Spotting a Portuguese fishing boat in the wild

Portuguese fishing boats have tall bows which challenge and fend off the Atlantic waves.

You see that design in the cobbolds on the Northumbrian coast; probably derived from the Viking long ships. Last week we watched one come in with its load of small green gilly crabs to be used as octopus bait down in the Algarve, packed into 12 barrels.

A lorry was standing by to take the precious cargo a hundred miles south. The fisherman had huge hands like Cromer crabs, impervious to nips as he bagged up the thousands of wriggling crustaceans into net sacks. He said the crabs would live for a week, and that today’s catch, half the usual number, had earned him 240 euros.

We were at a small fishing village called Carrasqueira on the Sado estuary between Lisbon and the Algarve. It is one of those staging posts for water birds which migrate between Russia and Africa each year and which will use Chichester Harbour en route.

There are a score of other boats, which just shows you how healthy this estuary must be to have millions of crabs harvested from its mud shallows year in year out.

We had walked out several hundred yards high above the mudflats on flimsy wooden walkways nailed to stilts and called palafitico. The whole lot wobbled and shook and we had to be careful to avoid the broken bits. Another fisherman was having a long conversation in Portuguese with my son, who asked him all sorts of questions that the man answered eagerly as he dried his nets passing them from hand to hand in the hot sunshine. I waited patiently for translation of these tales of the deep from the sun-burned, tough old ancient mariner who must have faced tempests, killer whales, and nights under the plangent moon as he ploughed the oceans for his family.

After half an hour we deemed it time for other tourists to be enchanted by his sea faring tales, when I asked my son to tell me all. ‘He was talking mainly about EU health and safety laws’ was all I got. Ho hum. The boats are painted that dark blue which you see in the house and wall tiles for which the country is famous. Many had red lines to brighten this colour of the sea.

There was a strong smell of ozone and the salt tide, which dropped to reveal sparkling channels and glistening runnels where the gilly crabs were starting to burrow back into their tunnels. White storks came from their huge twig nests on the electricity pylons to drink and fish.

One pylon on the main road back to Lisbon had 13 vast bundles of twigs on the metal platforms provided by the electricity board. We saw purple herons, egrets, and black-winged stilts here, and turnstones and sanderlings tripping along the sandy beaches which stretch for fifty miles south like those of Australia or Africa.