Coached by the coast
On World Oceans Day, fishermen Velappan and Palayam reminisce casting nets with their fathers, becoming baits to nature’s fury and tiding over tough times with the gentle touch of the waves
Published: 08th June 2020 03:43 AM | Last Updated: 08th June 2020 03:43 AM | A+A A-
CHENNAI: “My first memory of fishing is holding on to the boat as tightly as I could, while my father and brother manoeuvred it to cut through the waves near the shore,” says M Velappan, a fisherman whose family has been staying at the Kottivakkam beach for four generations. Born to a family of seafarers, fishing was no new occupation to Velappan. “My grandfather taught my father everything he knew about fishing and my father taught the same to my brother and me,” he says. By the age of 11, Velappan began accompanying his father and elder brother to the sea. “For four years, my father taught me all about fish, wind and ocean.
After casting the nets he would tell me about the different fish in the sea, how we eat some, and must let the others go. Sometimes he would teach me to recognise cloud patterns and predict the weather too,” he reminisces. Once his father was confident that young Velappan could manage his weight in the deep waters, he allowed him to take the reins. “It was a happy day for me. I was 15 years old. For years, I was only allowed to pull in the nets and untangle the fish once we reached the shore. Steering the katamaram was something I had only learnt from afar,” says 34-yearold Velappan. Putting on a brave face, he faced his first challenge at sea — steering the katamaram. “The most frightening part of sailing is crossing the shoreline. The waves are roughest there and any mistake can damage the underside of the boat,” explains Velappan.
Into the sea
A few kilometres away, Palayam (known as Palayam Anna) was getting the same lesson from his father. “My family belongs to Urur Olcott Kuppam near Besant Nagar. I have fished for my entire life, as did my forefathers. My father took me out to the sea for the first time when I was just 10 years old. He was proud to take me and I was thrilled to go,” says the 56-year-old. Even as a boy, Palayam was fascinated by the sea. The changing seabed patterns, migrating fish and the little crabs on the beach were his favourite sights to watch.
“My family taught me that the ocean is our God and we must respect everything within it, but I was more interested in everything you can find in the ocean. I would bring back dead corals or unique shells for my mother and then ask her to tell me stories of the sea,” he recalls. Around six years later, in 1980, Palayam was allowed to fish by himself. Taking his small wooden boat into the Adyar river and finding his bait became a routine. “One day when I decided to fish alone, I experienced something that shook me to the core. I left home at around 7 am to get a few prawns to use as bait from the Adyar river. By 7.30 am, I had gathered enough bait to set out to the sea.
That day, I hadn’t caught a single fish. I anchored my boat and sat waiting till 11.30 am for even a nibble, but the nets were empty. Just then, I got a call from my relatives, who told me to return before the kodaikathu (stormy) winds brought harsh winds and heavy rain. They had seen signs of a storm approaching. Being an amateur fisherboy, I decided to first have my lunch before starting for the shore. My mistake proved fatal for I only reached home at 6.30 pm, drenched and covered in sand, unable to say a word. All I could do was lay down and try my best not to move. Every muscle in my body hurt from rowing the katamaram away from those waters. The currents were so strong that the nose of the boat kept getting caught in them and moving off-course. The tide had also gotten rough and I was scared that my boat would capsize,” says Palayam, narrating the lessons he learned along the course of his life.
Passing down skills
A skill taught by their fathers, both Velappan and Palayam give almost accurate weather forecasts of the day. It is one of the first tricks they mastered during their training. “We look at the horizon to measure the seawater level. We check the wind speed by looking at how fast the clouds are moving in the sky. We can even tell the direction in which the rain will come from,” says Velappan. On the other hand, Palayam was taught to take note of animal and bird behaviours to predict a storm. “The day I got caught in the kodaikathu winds, I wasn’t able to catch any fish.
It was because they had already moved away due to the storm,” he says. Apart from the basics, both fishermen also went through rigorous training in learning to manoeuvre their boats. “In those days we didn’t have motorboats. We had a katamaram that we had to row by hand. In 2005, we got the first motor for our boat. My father taught me to read the wind and accordingly manoeuvre the tide. Most often the winds are in the same direction as the current. It’s easier to drift when sailing overcurrents. My father taught me how to ride the current by turning the nose of the boat at a 45-degree angle.
