A Day on a Prawn Fishing Boat
It is an early warm summer morning in July, and we are meeting Alfonso, the skipper, his son Giuseppe and the helpout Alessio on the Old Pier in Sanremo. We are going fishing, prawn fishing, on the M/B Patrizia in the sea. The pier is full of old boxes and there is a smell of diesel in the air. We arrive first and then Alessio on his moto, a kind of Vespa-like mini scooter. Alessio is making sure that everything is okay before we leave. After Alessio, comes Alfonso and Giuseppe. They are tired because they go fishing every day, from 4.30am in the morning to 9pm in the evening. It is hard work, fishing prawns in the Mediterranean Sea.
Alfonso, born in Sicily, is the owner of one of the last prawn fishing boats in Sanremo and has been a fisher all his life. At first he went fishing with his father. Later he tells us that he doesn’t want his son to take over the fishing boat. Instead he wants him to run a restaurant, which they bought a year ago in Sanremo. A better future for his son in the restaurant business than in the fishing business as he explains.
A fishing boat is not a cruise ship and we learn just that today. No comfortable deck chairs nor served drinks. We struggle to find a place to sit. Finally, we find a spot and can enjoy the view. It’s still early morning and hardly any noise from the city. A magical moment. Alessio and Giuseppe sits on the back-end of the boat. It’s where most of the fishing will take place, which we will see later.
After an hour, we arrive at the fishing grounds. The day before, we were dreaming of Sardinia or at least Corsica as an option but no, the prawns love the coast outside Sanremo. To be more precise, the prawns’ fishing grounds are 10-20 kilometers from Sanremo and covers an area of approximately 10 square kilometres. The skipper told us, but who knows if he is telling us the whole story. They are like mushroom hunters. If they find a nice place with many mushrooms they will take the secret place with them.
Five times the nets are put out this day. Alfonso tells us that six or even seven times are normal. He says, it depends; on what he doesn’t say. In the beginning, everything is chaotic to us. For the fishermen, however, the chaos is business as usual. Nets are put out and the crew makes sure everything is secure. After that, we wait an hour or even more while the boat makes its way along the coastline of the Sanremo Bay. Then, hauling in the nets again, hoping for good fortune, and surprise, putting the nets out again.
We ask Alfonso about how much is caught. Is it good or bad? He answers that it’s always the same catch. Of course bad days happen, but in general after 17-18 hours on the Sea, he has a good catch with him back to Sanremo. The prawns are sold more or less in advance. Before arriving in Sanremo he calls his clients, private or restaurants in the Sanremo area. The rest, or should we guess, the best part, goes into the family-run restaurant in Sanremo.
The machinery on-board the M/B Patrizia is massive and seems very chaotic to us. During the day we learn how to understand what the different machines are good for. Everything has its purpose. Nothing is on the boat that couldn’t be used in someway. For instant, a pair of spare brakes. The brakes are to secure the wire which controls the nets. Without a strong wire, which has a total length of more than 2 kilometres, we wouldn’t be able to control the nets. The brakes are very important, tells both Alfonso and Giuseppe.
The back-end of the fishing boat looks like the inside of a factory, with all kind of tools and machines. The fishermen know it all – we don’t, not yet. An important job is to make sure the nets are put out in a secured way. The wires, who control the nets, are very important and usually, only the skipper is in charge of them. Sometimes, he lets his son, Giuseppe, or even Alessio do the job. The first time the nets were put out, Alfonso, the skipper, was in control himself and you could literally feel the tension in the air.
Work and sleep, work and sleep. Alessio is only on the boat for the second time. He worked on another boat in Sanremo, but now he is here, as he explains to us, during one of the breaks. He hopes to be able to stay on this boat. Alfonso is a really nice skipper, he tells us. Alessio has two small children, and his wife is working part time in a restaurant. She is looking for more, but it’s hard getting work. He is trying his best to bring home some money for the family, but life is not always easy. For now, he is satisfied. He has a job, but not all his friends have jobs.
The prawns outside Sanremo are well known to the restaurant guests in and around Sanremo. The restaurants are famous for the delicious dishes the prawns are turned into and they are not cheap. In a fish restaurant in Ospedaletti or Bordighera, the prawns from Sanremo, or gamberoni as they are called in Italy, as a secondo from the a’la carte menu will cost you not under 25 euros. A kilo of the biggest and best quality of prawns, will bring 50 euros to cover the costs for the boat and the crew. It is a high quality product, which Alfonso brings to the mainland from the bottom of the sea every single day; Saturday and Sundays excluded, it’s the law in Italy. Italy is famous for all its laws and rules. I ask Alfonso why he can’t fish Saturdays or Sundays and he is giving me a look that says everything and nothing.
At one point, we climb into a kind of bridge overlooking the back-end of the boat. The view is amazing and we get some very nice shots with the camera. Giuseppe is asking me if I want my cappuccino with or without schiuma. No, life on a fishing boat outside Sanremo brings no luxury. It’s hard work and nothing more. Sure you have the big sea on both sides of the boat, and yes, the view to Sanremo is not bad at all. But 17-18 hours every day is tough. Alfonso got his M/B Patrizia, Patrizia is the name of his wife, in 1989 and he shows us a photo of the boat when it arrived from Sicily. A proud day for him and his father and the rest of the family. He already answered the question whether he thinks his son will take over the boat: he hopes not. No future in the prawn business in Sanremo. The climate-change is to blame for that.
Giuseppe is 31 years old and works hard, both in his restaurant in the nights and on the boat during the day. The future is the restaurant, and he would rather buy the prawns from someone else than go fishing himself.
A few days later we are in the restaurant in Sanremo, and the chef, Manuel, is giving us the treat of trying lots of different dishes of fresh fish. We ask him questions about quality and about Giuseppe and Alfonso and the family. To him, food is about freshness, no matter if the ingridients come from land or the sea. Being a chef in a high-end restaurant in Sanremo is, of course, a challenge to him, but he knows that all the ingredients that comes from the sea are fresh, and it’s up to him to create delicious, beautiful dishes every day, together with his staff in the kitchen. During the stay in the restaurant, we try different kind of fish and products from the land, combined in different ways. Manuel is definitely a good chef.
After a day that felt like three, we are back in Sanremo at 9pm and are welcomed by Patrizia, the wife of Alfonso, on the Old Pier. As usual in Italy, we kiss her on both cheeks before we realize we smell of fish. Back in the car, we convince each other that she must be used to that smell, after many years of marriage with Alfonso. We say goodbye to Alfonso, Giuseppe and Alessio, and wish them the best for the future. The M/B Patrizia will always be in our hearts.