Down by the Athreya Godavari in Thallarevu, 18 kilometres south of Kakinada in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, where the hyancinth-filled creek meets the sea near Yanam, a huge banyan tree shelters a hut temple, and on open land amid tree trunks, planks, and detritus, five boats loom large against the blazing sky.

Two are almost finished, two have a long way to go before they sail, and one is under repair. The boats sit on piles of sawn wood, propped up on empty tin barrels with stakes driven into the ground. Ten people are at work in the area.

The boat that’s being repaired was in the water for 12 years. Waves pounded the hull; water seeped in, rotting the wood. The nails rusted, and left holes. For 12 years, the 32-feet boat was a safe haven for its crew of eight fishermen; now it resembles a sad shell of its previous self.

The men are working on it, some precariously perched on wooden planks and scaffolding, feet pressed against the boat or dangling down. One man pulls out the rusted nails. Hunched over the side of the hull, another removes a rotten plank, and the man down under the hull, elbows grazing the earth, drills a hole to hammer in a nail

Sai Ram, 35, a carpenter, says, “Usually wooden boats require an overhaul after ten years of service.” There are minor repairs—which don’t require dry-docking—in between, though. Sometimes, “moorings come off, anchors are ripped off in a cyclone or boats dash against each other, and damage the fibre matting and the wood and require immediate attention.” Wood, covered by fibre sheet begins to break down over the years, aided by worms that eat the wood.

A man walks on the plank that connects the almost-finished boats. Another saws wooden boards to outfit the cabin where fishermen sleep, sawdust sprinkling his hair as he works.

Under the hull of the boat that’s been nine months in the making (due to lack of funds) P Meera Sahib sits, chipping away at a plank. He shapes the plank according to the markings made in chalk, and it will be slotted in later. 

At 65, Meera Sahib is weathered and withered, head, face, chest and hands all grey. He has been a boat builder for more than 45 years.

“My wages are Rs 300 a day,” he says raising his voice to make himself heard against the background of wood being sawn, scraped, planed and nailed. He is a worker in this boat yard. The boat he is building is priced at Rs 3 lakh and requires about 1,500 feet of wood.

“It will last more than 10 years,” he adds. Like others in his trade, Meera Sahib doesn’t have any formal education. But these men don’t need elaborate designs to build boats, a mental picture is enough.

They start off with a central beam called “yeruva,” which forms the base on which the hull rests. It is the spine of the boat. Then, with the help of the L-shaped “kuruva”, they attach the beam for the bow called the “maku”, and build a system for the propeller using the “dukkulu at the other end. Then they begin to fix the “vangulu”—curved planks that give the boat its structure, like bones on a body. A skeleton of the boat emerges.

The beams holding the stern and the bow are the collarbone that holds the skeleton together, and from them, planks—like the skin on our body—are slotted to form the hull. The planks are then nailed, and coir is used to plug the gaps between them. Then tar is poured over to seal it from water. This is the process of caulking they use.

Finally, the wooden hull is covered in fibre sheeting to protect the wood from rotting in water. “Previously we used aluminum sheeting to secure the wood.”

Cabins, engine and winch, and every other thing is put in place. The boat is then painted, worshipped and launched.

A few yards away is Nageswara Rao, who specialises in small “karra padavalu” used for fishing in creeks and inlets. In his shed where the big power saw creates a huge racket making it difficult to hear, he says, “My work is basically to cut the wood and supply the beams.”

Referring to the 18-foot long and four-foot wide skeleton of the vessel sitting under a tree, he says, “We turn it over and arrange wooden planks and caulk the thing.”

Previously they used teak and yegesu wood. But the price of teak has gone through the roof, so now they use tumma, pasi, maddi, jamilu, and guggilam. The wood is sourced from Vizianagaram district in Andhra Pradesh, or from Odisha.

In Thallarevu they’ve been building boats for about 150 years now. At one time, its craftsmen were so much in demand that they would go to Rangoon by ship, and work there.

The village also specialises in “Kammari Vruttulu”—manufacturing nails, smithying, and rope-making. There are four others in the village who build boats used for fishing in small creeks. Now, though, the village has lost its boat builders to the bigger city of Kakinada. It was a matter of convenience.

