Sandy McKendrick is still captivated by fishing life 40 years after her own trawler trip. (Facebook: Sandpiper Productions)
Forty years ago Sandy McKendrick left her job at a library and went to live on a prawning boat in Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour.
At age 22 she travelled with the boat to the Gulf of Carpentaria, working as a deckhand and meeting her husband along the way, as well as unexpectedly delivering a baby born to the skipper’s wife during a cyclone.
That trip cemented for Ms McKendrick a fascination of the fishing industry and its people, many of Italian and Portuguese heritage, who lived and worked in Fremantle.
It also inspired her to create a fishing tour of the city for the Heritage Festival.
Sandy McKendrick joined a prawn trawler for a season in 1978, met her husband and fell in love with the fishing industry. (Supplied: Sandy McKendrick)
Fish Guts And All takes its audience to the places and tells the stories of the fishing men and women; where they mended and made their nets, processed their fish and built their craypots by hand.
Fishing has been a feature of life in Fremantle since in the 1890s but is far less visible on the streets than it used to be.
“It would have started off with rowing boats and sails for the whiting and sardines off Fremantle,” Ms McKendrick said.
“Then they got inboard and outboard motors and the big fishing boats that you know today.
“The wooden boats particularly were beautiful, and they were made here.”
Italian fishing boats in Fremantle in 1933 — the early boats were wooden sailing vessels. (Supplied: State Library of WA)
As the fishing industry changes and old traditions begin to slide into the past, Ms McKendrick is determined to keep the memories alive.
“I have been living in Fremantle since I was a teenager, so I have been surrounded by the fishing industry and I just loved it, and I just thought it’s a really nice thing to share.
“I’m taking people to places where nets were actually stitched together or repaired and that happened in a few places.
“There are places where people used to buy equipment and chains and they would actually pull them out into the street in the west end of Fremantle.
“They used to pull them along the streets to measure them.”
The blessing of the fleet in Fremantle is still an annual event celebrated by the community. (ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)
While few boats come into the fishing boat harbour now, and much of the local catch is destined for export, it was once a busy local fish market and evidence of the industry was all around the streets.
“When I was a young girl I would actually go and buy fish from the boats down at the harbour, which was great, straight off the boat,” Ms McKendrick said.
“Thirty years ago, craypot making was a really common thing to do; it was in fishermen’s backyards and you’d walk past and see goats running around as well and the kids.
“They used to get the Rangoon cane, put that into the 44-gallon drums with water and steam them so they were really flexible.
“They used to work on a round system of metal spikes that they would weave the cane amongst.
“All these things are such lovely memories, you would see the steam rising and the men in their beanies and all yarning and singling together.”
Fishermen from Fremantle in the 1950s used craypots made locally by hand. (Supplied: State Library of WA)
Ms McKendrick is also planning to introduce her audience to the painstaking work of net mending and even try their own hand at it.
“With the support of the kids and the wives, they’d all be out there mending their nets, particularly the fine nets.”
She got her own taste of net making and mending during her 1978 trip on the Gunga Din, a 36-metre steel trawler and then the largest trawler in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
“I really enjoyed the insight into life that I had on that prawning boat,” she said.
“Life was good and I got equal wages that were pushed through for women deckhands.
“I also delivered the skippers wife’s baby on board when we got caught in a cyclone and the baby was born slightly premature off the Arnhem Land coast.
“And that’s where I caught my best catch — my husband.”
There’s mostly recreational vessels in Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour these days. (Giulio Saggin, file photo: ABC News)
These days she is firmly based on land, but 40 years since her own fishing trip ended, she’s still captivated by fishing life.
“I’m always talking to the fishermen because I’m walking past where they live.
“I still go and visit them when they make the new craypots and some of the old fellows are still doing that.
“For me it’s the craftsmanship and the passion that fishermen have.
“They worked really hard; some things like the prawning and cray seasons are very short seasons but it was pretty backbreaking work.
“They earned the good lifestyle that a lot of them ended up having I think.”
Fish Guts And All is running as part of the Fremantle Heritage Festival.