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Chatting with a Cold Water Cowboy

10 Apr 2014 by Dave Sullivan in Fishing and Culture
Regions: Avalon , Eastern , Central , Western , Labrador

Newfoundlandlers and Labradorians have a long history with the sea. It goes back centuries. From Beothuk hunting expeditions in birch bark canoes, to explorers seeking a new world away from the shores of Europe, to cowboys — yes, I said cowboys.

For those of you who don’t know, Cold Water Cowboys is a show that airs on the Discovery Channel and is produced by Paperny Entertainment. The show follows six captains and their crews from this province, as they venture hundreds of kilometres offshore in the North Atlantic, facing swells as high as houses and icebergs the size of small cities.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with one of these cowboys.

Richard Gillett is the captain of the Midnight Shadow, a fishing vessel based out of Twillingate. As it turns out, Richard has been involved in the fishery for quite some time.

“This will be my thirtieth season. I started when I was 13 years old. I was a full shareman at 13,” he told me.

Not being all that familiar with some of the terminology of the fishery myself, I asked him to clarify what he meant by shareman.

“Men that were there that were 30 and 40 years old with families, my share was equal to their share. But, I’m going to tell you right now, my father never played no favourites, and if I was getting a man’s share I had to do a man’s work,” he answered with a glint of pride in his eye.

“Wow”, I thought. When I was 13 I was playing Super Mario Brothers in my parents’ basement for hours on end. The biggest strain I felt was a bad case of Nintendo thumb from time-to-time. I can’t imagine being 13 years old and working full-time as a fisherman.

Richard is a fifth generation fisherman. A craft he learned from working side-by-side with his father.

“I was my Dad’s shadow, wherever my Dad was, if he stopped, I’d bang into him — I was right on his shirt tail,” he said.

From his father, Gillett learned everything you could ever want to know about a life on the ocean. Not the least of which was the love he feels for the sea.

“There’s a difference between fishing and a love of the water. And that is, you do your fishing, and once you’ve done your fishing you don’t go on the water anymore. Now, that’s somebody that’s just fishing,” he smiles. “If you got the love of the water, like we have here, we’re on the water bird hunting, we’re out there on Sundays for a barbecue, or going up to the islands for a ride. We’re constantly on the water, until the ice drives us off of it. But as soon as the ice goes, we’re back on it again.”

It’s this love of the water that is something that has always intrigued me. It’s a connection we all have. Whether you’re a fisher from Twillingate or a writer from town (St. John’s), we’re all unified by our love of the water. Now, I may not be on the sea all that often, but I can tell you this: I can certainly tell when I’m away from it. I think most of us can. This feeling that there’s something missing, it’s unmistakable.

For people like Richard however, it’s a bond that is simply unbreakable — similar to his love of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“Whenever I talk to people from outside the province, I tell them to come into the smaller outport communities. Just get out and walk around the hiking trails in the places. Meet the people. Stop and talk to them,” he grins. “They can spin a yarn and tell a good story, I can guarantee you that.”

In regards to Richard’s own connection to the province, he — like many — could never imagine being some place else.

“There’s no other place in the world I ever dreamed of living. I’ve got a postcard every time I look out my window. This place is paradise to me.”

To learn more about Newfoundland and Labrador, Richard Gillett and the rest of the cast, tune into Cold Water Cowboys Tuesdays at 10pm ET on Discovery.