Today I am in the position to buy you each (and Billy Stevenson) a print on canvas of my painting of the Penrose on her side for your restroom or galley. Yesterday, I sold the last ring-net, so I will order them up today. Thanks again.

A happy and funny memory will always be with me of ’that night’ when the Penlee lifeboat came out and picked us up. The roar of the engines had been heard for awhile and the view of St Michael’s Mount and Marazion was blocked out by a complete wall of blue and orange that was only four feet away – engines going full astern to stop her.

A big hand came in towards me on the end of a long arm and then another which I caught hold of – and out I came from that wet, flapping life-raft door like a cow having a big calf!

And then one of the crew of the lifeboat saw Patch – who was also a member of the lifeboat crew and a mate – and he said: “Bloody typical! We’ve been on standby, wondering where you were and you’re out here already!” Patch is now the Coxswain of that lifeboat.

I did write them a letter of thanks which does seem a bit futile. 

The Penrose stayed on her side for about ¾ of an hour – right up until the lifeboat go to us and then she sank. We ended up a mile off St Michael’s Mount and, in another hour, we would’ve had to walk home.

As a friend of mine, Jed Trewin, had been filming me for up to two years until that point, it turned out that Jed was able to put in our film Troubled Waters* footage of the Penrose on the seabed, taken by Phil Lolly. This and the rest of my life as a fisherman will be for sale as soon as this website, along with my book telling my adventures at sea and land.

Also, while I’m blowing my own trumpet, a C.D. of some Cadgwith pub songs, sung by me, myself and I – orNutty Noah and Martin Ellis.

By saving up my dole money and recording the tenor of each song, then baritone over it, then a ???? or two or three with some poems from the St Ives ???????? in between (to break it up a bit). There is also Cornish Fisherman M.E. on youtube and iTune for a laugh. I am hoping to make my book, somehow, feature as well.

I have had new knees as of February 2011, and am on the mend and have started painting some pictures of Cadgwith and some pirates digging a hole to discover treasure. I am enjoying it now and have come to terms with my new job within these four walls. I hope you have enjoyed looking at my work and have found my life interesting. I intend to become a well-known man with a story soon – not after I’m dead.

  • Troubled Waters was filmed over the course of five years of my life fishing, with a follow-on film called Nutty’s Ranch which covers the time when my family and I moved into two caravans to look after my mother-in-law (who had Alzheimers) until the time I finished fishing altogether.


There is another 30-minute film called Shifting Sands where I have a parrot called Pursy who assists me in looking for
some lost treasure.