Working a 50-foot fishing boat in swelling seas and roaring winds a couple of hundred kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland takes guts, hard work and good communication among the crew.
So when Capt. Paul Tiller of Valleyfield, Bonavista Bay, told his crew last season he was taking a TV team on board to film their pursuit of crab, shrimp and turbot — to follow their every movement and record their interactions — they thought their captain had finally logged one too many weather-beaten voyages.
“They told me I was cracked,” Tiller said, laughing.
“It was weird at first to get used to the cameras on board. We got used to it, and after awhile it was like part of the regular equipment on the boat.”
Tiller and his crew are part of “Cold Water Cowboys” which premieres Tuesday on Discovery.
A Canadian-made, 10-part series by Paperny Entertainment, it follows six Newfoundland fishing captains and their crews through a fishing season on the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.
En route to the fishing grounds, the crews contend with rough seas, equipment failure, pack ice and icebergs.
Right off the mark, Tiller’s boat, the Justin & Jason ll, breaks a stabilizer which threatens the vessel and, once the stabilizer is secured, forces the crew back to port for repairs.
“I never broke a stabilizer before,” Tiller said. “It was intense for awhile. In the fishery, you never know what can happen. I’ve been in ice, had a boat on fire before. … When you leave the dock you never know what is going to happen. The main thing is you get your catch and everybody makes it back.”
In addition to Tiller, “Cold Water Cowboys” features Richard Gillett and crew of Twillingate, Conway and Rick Caines and crew of Cow Head, Justin Bridger and crew of Carmanville, Donald Spence and crew from Port au Choix and Todd Young of Woody Point.
Gillett, a fifth-generation fisherman and captain of the Midnight Shadow, said most of the major Newfoundland fisheries are covered in the series — crab, shrimp, herring, mackerel — and it shows the hard work of Newfoundland fishermen and the beauty of the province.
“It will, hopefully, show Canada and the world that Newfoundlanders are seafaring, hard-working people,” Gillett said.
“It shows the hardships and dangers out on the sea.
“Newfoundland supplies fish products all over the world. So, it’s educational in that it shows people — who may never have wondered before where the fish comes from on their plate — how the fish gets caught and the people who go get it.”
Gillett, 42, says there are not many young skippers coming behind his generation to carry on the fishery. In fact, he said, the average age of fishermen in Newfoundland and Labrador is 58 or 59.
With all the opportunities in the offshore oil industry and other megaprojects driving the province’s economy, young people are being drawn away from the fishery.
“The uncertainty in the fishery — young people are going for good-paying jobs with some security,” Gillett said.
“The lifestyle of a fisherman sounds romantic in books sometimes, but there are three things you’ll find if you are a fisherman — you’ll be hungry, smelly and tired, and sometimes you’ll experience all three at the same time.”
Still, the long hours on the boat and the often harsh ocean environment is something Gillett can’t get out of his blood. He has worked every fishing season since the age of 13.
“The fishery is born and bred into me,” he said. “I’m just as excited to go fishing now as I was way back then. I can’t sleep the night before we are going out.”
All the captains were impressed and came to respect the camera crews who came onto their boats. They stumbled with heavy equipment, got tangled in fishing gear, fought seasickness and worked to get their sea legs.
Tiller said the cameramen and directors did a professional job and the whole project was a great experience.
“Some of them were new to the ocean, right from the streets of Toronto,” Tiller said. “I got a surprise. They did a really good job. When you are getting filmed and you say something they are interested in, you may have to repeat it.
“We had a laugh … took a lot of retakes sometimes.”
In the first episode, Gillett’s boat encounters pack ice off Twillingate, not uncommon in the spring. It could take a day to sail around the ice floes, and, not wanting to lose time, Gillett takes his boat through the ice.
At one point the boat hits a large piece of ice and the crew has to check the bow before continuing.
The TV crew took it all in stride and continued to do their jobs, Gillett said.
“They came on board and were great guys, and fitted in,” Gillett said. “With a heavy camera on your shoulders, they had a problem at first remaining steady, but they got into it.
“And they stayed here in the house, hanging out just like one of the crew … lie on the couch just like one of my brothers.”
Just as Tiller has had his close calls on the water, so did the other captains and crews.
By age 25, Gillett had lost a boat to an iceberg about 250 miles off Twillingate.
“We were on the outside edge of the ice and couldn’t manoeuvre. An iceberg struck us broadside, knocking the wheelhouse into the water,” Gillett said. “The three pumps cut in. We had to issue a mayday and got out into a smaller punt. We didn’t know if the mayday got out. Luckily, we later got picked up by a dragger.”
Despite the stress of the industry, the uncertainty, the abuse to the body and the dangers, Gillett remains passionate about his work.
“My 30th year is coming up. It’s in your blood. … It’s hard to give it up,” he said.
“When the winter winds down and the beautiful spring days begin, the urge to go fishing builds up inside and I can’t wait to get on the water.”