“If you’re in Kakinada and want a boat, it’s much easier to build it there, rather than here and then transport it there,” Sai Ram says. “They went there so that they could build boats faster and launch from there.”

In search of livelihood, many workers migrated to other places. “I worked for nine years in Mandavi, Porbandar, Hukku and Kandla and Salaya,” says Sai Ram. Anecdotal evidence suggests many Telugu carpenters are working in various parts of Gujarat.

He says they earn around Rs 120 to Rs 150 per day as wages, and, “We only get paid only when there is work.”

Prakash, 35, another carpenter, chips in, “It’s two or three months of work a year.” For the rest “we make do with small jobs here and there.” Boatbulders are not carpenters, and for good reason.

“Once you’re into boat building, you can’t do other work such as fixing windows and doors in houses.” Subtle technical adjustments crop up, and their “skill in boatbuilding suffers”.

“We have to be very good at what we do simply because otherwise people may pay with their lives when they venture out into the sea for fishing.”

Gas drilling in these parts ensures a good road to Savitri Nagar where a fish landing jetty bristles with activity. Like barnacles attached to the hulls and keels, these men cling to the only way of life they know—the rhythm of ocean currents, of bobbing and weaving boats and the whines, sputters of their engines.

“This is what we know, this life,” says a boatman, after four days out at sea. “We don’t know anything else.”

“It’s not easy being out at sea. It’s physically hard and life’s uncertain,” says another old salt. “We have to take care of the fish as we soon as we haul the nets.

“We put them in ice boxes. If we leave it unchilled even for a few hours the catch deteriorates.”

From pre-dawn darkness to early afternoon, the fish landing jetty bustles with fish mongers as trawlers and boats that went to sea the previous night or days before, start coming in to dock. April 16 is the day when the 45-day (until May 31) uniform East Coast ban on fishing starts, and all boats and trawlers should dock by 10 a.m.

In its sweaty togetherness and epithet-laden banter, the jetty is a world apart. Its cement floor is a slop of mud, dirt, slime, and fish entrails. Men in grimy, faded, wet shorts, pants and T-shirts, with scraggly beards rush about; women scream over each others’ heads.

As a trawler arrives and is moored, men haul up the plastic tubs, ice containers and styrofoam boxes filled with fish, prawns and crabs, and put them out for auction. It begins as soon as the boxes touch the floor.

The place smells of fish guts, burning rubber, trash and exhaust fumes Voices emanate from decks, skip over the sterns and bows, thud on to the floor, and die. Women chew tobacco and each other’s ears. Prices are argued over, and auction settled after lots of barking and caterwauling.

Wholesalers and retailers huddle over the merchandise if it’s a big load. Small-time women retailers take the catch if the fish are small. Fish with bruises deteriorate fast, as do fish with cracking skin, or soggy, spongy texture of flesh—all these drive down the price.

Deckhands and others prepare for the ban for the next one-a-half-months. The ban, an annual feature, was instituted, “for replenishing the stocks in the sea,” says Krishna Murthy, the deputy director of fisheries, in-charge, East Godavari.

After 10-days at sea in the 32-footer, Satti Raju guns the engine once again to see if it needs any work. He is 35, and was a cook, and deck-hand before he became boat captain.

“The operation doesn’t cover the costs involved,” he says, listening all the while to the stuttering engine. “Fuel costs, gear oil, engine oil, rations, everything has shot up but the price of the catch remains the same.” 

Off-the-cuff estimates say there were 250 boats once in the Bhairavapalem and Savitri Nagar area. Now, they say, just 140 remain.

“Boats which cost lakhs were sold for Rs 60,000-70,000, and dismantled for whatever could be salvaged,” he says. “Almost 100 boats have gone. Losses due to costs and dwindling catch. Nobody can invest in new boats.”

Lounging in the boat, outfitted with radio transmission, GPS navigator and echo system, Srinu says, “The sound of sand dredging, drilling for gas and passing it through under-water pipelines, scares the fish away.”

Srinivas, the operator of the VHF set and radio communication in the boat, says, “These people don’t know any other work.” But it has become unviable for many to run boats and employ people for fishing.

“When we come to land we exchange pleasantries. In the same way, they indulge in fish talk, always enquiring about which boat who is on, where they’re fishing, the catch, and things like that. The allied businesses, small-time women sellers, rickshaw pullers, the flea market people—all suffer when the catch is not there,” says Satti Raju.

