Kreefing For Beginners, by Pete Sherlock. (or the art of filling your net with rock lobster without catching a sweat)
House Bay, Dassen Island, 33° 25.077’ S 18° 5.168’ E, 18 December 2021
The water was ridiculously cold, 9 degrees according to the temperature logged on the chart plotter. It would take a human less than an hour to reach terminal hypothermia in these conditions, but there was a steely determination in our preparations. Paul’s concentration was not broken as he readied the gear, his movements fluid and rehearsed, easily betraying the fact that his skill was seasoned.
Our window of opportunity here was incredibly small and I tried swallowing the fear of failure. We could not fail, there was too much counting on this, on us. My hands fumbled as I passed the cable ties through the rings and pulled them tight with a swift and menacing motion.
It was close to midday. The sun swept through the anchorage, a gentle South Easterly wind hiding the promise of a Northerly lee shore nightmare that would challenge the old salts in a few hours. There were already about 6 yachts riding their chains, the azure of the Atlantic washing plimsoll lines clean as the boats gently climbed and slowly dropped behind what little swell made it into the bay. The clean west coast air was flavoured with the smell of braais onboard as most had a fire going in preparation of a midday meal.
It was a shame as those fires should have been lit on the island, as was the plan arranged some weeks previously. But that is cruising for you, plans made, plans changed, forgotten or amended because of weather. The Cruisers braai on the island, normally inaccessible to the general public but made available to RCYC Cruisers very generously by the caretakers, had to be cancelled on this occasion as the weather became objectionable.
Paul and I lifted our gear into the tender. Lines coiled carefully in each net to avoid restricting the float, bait carefully loaded and contained in netted bags. Hands protected by neoprene gloves with leather armour, black and stealthy they matched our intent. Zinc painted cheekbones reflected the sun and blurred our outline when viewed from the water, a secondary purpose almost as crucial as the primary and adopted only by those who are serious about the hunt. As I reached for the throttle on the outboard, I double checked the anchorage.
Around 35 yachts from both RCYC and SBYC had to change their plans on the weather’s behalf. But that is the essence of cruising really, hosting plans as fickle as the likes on your Instagram feed. The corollary of change is of course opportunity and many of those vessels chose instead to head off to Kraalbay.
If ever there was a badly kept secret this was it. Kraalbay is arguably South Africa’s most beautiful anchorage. Warm water, good holding on sand, protection from the prevailing wind by a low set of hills on the western rim and solitude when the day begins and ends, painted on the soft green mirrored texture of morning calm, or the pastel hues of sunset reflected like a soft Monet. It is tricky getting there. Certainly a few sandbanks which most of us have kissed shyly, but once you have found your way into the channel between the banks you are beautifully rewarded for your risk.
I pulled on the starter cord and the outboard immediately responded, matching my flicking wrist with an increase in revs and a rush of wash from the propellor. Paul cast the painter off and as our nose swung away from Amarula I engaged forward and we were on the plane almost instantly. We immediately took our positions, eyes scanning the reef and kelp beds for “the” spot.
If ever there was a time for gut instinct, this was it. Our senses honed, eyes trying to see beneath the dance of kelp and the wash of tide as it rolled and gurgled over the reef. I manoeuvred the rib between the kelp heads, slowing down to a drift. Paul was leaning over the gunwale, his polarised sunnies penetrating the surface of the cold Atlantic smush swirling around below. He looked up at me and nodded, our eyes locked and I signalled my agreement. In one swift telling move he had the net into the water and was guiding it down until it lay beguilingly on the ocean floor. He silently motioned to me to creep forward on the line and he smoothly executed a second and then third net placement.
I manoeuvred the rib gently out from the grasp of the kelp into clear water. This was the hardest bit. The wait. As an aid to patience we cracked open a beer each, gritting our teeth, our frowns shading our eyes as we scanned the floats for any motion. There were other Cruisers also pursuing the same prey. We ignored them, oblivious to their seemingly pathetic efforts. We were focused and alert, every nerve end in our bodies trained towards the end goal. The silence in the rib was broken only by the lapping of water against the gunwale and the lifting of our beers as we sought succour from the cool amber liquid trapped inside and demanding release.
Our concentration was broken by the high-pitched wine of a fellow cruisers tender powered by a lacklustre 2 stroke motor, coughing and spluttering from the other side of the reef. We ignored it but knew that the approach was inevitable, just like a mosquito in a dank, damp motel room. It was the crew from Derbigum, I nodded at Paul as I wiped the condensation from my beer onto my forehead. Paul leant over the gunwale, cupping his hand to lift water up and dab his armpits. He looked as hot and sweaty as an engine room gimp.
With impeccable timing Paul started lifting our first net. The Derbigum crew were close enough to see it come up empty and as we smoothly glided through the kelp to our second net, they watched us through the noise and the smoke of their stuttering outboard. Paul played it so well, staying upright so that they got the best angle of our second net coming up empty. They were shaking their heads, like a bunch of soccer moms at the under 12 home final and 8 goals down. As our 4-stroke pushed us resolutely to the third net I turned so we were three-quarters forward to their approach. The resignation in Paul’s shoulders was perhaps a little over the top but the empty net held the Derbigum crew’s eyes and played for their smiles.
I was watching them with my periheral vision. They had no clue to the pantomime unfolding before them and as they pulled alongside us their motor gave one final splutter and died. Alan greeted us with a shake of his head and his big smile, the sun glinting off his shiny, hairless brow. “Pete, what bait are you using?” flowed slickly out of Alan’s mouth as he started laughing. “You guys need some help!” He reached into a crate and pulled out a just in size Kreef. “Here you go – you don’t have a clue hey!” He passed it over and Paul grabbed it safely.
“Alan, we have been dropping nets everywhere, what’s your secret?” I replied, looking as sad as possible. “Have you done this before” he retorted, his words framed by his grin. “Come now Alan – only one for us?” I replied, my voice slightly lowered. “Ok here’s another” and he pulled out a fat one “but don’t tell anyone I gave these to you”. He passed it over to us, “lekker thanks Al, that’s a goodie. Do you guys want a beer?”
He was laughing at us now, “no we are good, but at the end of the day if you want to catch you have to learn from the pros”. “Ja ja” I replied. “Come now Al one more bud, there are four of us on Amarula”. He laughed as he pulled the starter on his outboard “Ok one more but you owe me hey!” He grabbed another Kreef and chucked it over to us as he revved his motor. I could still hear him laughing through the smoke as they stalled and spluttered away.
Paul and I sat back, three lovely rock lobster flailing in our catch bucket. And that my friends, was the three easiest Kreef I have ever caught. Aah, the boat life.