Festival film relates tale of sinking boat

Documentary of Cornish fisherman's bid to stay afloat is cult attraction

A DOCUMENTARY about a Cornish fisherman who caught so many pilchards that his boat sank has been shortlisted as a prize contender in the Celtic Film and Television Festival next week.

The film, Troubled Waters, tells the tale of Cadgwith fisherman Martin Ellis, who lost his boat, the Penrose, as he tried to revive the Duchy's beleagurered pilchard fishing industry.

The Penrose went down in heavy seas with 800 stone of pilchards, worth about £1,000 the week before Christmas, 1999.

To make the 60-minute documentary, local film maker Jed Trewin followed Martin as he tried to raise the wreck of the Penrose, which lay 80ft beneath the waves.

Troubled Waters has become something of a cult film in Cornwall where, at two prior showings at Helston Flora and at Falmouth Arts College, it played to packed houses.

Jed said: "At Helston Flora it was unreal. They were sitting on stairs - you can't put a price on that really."

The Celtic Film and Television Festival, in Truro from March 28-31, aims to unite film makers with commercial buyers, as well as to celebrate Celtic film. Films qualify if they are made by or about Cornwall, Brittany, Scotland Ireland or Wales.

But for Jed the festival is just the icing on a rich cake. He has enjoyed making the film, becoming a closer friend to its main character, Martin, and has seen his work acclaimed at its two prior showings.

Jed said: "I'm absolutely delighted. Getting in the festival is a massive bonus really. I have received far more votes of thanks than I ever imagined."

Martin said: "When I saw the room at Falmouth I thought, how are we going to fill this? But they came in and they appeared to absolutely love it."

Jed and Martin's close relationship and the popularity of Troubled Waters means the filming is continuing.

Jed added: "He just doesn't stop. I keep thinking we'll finish this off but wen you receive so much in the way of nice comments about it asking for more parts, you just keep on going.

"He's a trier, he tries and tries and tries. His spirit is absolutely incredible. He'll get his sights focused on something and will just go for it. Characters like Martin are so few and far between."

Jed decided that his old school pal Martin would be a good documentary candidate before the sinking of the Penrose.

The film documents Martin's unfailing optimism, as the Penrose's raising failed and it slipped back into the sea for good. Martin's character embodies the fighting spirit which has kept Cornish fishing alive for so long against such odds.

Speaking yesterday, Martin remembered well the five days before Christmas in 1999, when the Penrose went down.

He said: "I had made a good catch but the sea was getting up so I telephoned the fish buyer, Nick Howell, to say I was out and I had a big catch but I was concerned about what was going on.

Falmouth Coastguard phoned me up to ask me if I was all right. I thanked them for telephoning and I told them what was happening and they said they would phone back every 20 minutes."

But by the end of the phone call, the phone was under water and the Penrose was going down.

"They were very quick, and had the lifeboat and helicopter on standby", said Martin. "I'd have got back if I'd never had any fish or any gear on board. I was using a small boat to do a large boat job.

I've been wanting to do this for so long. I was over laden as well as the rough seas. The waves were breaking but weren't clearing the deck".

Martin owes much to fishing colleagues like Billy Stephenson, owner of the vessel the Cornishman, which he lent to Martin for the bid to raise the Penrose.

"I can't thank him enough," he said. "As soon as I get on my feet, I've promised to take them all down to Cadgwith and give them some beer money. I haven't forgotten them."

Martin recalls his thoughts while in the life raft. "I realised I was going to have to start all over again," he said. "But thanks for still being alive comes top of the list, so everything else is immaterial."

Western Morning News - 22nd March 2001

Fishermen Survive sinking of boat

The Penrose

THE wife of a skipper whose heavily-laden pilchard boat sank in Mount's Bay last week has described her husband's safe homecoming as "the best Christmas present ever".

Martin Ellis, 45, of Ruan Minor, had a narrow escape when his 30ft vessel the Penrose went down in heavy weather last Thursday night.

Thanks to survival training, the emergency services - and a mobile phone, Mr Ellis and his two crew were safely back at home just hours after the fishing boat sank a mile and a half off St Michael's Mount.

The Penrose set out from Newlyn at around 5pm, with crew members Carl Thomas, 27 from Hayle, and Patrick Harvey, 30 from Newlyn, making their first trip on the boat.

By around 9pm, the men had made a good catch of between 400 and 500 stone of pilchards - worth around £1,000 - and were heading for home.

"The wind was freshening quite quickly and we were low in the water because of the weight of the fish," said Mr Ellis.

"We had the deck lights on so couldn't see the waves coming, but several big waves went over us and she started to go down to port."

Concerned at the situation - and with the boat's radio not functioning - Mr Ellis had earlier used his mobile phone to alert Nick Howell, of the Pilchard Works at Newlyn.

Mr Howell rang coastguards at Falmouth, who arranged to keep in touch with the Penrose by telephone - but after one call the boat was swamped by the waves.

"We blew up our lifejackets, and one of the crew got the life raft off the roof of the wheelhouse," said Mr Ellis.

"The boat was going over very slowly and I knocked her out of gear to stop her going ahead. The other two men were already in the water and I made sure they were clear before saying a prayer and jumping in to join them.

As I went under, the water was all bright because the lights of the boat were shining under water - I remember thinking it was like a disco down there.

Reality hit me when I surfaced and realised it wasn't a dream and we had to get together and get into the life raft."

Minutes later, all three men were in the life raft and letting off flares to alert the emergency services.

An on-shore auxiliary coastguard saw their flares and sent one up to let the crew know he had spotted them.

Martin 'Nutty' Ellis

Martin Ellis... "We hadn't thought we were in danger"

Less than 20 minutes later, the Penlee lifeboat Mabel Alice and a search and rescue helicopter from RNAS Culdrose were on the scene.

Mr Ellis said: "We heard the lifeboat coming towards us and let our last flare off. The Penrose sank just as the lifeboat reached us. They had dry clothes for us to put on before we got to the Fishermen's Mission at Newlyn.

"The cup of tea and custard creams we had there were some of the best I've ever tasted!"

Back home in Ruan Minor, the skipper paid tribute to the lifeboat and helicopter crews, and to the training association which taught him "vital" survival skills.

"I've always been safety conscious, but it's not until something like this happens that you realise how important sea survival exercises are.

"What happened was frightening because we hadn't thought we were in any danger and the waves were not that big, but because of the training procedures we had what's being described as a textbook rescue."

Mr Ellis' wife, Sally, said having her husband home safe was all that mattered.

"They rang to let me know there was a problem, but I thought they meant the boat had engine trouble.

By the time I found out she had sunk, they told me the men had all been safely rescued, but in between was very nerve-wracking.

Having him back here with me and the family is wonderful. It's the best Christmas present ever."

The Penrose, worth £30,000 is in 27 metres of water, but Mr Ellis said she was unharmed and he was hopeful she could be brought to the surface.

Helston Packet - 23rd December 1999