In another boat, a few workers wind the cable winch, start flushing the deck and haul up two planks. One man says, “The last two years have been especially bad.” On their usual jaunts, “We go up to Narsapuram and Vizag. Boats from Kakinada go near Kolkata, not these boats.”

In bad times, however, there’s one thing in the sea that spells a windfall for fishermen: tiger prawn.

Gangadhar, a wholesale supplier to shrimp hatcheries buys the shrimp and sells it for profit. “The sale depends on their capacity to produce eggs. We buy now and give them to hatcheries around 7.30 pm, they produce eggs around 7.45 pm and after 21 days, they develop into the seed,” he adds.

In one of the auctions for a bunch of tiger prawns, men huddle, their breaths grazing others’ cheeks, and take the prawns and cup their palms on their transparent shell to see the clusters of eggs and estimate how many eggs they can produce. A small, perky shrimp thrashes about, flops around in the box, and plunks down to the floor. The lot goes for Rs 7,000.

“Wholesalers take their cut, and it’s pure luck how many land in your net. Ten years ago, this Bhairavapalem area was a great for fish and tiger prawns. Now, not so.”

The economics of fishing makes the situation unviable for boatmen, and by extension for boat builders. If the boatmen can’t make money, how can the boat builder?

The boat guzzles 4 tonnes of oil in ten days, which comes to about Rs 1.6 lakh, add Rs 20,000 for the ice, rations for Rs 10,000, then crew’s wages and miscellaneous expenses. All this without expenses for nets or unforeseen mishaps, like engine blow-outs or repairs.

“Imagine how much catch we must have to cover the expenses,” says Nageswara Rao. “This is a lost cause.”

Gas drilling, fishermen say, has hit their livelihood.

“Due to release of foul-smelling gas and bombing on the sea bed, fish get scared away or die. That is why people have to go long distances to fish. Even then it’s uncertain,” says Gangadhar.

Nageswara Rao had three trawlers, but he sold them when he couldn’t even recover operating costs. There are nights and days when the fish keep flopping in the nets begging to be winched onto the decks and put into ice boxes; and times when weather plays truant, the winds whisper omens of lurking danger, and all the elements conspire to give them a raw deal and empty nets.

The sea giveth and the sea taketh away.

Boats, like boatmen, are temperamental creatures: engines guzzle fuel and can conk out; nets get shredded or nails rust, give away, opening holes. Knees and elbows become wobbly. Wind smashes the cabins and windows. It sometimes happens that boat owners find it hard to pay deckhands and drivers and cover overhead costs and remain solvent.

A bridge connects Savitri Nagar to Bhairavapalem where many of these fishermen live. They slack off while they are in their village, playing cards or snakes and ladders, gossiping, drinking, nursing their aching backs, blistered palms and scalloped lips.

Once a year they hold a big celebration in the Kala Bhairava Swamy temple. The priest says “whenever they leave home for fishing, they come and pray here and then start.”

Along Andhra Pradesh’s 974 kilometre coastline, which spans nine districts, lie 508 coastal villages and 271 landing centres. It supports 5.1 lakh fishermen, out of which 1.39 lakh do deep sea fishing.

Dr P Sankara Rao, assistant director of fisheries, State Institute of Fisheries Technology, Kakinada, says, “Andhra stands first in brackish water shrimp culture (tiger prawn,) and also fresh water shrimp culture (scampi).”

Brackish water shrimp production was 40,000 tonnes for 2010-2011, in cultivated area of 59,000 hectares, while all-India shrimp production was 90,000 tonnes in a cultivated area of 1.02 lakh hectares.

The state’s total seafood exports were worth Rs 3,000 crore in foreign exchange, while India’s stood at Rs 10,048 crore during 2010-2011.

The reasons for depleting stocks are numerous. Sankara Rao says, “The continental shelf area, high fluctuations in physio-chemical properties of water and up-welling movement are the big reasons for the depletion of stocks. As is over-fishing.”

India’s west coast has a wide continental shelf area, gradually sloping to a depth of 200 metres, whereas the east coast has a narrower one. The wider continental shelf helps propagate more fish that remain near the surface of the sea. Many rivers merge in the Bay of Bengal, resulting in vast fluctuations in physio-chemical parameters of the water.

