FREMANTLE’S Blessing of the Fleet is a time of great tradition for the De Ceglie family; fishing is “in the blood”.
Their ancestors worked the rich waters off Molfetta, Italy, for generations until the aftermath of WWI left them struggling to earn a keep and looking further afield to support their families.
It was the step-father of Giuseppe De Ceglie who first tried his hand in Fremantle, arriving more than 100 years ago aboard the Omar and spending a decade helping to establish the local industry before calling the 16-year-old to join him.
The pair worked Cockburn Sound where the snapper were abundant, but Giuseppe’s son John recalls his father saying life wasn’t as ideal as he’d have liked.
“I remember dad saying when he came here they actually lived on little 35-foot boats, and he hated it.
“He said, ‘well, I come from Italy – from Molfetta, living in a house, and me dad brought me here and I’m living on a little bloody boat sleeping on bags’,” John said.
Eventually there was something of a revolt from the burgeoning fleet’s deckhands, and they were able to secure ‘apartments’ on the top of the old warehouses that still line Cliff Street.
Giuseppe continued to work with his step-father Donato until his 20s, but at that time there was a buzz about the crayfish which some of the Molfettan fleet were starting to bring in from deeper waters, and he decided to join the Piano family and Saverio Mezzina in purchasing the vessel Maddalena.
It was a successful partnership in more than one way; when Giuseppe met Saverio’s sister-in-law Filomena love blossomed and they were married.
The couple had two boys and life looked great, but when World War II broke out, John says his parents were thrown into chaos.
“The Australian government took an especially heavy-handed approach to Italian fishermen; the boats and two-way radios were considered ideal for transmitting secret intelligence, thus they were interned and their boats impounded for the duration of the war,” he says.
Years later the government was to issue an apology and the family were able to resume their fishing – and building, eventually ending up with six boys and three girls; John, Sam, Don, Mick, Serge, Annastacia, Anna and Geraldine.
They had an idyllic life growing up in Fremantle, where there were no backyard fences.
“We lived here in Nairn Street and Collie Street – most of the fishermen lived around this area. Our playground was the park over there,” he says, indicating the Esplanade Reserve.
“Every day when we’d come home from school we’d go crabbing and prawning and fishing.”
Back then you could walk the shoreline all the way to South Beach.
“Our dad was a fisherman and he wanted us to go to school, but being down here every day and going fishing in the dinghies and all that, none of us wanted to go,” John says.
His brother Sam cuts in: “We all left school at 14,” but he says by then they were already seasoned salts.
“Dad worked at Lancelin, so we used to go there during the school holidays and spend time up there with the families; all the families used to do that in those days.
“And we used to go out with dad and it just got into our blood.”
John says by the time they were about 10 years old, all the boys could splice ropes, make pots, tie fishhooks and mend nets.
And so it has been with the next generation – and here’s where the story gets complicated, because all the brothers’ first sons were called Giuseppe, or Joe, after their grandfather. Most of the girls have been named Filomena as well.
John’s son Joe says he appreciates how tough it was for the early fishermen, who often had to manufacture their own tools, had little access to fresh food on long trips and often faced treacherous conditions sailing up the coast.
They now buy all their pots rather than make them hand, and the three-months of off-season repairs and cleaning is now all done and dusted in about a fortnight thanks to air- and battery-powered tools.
John recalls his father speaking about some tough storms they faced, but fortunately for him the age of the diesel engine had taken off just as he took his place aboard his father’s new boat, the ‘freezer boat’ St Gerard where they could catch, process and export their catch directly off the vessel.
“Dad used to tell us stories, but fortunately it never happened to us.
“In the sailing days, they got some really bad storms and they tore sails and all that, and you might think it’s a bit silly, but they’d pray to the statues on board that things would come good,” he says, motioning towards the figure on the cross that hangs from the back of the wheelhouse looking forward.
Sam says they really feel safer out on the water thanks to the prayers and the blessing of the boats during the festival; it’s been a part of their lives from since they can remember.
“My mother, she was a very devoted Catholic, and when we used to come back and do our gear, she’d get the priest to come home and bless the post,” he says.
“When we’d christen the new boats, she’d get the priests to come on board and bless the boat and the crew and all the people that were on the boat.”
They say that while the Blessing of the Fleet has dwindled from its heyday when all the hotels would get decked out in flags and the harbour was full of a colourful flotilla, it’s still a big day for the family.
“I’ve got three girls and they love coming down and they help us with flags and all that sort of stuff,” Joe says.
“So they’re still involved; it’s just, I guess there’s not as many fishermen any more.”
But they’re hopeful the industry is poised for another lift, with hints that the Chinese government may soon lift its boycott of Australian crayfish.
While that might mean a lift in price, they’re still keen to make sure the markets that stepped in and helped keep the industry alive won’t get frozen out.
“If you own you own boat and your own business like we do – because we’ve been in it that long, you can make a decent living,” John says.
by STEVE GRANT