Posted on

Mike Cornish in Fishing News

Inshore Corner, with Phil Lockley

Article from Fishing News, Jan 2019

Found your ‘best-ever’ pot lately?

Fishing News, Jan 2019

“Ask 100 potters to describe their best pot, and you will get 100 different answers – a problem that drives all pot-makers to despair. To stick with a small number of stock designs may be a pot-maker’s dream, but that’s what it is: a dream.

Some pot-makers, like Mustang Engineering and Caithness Creels, and plastic frame-makers NJ and EF Ashworth – and others firms, too – respond to new ideas and, together with skippers, carry out research work to ‘tweak’ a pot design. From such input, the market has a bigger portfolio of pots than it did even 10 years ago, and several-fold more than 30 years ago.

As soon as the surgeon waves his magic wand on my spine, I will be back at sea working a few pots. To you youngsters out there: please watch the way you lift pots and/or full bongos. You’re not a hero while at home on the NHS waiting list.

“You are only earning when that slave (hauler) is turning.” I once heard that from a Cadgwith skipper, and how true it is. Enough said.

When compared with 20 years ago, here in Cornwall the minimum number of pots for a boat of under 8m in length is, to many, shocking.

In truth, 200 pots or more would be realistic, and I know of a 16ft ‘tosher’ (a Cornish cove boat design) working over 300 pots. Plenty of Cornish 24-footers and 26-footers now work well over 500 pots. Any newcomer would find it difficult to even find space in which to put his gear. I understand that for some time now, the situation has been similar for much of the accessible UK coast.

And where there is less pressure, and the possibility exists of a youngster becoming a potter, those areas are so ravaged by poor weather, that although the shellfish stocks have a ‘built-in’ conservation policy, it takes considerable skill to not either go home bankrupt, or not get home at all. Even so, acceleration of effort is growing wherever there is crab and/or lobster. Talk of pot limitations is increasing.

Mike and Adam Cornish show some of the latest order for soft-eye Ashworth creels.

I started potting in 1979 as a true beginner with zero experience – you don’t get many lobsters in the rivers of Shropshire! I had escaped to Cornwall, and quickly saw shellfishermen doing well. I helped on a few boats, saw what it was like being paid to do something you had always wanted to do, and borrowed money to begin. I was no competitor, so many skippers, like David Muirhead, helped me along the first stages. Seriously, I’m still learning.

I acquired a 24ft clinker boat from Lyme Regis, and from a Bridport firm, bought 172 plastic-dipped steel inkwell frames – they only had 172 in stock – together with reams of cheap 10mm-diameter blue floating-rope and bundles of pot-rubber. I filled the van and drove home. Buying Airedale rope was out of my league; Airedale rope was the Rolls-Royce for potters. In those days, most people rigged their own pots, and I thought it would be easy. Need I say more?

But potting was unrestricted, and potting in general was yet to become a production line. Supercrabbers were not around, and I knew nothing of nearby Devon ports like Salcombe and Dartmouth, places where the ratio of pots per boat was fast evolving. Devon men with forethought became rich.

In Cornwall there was a sizeable fleet of potters. The bigger ones were owned by the firm W Harvey & Sons, which is still a major shellfish merchant and processor.

By the 1990s, the practice of leaving the ground to rest during the winter was ebbing, but the catch rates remained fair.

When recording the memories of Bridport skipper David Sales – a privilege that I enjoyed two years ago – I heard how so many factors were involved in the evolution of today’s intense potting. He told of how the introduction of steel frames was a huge turning-point.

At the skipper’s request, the parlours and soft-eye pots have plastic doors with a lobster escape hatch.

The introduction of synthetic rope was an equal boost; hydraulic haulers replaced dangerous cog-driven capstans, meaning that more pots could be worked per day – the ‘slave hauler’ had arrived, the capstan disappeared, and people stepped ashore to make pots as a business. The introduction of the Nantes spinner was a major factor; working more pots throughout the tides on harder ground was inevitable. Many more steps of ‘technical creep’ left the shellfish stocks at a vulnerable point. Stronger measures to protect the stocks are now under debate – but that’s politics, and politics of any description is a place I stay away from.

On a recent visit to Devon, I spoke to well-known ex-potter Mike Cornish, who added another factor, one that few of us would ever have considered – cutting up tyres and using the strips of rubber to bind the pot bases.

When I started rigging pots in 1979, we had to buy that pot rubber – it was readily available and not too expensive. No one thought that, used in such a way, the lowly used tyre would become ‘technical creep’.

Using rubber made the pots more durable and greatly reduced the amount of maintenance time. In those days, tyres with walls protected by steel – which cannot be cut – were few, and were only used on high-performance vehicles, so there were plenty of discarded fabric- based tyres. So it was obvious to cut up those tyres to bind pots with. Perhaps that very rubber I bought might have come from a small industrial yard in Paignton!

The strength of the Ashworth soft-eye frames is equal to that of the equivalent parlours.

Mike Cornish heads a busy family firm, set up about 40 years ago. Mike had been a potter for some time, but came ashore to become a pot-maker – and later a leading gear salesman through his namesake firm.

Although Mike didn’t invent cutting rubber strips, he was the instigator of designing the first power-driven machine to take the drudgery out of cutting strips by hand (using a sharp blade lubricated by Fairy Liquid and water).

Initially, the inner rings of the tyres were removed and Mike spent endless hours cutting the rubber strips – but not for long.

He explained: “The chap who first decided to cut rubber to bind the base of pots with was Dave Garrett. I was still a potter, and I remember meeting Dave; initially he was a saddler by trade, and we were moaning about using old ropes to protect the pot bases, saying that the ropes were chafing out and didn’t last long. He said he would cut rubber from a tyre and try that instead – and we laughed at him – but he used his saddler’s tools and did just that. We never looked back.

A tightly rigged soft-eye entrance is preferred by many skippers to the top-entrance option.

“When I came ashore from my potter, the 26ft Samaki, I began my business making pots. The time taken in cutting rubber by hand was too great. So together with Eric Hubbard at Brixham (then agent for Gardner engines, now of Hubbard Engineering in Brixham), we decided to make an electric machine to cut rubber. The prototype worked very well, but as expected, we changed a few minor things and made what became a talking point among potters. Eric only ever made a machine for me, and we tried to copyright it.”

Mike Cornish had no idea that the firm he started would flourish to become the family firm that it is today. Still located in Paignton (but at a different site, Miglo Industrial Estate), its gear store/shop is like an Aladdin’s cave. There are few days when I haven’t come home with a ‘must-have’ item. I challenge any potter to go to Mike Cornish’s yard and not come out carrying something.

Mike has for many years specialised in making pots based on plastic frames made by NJ & EF Ashworth, a small firm situated close by at Aveton Gifford.

Known to many oldies as ‘Nantes’ pots, that idea of making frames from plastic piping has immense history. The idea came from Weymouth skipper Geoff Nantes, who began making inkwell frames in the mid- 1970s. Manufacture moved to NJ & EF Ashworth in 1977. The head of the family firm, Nick Ashworth, made pots under licence until about 1983, when he bought the business from Geoff Nantes. Many such frames go to Mike Cornish for his team of three riggers to complete – his daughter Cindy, son Adam and grandson Jason are forever busy.

For many years, I have used quite a few of the Ashworth top-entrance parlours – excellent pots – and I now have a couple of the soft-eye version to try. First featured in Fishing News two years ago, the soft-eye version is, I hear, increasing in popularity, and I think it deserves another feature.”

By Phil Lockley (Fishing News)

Related Products: