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The fishing boats of Fleetwood have gone from 80 to just a handful but one remarkable man has no intention of putting away his nets. Roger Borrell reports Photography by Kirsty Thompson and Alan Markey
They are a remarkable breed, those men who set out in small boats
and in all weathers to put food on our tables. They battle against waves the size of cathedrals and navigate oceans swirling with European rules and regulations, yet something compels them to go back for more.
Over the years, their number has dwindled to the extent they are almost as endangered as some of the fish they once pursued - especially around the Lancashire coast.
One of the last is also one of the most remarkable. Stormy Steve is not a nickname given to men fond of lying in bed when the wind starts to howl.
But Steve Welshs uniqueness doesnt come from the job he does or from the fact hes one of the last surviving local trawlermen operating out of Fleetwood.
Some people talk about the survival of the fittest, he laughs. In my case it has been the survival of the un-fittest. But if you ask my wife, Linda, she says its the survival of the daftest!
Steve was born in 1947 into a Fleetwood fishing family. Soon after starting school, the five-year-old fell in a pond on farmland. Hours later he felt unwell and, by the next day, he was paralysed.
He was the latest victim of polio. This crippling, often fatal, virus cut a swathe through a generation before a vaccine was found. Steve was one of the unlucky ones and the doctors did not expected him to live. But even then he was a fighter.
The next four years were spent slowly recovering in various hospitals, including an isolation unit near Wrea Green where the regime seemed tough and terrifying to a sick child in need of loving care.
His condition gradually improved but Steve was left with a weakened arm and couldnt walk without metal callipers strapped to his legs. My dad was determined to get me walking, says Steve. He encouraged me and I managed to ride a bike and forced myself to walk without the callipers. I got bullied at school - thats kids for you - but I gained an inner strength, a mental toughness if you like.
I learned to swim and that made my arms stronger and in some ways it compensated for the weakness in my legs. I just wanted to do what other children could do. You have to get on with life.
He did more than that. His father, Bill, was a successful fish merchant but Steves grandfather had been a trawler skipper. I had this massive hankering to go to sea, says Steve. I suppose people must have thought I was mad. But I just loved the sea.
Despite his extreme difficulty in walking, he started going out on an uncles trawler when he was just ten, then on small prawn boats and, by the time he was 17, he persuaded his father to lend him 1,000 to buy his own vessel, the Kathleen. Many doubted his ability to cope because of the severe problems he had - and still has - walking.
But he recruited an experienced skipper, Phil Cropper, who showed him the ropes. I fell over a lot, he laughs. But I just had to try harder. When Phil moved to a bigger boat, Steve took over as skipper.
After a brief spell ashore helping in the family retailing businesses, the sea got the better of him again and at the grand old age of 21 he was in charge of the 50-foot trawler Sincere. Later he bought the 70-foot Colinne and both man and boat are still going strong 30 years on, bringing home sole, plaice, roker (skate), whiting and beautiful langoustines from the Cumbrian coast.
During four decades he and Linda, who runs the Bridal Cottage
wedding wear specialist in Fleetwood, have raised a family, Amanda and
In some ways, being at sea all these years has made my legs stronger. The motion of the boat means the muscles are constantly being exercised, says Steve, a hugely likeable man who enjoys the banter and comradeship of life at sea.
Moving while on board isnt easy but as there is barely room to swing a cat in the wheelhouse it isnt a major problem - besides, he has his trusty mate Darren Moore. And while he may be a little rocky on his pins he can move with speed and there are one or two lippy deckhands from years gone by who can testify to that.
Steve and his son still have great faith in the industry and they plan to buy a modern vessel capable of fishing more effectively using sustainable methods. However, it will cost up to 1 million and that will require the right type of funding or investment.
Steve, always modest about his achievements, has spent most of his life battling illness and the elements but, now in his 60s, retirement has never crossed his mind.
Its like a drug, I just love fishing, he says. I enjoy gardening but I couldnt do it all day. We go down to the boat every day, 365 days a year. What else would I do?
Tricks of the trade
Steve Welsh Junior left the building industry three years ago to establish Welfish with his father, marketing their catch directly to restaurants.
With a staff of up to eight on the quay at Fleetwood, Steve sells a full range of fish from The Colinne as well as everything from hand-dived Orkney scallops to Morecambe Bay shrimps.
The catch goes from sea to kitchen within a few hours and the high quality has resulted in an impressive client list including Nigel Haworth's Ribble Valley Inns and the award winning Twelve at Thornton Cleveleys.
Here Paul Moss, who runs Twelve, shares his tips:
What should you look for when you are buying fish? Buying the freshest is essential. If you're buying whole fish, the skin and eyes should look firm and vibrant. Fresh fish doesn't smell. If it does, then it's probably past its best. Frozen fish can still be very good, if not better in some cases.
What's the secret of cooking fish? It cooks very quickly, making it a quick and easy meal. Don't overcook it. Fish responds to lots of different methods, grilling, roasting, baking or poaching. Keeping it simple - poaching it with a little milk, water or stock and seasoning is something anyone can do - salmon, sole, skate and seabass are all wonderful served like this. Alternatively you can pan fry scallops with butter and a glug of oil in minutes!
What's so special about the fish from Stormy Steve? It's great to be supporting one of the last trawlers in Fleetwood and working with a family who have fished in local waters for years. We know Steve's produce is exceptional - it's literally only a matter hours from when the fish is caught to when he's is striding through our kitchen with an enormous turbot or a box full of freshly caught langoustine. We pass this story onto our diners and it gives everyone a much clearer sense of where their food is coming from. Steve's actually features on our menu sometimes - Steve Welsh's langoustine cocktail is always extremely popular!