Riviera People – Toni Knights

Posted by: on Apr 15, 2016 | No Comments

Riviera People – Toni Knights, last of the hunters

Fisherman, artist, boat restorer, heritage skipper – Brixham’s Toni Knights manages to combine it all and always has an eye for the next adventure.  Anita Newcombe tracks him down to find out more.

Toni Knights

first came across Toni Knights at an exhibition of his paintings hosted by Millie & Me and today I am meeting him at the same local coffee shop for a cuppa and a chat. Toni has popped across the quay from his latest labour of love, renovating the classic sailing boat Iris. Iris is a family-owned, 75ft Cornish Lugger built in 1921 and is currently nestling happily alongside the harbour wall at Brixham.

The ‘Iris’ renovation project is taking up most of Toni’s thoughts but occasionally he needs to earn some money to refill his coffers. Therefore Iris can sometimes find herself left to her own devices as Toni takes on ad hoc work as a freelance fishing boat skipper or mate.

Toni grew up in Sussex in a fishing family. As a child he helped his father to unload his boats, mended nets and subsequently worked his way up from deckhand to skipper. In 1979 the fishing family that Toni worked for decided to move their operations to Brixham and Toni came too. He tells me that Brixham had much better infrastructure for landing fish and the port was suitable for larger beam trawlers. Fishing was definitely in his blood. He explains, “Fishing is a way of life, not a 9-5 job. You are classed as ‘last of the hunters’ and there’s a tremendous camaraderie, just like a big family. You go to sea and catch your fish and it’s such a good feeling, especially in winter when you get the crew home safe again.”

Toni used to have crews of 6 or 7 but this has gradually been reduced to around four to enable reasonable earnings for everyone. Toni explains that the running costs of a big beam trawler are very high with around £15 – 16,000 being spent just on fuel per trip. Earnings from the trip are split and an individual crew member’s percentage depends on their skill level. Then, even if there’s an excellent catch, if 5 or 6 boats happen to come in together then the auction price will go down. “You can’t hang about waiting for a better auction day when there’s fresh fish on board,” says Toni. Things are better for the bigger boats in the winter because the smaller boats don’t go out and therefore supply is lower, lifting prices.

Toni explains, “It’s a great job for youngsters and some people are naturally good at this type of work but many can’t cope with life at sea at all. Nowadays it is much more difficult to get reliable crew. Youngsters find the hours, the sleep deprivation, the seasickness and other hardships really tough to manage and probably just one in every twenty actually sticks to the job.”

When his daughter Jessica was born, Toni decided to take a break from fishing to spend more time with her as he had been away at sea a lot when his son Peter was growing up. Although he is definitely not an establishment figure, he got a post working for Devon Sea Fisheries Protection Vessel, Drumbeat of Devon, enforcing fishing laws.

This sudden change of direction caused much hilarity locally with the front page of the local paper reading, ‘Poacher Turns Gamekeeper’.

Showing great adaptability he continued in this job until Jessica was six or seven years old before returning to fishing. He remembers, “I didn’t like all the civil service paperwork. Fishermen are not paperwork people. We are much more hands-on.”  Toni also joined the crew of the Torbay Lifeboat at this time.

In 1997 Toni saw the King George V Cup displayed at Brixham Yacht Club and decided to restart the famous Brixham Heritage Sailing Regatta (now held every May) because he knew three original sailing trawlers: Leader, Provident and Vigilance who could be persuaded to get involved. He also managed to get the owner of Golden Vanity to join in. Then seeing that Cornish Lugger, Iris was available for sale he decided to purchase and renovate her.

Toni had always been interested in old sailing boats and Iris was languishing upriver in Falmouth in quite a sad state. He plans for Iris to become a cargo carrier under sail, delivering cargo in a zero carbon environment from Northern France and Spain across to England. Toni will skipper Iris on her travels and won’t fish anymore. He says, “I’ll be sailing the oceans, selling produce and enjoying a relaxed life.”

Iris could initially be used as a floating B & B at Pirate Festivals around the country whilst awaiting the maritime coding to enable her to start her cargo deliveries. Toni explains, “Doing this type of work on Iris preserves the boat and gives her a purpose – hopefully for another 100 years.”

Toni has had plenty of practice skippering heritage boats carrying guests as a part-time skipper for Trinity Sailing. He mainly takes people to festivals and Tall Ships Races in places such as Plymouth, Falmouth and Looe as well as France and out to the Scilly Isles. There are generally twelve holidaymakers aboard, plus four crew members and Toni enjoys cooking for the visitors and agreeing destinations of their choice for the following day.

Back in Millie & Me, I am looking at a selection of Toni’s nautical art (originals and prints) displayed on the walls. His earlier work in oils is very detailed and the level of skill is extremely impressive. More recently, however, he has developed a more contemporary style using a felt tip and watercolours to create a much funkier, modern look (he calls them artistic notes). These are very popular and sell well so it is easier for him to keep up with the demand. “The waiting list for my oil paintings is more than ten years,” Toni reveals.

Toni is self-taught and has worked in oils, watercolours and acrylics. His favoured subjects are mainly maritime scenes of boats and harbours, clearly painting what he knows. As a child Toni would go down to the river in Newhaven to get water in a jam jar and paint with watercolours. His father was very supportive and used to help him to stretch watercolour paper on boards and then framed his completed creations, subsequently selling them in his local fishing tackle shop.

Toni Knights 2

The unusual spelling of Toni’s name with an ‘i’ came in when he was just six years old and his Dad suggested that he adopt it as an artistic gimmick. He’s been known as Toni ever since and the Toni Knights signature is on every painting.

Always on the lookout for a new adventure, Toni is now also considering a contract to take people from Australia to Greenland on a 100-year old gaff ketch during the summer months. These will be high-powered executives who want to undertake survival trips, climbing mountains that have never been climbed and generally challenging themselves.

Isn’t all this sometimes uncomfortable and even dangerous I wonder?  He tells me, “As a fisherman you are in one of the harshest environments in the world. I’ve done over 40 years so there’s not much I can’t cope with, mountainous seas, wet oilskins, and damp bunks. Adventure is just brilliant and so much better than just sitting around!”