“Then there has been a great depletion over the last ten years in tiger prawn (Monodon) capture in its natural environment.

“Motorised boats go far out to sea and catch brood stock. Coupled with environmental pollution, that has had a catastrophic effect.” They aren’t giving enough time to replenish the stocks.

Dr Ram Mohan Rao Ponnapalli, assistant director of fisheries, State Institute of Fisheries technology, says, “The reasons for dwindling catch are many. Over-fishing, industrial effluents killing the stock, even the size of mesh they use for the nets. The fishermen use half-an-inch mesh nets. These don’t let the ‘juniors’ escape. Stocks have fallen at an alarming rate.”

Less stock means fewer boats out at sea, and less demand for new ones.

Wood must bear the brutality of the waves. Nails must withstand constant wear and tear. A rusted nail can open up a hole, and water can gush in and sink a boat in minutes. And the catch must be good to keep the trade in good condition.

Along the salt creek, past the skeletal hulks of trawlers and busted-up boats in Jagannathapuram, Kakinada, Satyanandam is fixing a new plank on a boat he had built 13 years ago.

With over-fishing, environmental pollution and lower catch, boatbuilding has had the wind taken out of its sails. “The last 10, 12 years have been dull,” he says. He has been in this trade for more than 35 years

When the going was good, he resigned his job in the boatyard, to run a yard of his own. When he started, the catch was so good that fishermen would go out to sea at 4 a.m. and return with full holds by 4 p.m. He builds four boats a year, if given an order. “I don’t make any money, maybe a few thousands, because costs have soared.” Depending on the size and the wood being used, boats can cost between  Rs 20-25 lakh. He employs eight workers and pays them Ra 400 per day. “I make between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, because the moment I agree to a contract I must deliver. The cost of wood and iron keep changing every other day.”

Once upon a time boat building was good business. People made money off it. As boats became more in number—now he estimates there are around a thousand boats from this area fishing in the sea as opposed to a hundred 25-30 years ago—so has the catch come down, which means fewer boats to build. “There aren’t many who want new boats.”

“Once upon a time, a big boat owner asked the Sidhdhanti (pandit) to name the boat. He named it Sona, and from then on big boats came to be called “Sona” boats. In boom times, people had one or two or even three boats. But those days are long past,” says Satyanandam. “All these boats that we build are called Sona boats.”

Standing on the deck of the boat he is repairing, he says, “It almost takes Rs 1 lakh to set out. They load 12 to 14 tonnes of ice, fuel and rations and everything. Fuel cost itself comes to Rs 45,000-50,000.”

And, the distance they need to travel for a good haul has increased.

“What they catch is more like lottery.” We cannot say what they get. It may be two, three, or four tonnes of fish. Or, as fate would have it, they may not get Rs 50,000 out of it.”

Boat-building requires a high degree of skill, and the craftsmen want to protect it. They don’t want to diversify.

“For everything, we have to be careful. A nail not properly driven or wooden plank not carefully slotted spells danger to the boat. And we have to keep in mind the impact of the waves and how the boat is going to withstand these and last long.”

Once, he says, he worked on nine boats, employing workers and building them all at the same time, right here on this stretch of road. When Satyanandam gets an order to build a new boat, they negotiate the overall price, and get the wood from Vizianagaram district. The contract includes everything. And that is when he runs into trouble.

Sometimes he loses. “Let’s say it takes three months to build a boat, we quote the price for overall construction. In the ensuing months, the cost of wood and iron and other things may shoot up, and we lose.”

He lost out many times like that. “To cover costs and get the boat ready for the owner at the given time, I had to sell off my house and now I stay in a rented house.” Even without many prospects for future , “We cannot go into another line of work.”

The most important thing in the boat is “the turning fan.” A shaft is slotted into that hole and a fan attached to it, which is connected to the engine.)The propeller shaft is made of steel and the fan of brass. About the boat he is repairing, he says, the boatmen are lucky. “Some of the wooden planks are rotten, and the after 13 years, the nails are rusted and coming off.

“Some people still ply the boats in not-up-to-the-mark condition because they cannot put in the money for repair and overhaul. They are flirting with danger,” Satyanandam concludes.