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Born of the Sea

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Troy Rainbird at St George's Bay, St Helens
BORN OF THE SEA
Working in one of the world’s most dramatic seascapes along a rugged, pristine coastline, two young men on Tasmania’s north east coast are reaping the benefits from their crayfishing and seabird charter operation.

STORY + PHOTOS PAULA HEELAN

It’s a sunny, glinting, piercingly cold winter’s day at St Helens on Tasmania’s north east coast. Along the coastline, a fresh, southerly wind of 30 knots is blowing and a storm warning has been issued. But the crayfish are better than steady and the local crayfishermen, unloading their rich harvests at the sheltered St George’s Bay, are eager to quickly return to sea. But for Troy Rainbird, 25, and his deckhand, Geoff Goodlulck, 27, there’s trouble. Troy’s 17 metre, fast planing vessel, the Nifty 11, has engine trouble. Troy and Geoff are working furiously on the problem, but will need to spend the night on land. Inopportunely, they are loading their craypots onto a trailer for overnight storing. “It’s gearbox trouble,” Troy says. “Hopefully, we’ll be right to get back out tomorrow. This is a high maintenance vessel and things can go wrong, but it’s unusual.”

Mature beyond his years, Troy has been near or on the ocean since he was born in the small fishing town, St Helens. Following in his father Greg’s footsteps (a crayfisherman for more than 40 years), Troy has skippered his own vessel since he was 17. A veteran of wild seas, his understanding of the ocean, the weather, boat mechanics and the crayfishing industry is immense – a good thing given his livelihood is governed by the elements of nature. To add to his swag of skills, during the summer months he runs sea bird charters popular with bird watchers from around the world. “We’ve learnt a lot more about seabirds since running trips for bird watchers,” he says. “We usually see a good variety, including albatross, small petrels, terns, white bellied sea eagles, Australasian Gannets, shearwaters, cormorants, prions and plenty of Pacific gulls. “I’m always on the lookout for them now - particularly around the seabird rookeries on rocky islands off the coast.”

While the east coast boasts a mild climate produced by the surrounding hills and warm ocean currents, the weather can swiftly whip up an ocean of fury that over the centuries has sculptured bluffs and blowholes. Aware of the dangers and the need to support one another, the crayfishermen of the small fleet of traditional wooden boats to the latest planing vessels, keep in touch and look out for each other. It’s a rugged way of life, laced with danger and setbacks and a heavily regulated industry requiring them to follow strict rules.

Asked if he’s ever considered doing anything else, Troy says on days like this, when they can’t get out to sea; or if the wind and swell picks up with little warning, resulting in a difficult and dangerous trip, he sometimes wonders. “But mostly, things go pretty well and when your office stretches along one of the world’s most beautiful coastlines, it’s not too bad,” he says with grin. “Or when you watch a whale give birth to its calf, you know you’re in a pretty special place.”

To avoid the sand bar entrance in George’s Bay, which can strand boats for days in bad weather, Troy moors the Nifty 11 in deep water at Binalong Bay; the gateway to the internationally recognised Bay of Fires. Pristine, white beaches dotted with giant, ochre coloured granite boulders, line uninhabited wilderness for more than 30 kilometres between Binalong Bay in the south to Eddystone Point in the north. This part of the world claims the planet’s cleanest air, with an overwhelming depth of colour running through the landscape, lagoons and ocean.

With most trips to sea lasting around six days, Troy and Geoff generally return with a good catch. They fish up and down the east and north coast, sometimes reaching Schuten Island or Babel Island in the south east, or to the tip of Flinders Island in the north. “We pull up somewhere, bait the pots with fresh fish, like salmon or couta, which we either catch ourselves or buy from the factory. If we’re getting crayfish we stay on them, if not, we move on.”

The Tasmanian crayfishing industry harvests wild stocks of crayfish. The government sets that quota eacy year and fishermen fish it by means of an allocations. While fishermen are on a quota of up to 50 pots, depending on the size of their vessel, it’s still a lucrative business despite the restrictions. For his latest catch, Troy fetched $70/kilgram, the highest price he has ever been paid.

Crayfish from Tasmania are sent to the mainland or directly overseas, mostly to Hong Kong and China, as live, fresh product. “On a typical day we set the pots in deeper water before sunrise and pull them in the afternoon and then focus on the night cray in shallower water. We drop anchor in a sheltered bay for the night and with all the mod cons on board, like TV and a satellite phone, we’re quite comfortable.”
For Nifty 11 seabird charter information: contact Troy on 0427 761 775