That way I wouldn’t get caught in it,” says Velappan, who still uses his father’s old boat which has been attached to a motor. For Palayam, it was a different challenge. “I used to get very seasick as a child. I would keep vomiting in the boat. My father took pity on me and taught me to bob along with the boat in sync with the waves, to avoid vomiting. At first, I didn’t understand what he was talking about. But then, I recognised the wave patterns the boat was bobbing to and began orienting myself with that movement. It helped me control the urge to puke,” Palayam says.
Although most of their techniques have been passed down through generations, both Velappan and Palayam agree that there has been a shift in the last ten years. “My father and grandfather had one particular spot they had identified to fish. Despite the changes in the seabed, they knew that we could always find fish there. Recently, all of us purchased a GPS machine that shows us the most apt fishing grounds by using satellite images to identify the depth of the water.
Each machine costs around `5,000, but it makes our job much easier,” reasons Velappan. Before the arrival of the GPS, the depth of the seabed was measured by dropping a rock tied to a rope. Once the rock hit the seabed, the measurement would be marked on the rope. This was done at multiple points to chart the waters. “The seabed changes almost every month. It was this way of measurement that allowed us to keep a track of all the changes,” explains Palayam.
Latest techniques were followed by updated gear. Many fishermen switched from traditional rope nets to nylon nets around 2006. “We began using a device called sadakattai. Used to pull the nets out of the water, it is slightly weaker as compared to the large pulleys used in other countries. What was initially done by hand, now just needs the press of a button,” Palayam says.
Blessings in disasters
Despite being the children of the sea, they too face nature’s wrath. Both their families suffered massive destruction in the 2004 tsunami, which washed away many fishing settlements in Chennai. Both Palayam and Velappan had to rebuild their lives. But Velappan has little to complain because he discovered that the number of fish in the sea had increased. “For the next year, we had a lot of fish in our nets. They were not only the regular Matti and Vanjaram, we found Koduva, Karapodi and Sankara too,” shares Velappan.
Save the oceans
As riders of the ocean, Velappan and Palayam do their best to spread awareness about its conservation. “A few years back, there was a massive oil spill at the Kasimedu harbour. For more than a year, the fish had migrated, making it difficult for us to earn our livelihood. It was during this time that we ate our stock of dried fish to survive. The ocean is sacred to us because our lives depend directly on it. But, it is also sacred to everyone because it is the life source of our planet,” voices Velappan, urging people to keep the beaches clean and avoid throwing plastics into the sea.
Doing his bit, Palayam has many a time briefed the listeners of a local radio station on the different ways to preserve and protect the ocean. “Sometimes the floating plastic in the sea gets stuck in the rudder and damages our motors. Many fish even consume plastic and suffocate. I’ve seen many turtles get caught in floating debris and die due to asphyxiation. It is a sad thing especially because the ocean gives us so much,” reminds us Palayam. While being ardent protectors, both men find absolute solace in interacting with the ocean.
“When we sail over 80 kilometres into the sea, we sometimes find still water. Almost always, I jump in and paddle around the boat to cool off. There is no pollution and no noise. Just me and the ocean. I find it very calming. There have been times where I have gotten emotional and even cried over my thoughts, but most of the time I’m ecstatic to be in the ocean,” Velappan opens up. In contrast, Palayam loves to sit on the shore and speak to the ocean. “Sometimes I speak out loud, but most of the time I speak to the ocean in my thoughts. Just gazing at the water puts me in a therapeutic trance. I can sit on the beach just looking out, for years,” he says.
Although similar in many ways, the two are different in what they love about fishing. For Palayam, casting the net is his favourite part while Velapanna loves to return to the shore with a net full of fish. While new gears and techniques have had a booster effect in optimising their catch, what has kept the lives of Velappan, Palayam and their ilk sustainable is their sense of sacredness and reverence for the ocean.