Blog: Cornish fisherman who can’t swim on Brexit, Covid and 50 years at sea – Cornwall Live

To say that Phil Trebilcock is passionate about shellfish would be a gross disservice to the man, whose catches feed everyone from locals to TV chefs.

Speaking over the phone from Newquay Harbour, with a thick Cornish accent just after a day out on the water on his boat the Loyal Partner, 67-year-old Phil said that his yield for the day was better than it had been.

His prized catch, the spider crab, as well as other crustaceans did not like a recent change in water temperatures. “It’s been tough,” he said. “Quietest March I’ve had for years, but everyone’s much the same.

“Plenty of lobsters, but throwing a lot of others back in.”

This recent wobble is just that, he reassured, and things will pick up as they always do.

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Besides, fishermen like Phil have weathered much worse than a slight drop in water temperature.

In the last few years alone they’ve seen Brexit chaos disrupting exports, overseas suppliers going bust and, of course, the pandemic too.

Coronavirus, for the shellfish export capital of the UK Newquay, hit pretty hard, Phil said – but thanks to a wave of ‘buy local’ sentiment, they were kept going.

“It has not been too bad for us, because what this Covid has done is a lot of people – I’ll give the public their due – have been supporting locals.

“They’ve come and bought from the harbour, which they don’t normally do.

“So you have an extra 15/20% buying directly.”

Instead of spending their money at supermarkets, Phil said more and more people are looking closer to home for their seafood.

This has helped crab and lobster pot fishermen like Phil keep going, even though restaurants have been shut for nearly half of the last 12 months.

Brexit, for Phil, has not hit as hard as other fishermen – some of whom accused the government of turning its back on them with the withdrawal agreement.

He stopped exporting a few years ago, when his main overseas exporters in Spain collapsed.

“Over there, unemployment got bad in Spain, as high as 20% once.

Phil Trebilcock with a spider crab

“Of course, no one could eat in restaurants, they didn’t buy spider crabs.”

For Phil, this was a pretty devastating loss – his beloved spider crab is not as popular over here as it is abroad.

But he is now trying to promote them in Britain, expecting that to help put Newquay on the map again.

“95% or more 98 of all spider crabs a few years ago were exported,” he continued, animatedly as soon as the crabs were mentioned.

“It’s a bit harder to get the meat out with them, than brown crabs. In Spain, they’d buy them up and boil them, it’s a sociable event there. Even the small ones, poorer people would want them.

“But here, soon we’ll be catching loads of them but the only ones the restaurants want are the big ones.”

Recently, he took out the cast of Escape to the Country to try out his spider delicacy.

He recounted: “I took Aled Jones out on the boat, then we went back and I have him one I prepared earlier – he isn’t such a big shellfish fan himself.

“We had a sandwich and a glass of wine, I had half of his sandwich, and it was lovely.”

He also expects to take out Rick Stein in a few days’ time, also to promote spider crabs – and recommended Stein’s recipe of grilling the shellfish with a bit of cheese.

Phil Trebilcock with his boat Loyal Partner, which he has owned for over ten years

As well as words of wisdom on the best ways to cook spider crabs, Phil also has his fair share of seafaring tales.

After starting out in 1964, aged just ten, he caught his first mackerel and crabs to sell at Newquay Harbour.

This, he explained, was the start of his now 50 year long love of fishing.

“I’m not afraid of water at all, I’ll be in the water but never learned to swim,” he said.

“Weather like this, with the sun, it’s a pleasure. You’re out there in the fresh air, especially when it’s calm.

“A bit of light easterly wind, you have a few pots under the cliff. Been there a few days with some lovely salted mackerel you know you’re in for a good day.

“That’s the pleasure and the beauty of it.”

Despite his love for it, he has had his fair share of scrapes with death – as you could expect from a fisherman who never learned to swim.

Phil Trebilcock hand carves the pegs used to secure the bait inside the traditional wicker lobster pots

One day in 1972, in his first boat – one he picked up for £40 – he took himself out with a few crab pots after a day of his at-the-time day job of being a refrigerator engineer apprentice.

After picking up the pots at Port Isaac, one in the passenger bit and one in the carrier section, he went out in the boat still clad in his white engineer uniform.

On the way back, though, a swell caught him between Fly Cellars and the North Quay.

Phil picked up the story: “I should never have gone out that day, with the swell. That’s what you do when you’re young though.

“I had my little outboard motor, and didn’t have the power like you do these modern ones.

“I got halfway, the bloody sea came up behind and next thing I know I was upside down.”

Lucky for Phil, a surfer came over to him while he was bobbing up and down by his boat.

Phil knows everyone, apparently, including Prince Philip – pictured with here in 2014

The surfer, as Phil described, told the drowning man it looked like he was “in a bit of bother”.

“I came to, the punt was capsized, all 11 foot of it. I climbed on and the surfer told me to get onto the board.

“He paddled alongside me with a bit of rope attached to the board.”

Phil assured me this was the first and only time he’s ever been on a surfboard.

His boat was recovered, but he tragically lost his two crab pots.

Back to the present, Phil said he’s hoping the temperatures will settle – and that he and the other fishermen at Newquay can keep going after the pandemic.

His future seems secure, as he explained the restaurants reopening is great for him: “It’s hurt us a bit, restaurants shutting, but once they’re open, I’ll be supplying London, Oxfordshire, and so on through an agent, like I have been for ten or 12 years now.

“My lobsters go to Raymond Blanc, Blumenthal, plenty of others.

“And when they start again, they’ll want every lobster that moves.”

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