Marlin pt3

When something serious, and large, and unexpected appears out of the blue like that it can throw the best of us off balance. Not many of us are always prepared for something that can kill you in an instant. I was no exception and I certainly wasn’t the best. The fish, whatever the fuck it was, was huge. And right now it was stripping the large gold reel of line. “Get the fucking rod,” shouted the Deckhand. Nobody moved. The reel fell silent………the line went slack. I felt like I should have taken the seat, but I’d seen the bastard down there swim up under the boat, and I’d seen its massive head. Fuck that. I wasn’t getting into a fight to the death with something that huge, especially when I was in its back yard without a life jacket.

Up on the fighting bridge Captain Antonio curled his hand into a fist, beat it down on the controls, and shook his head. “You fucking idiots!” he screamed. He was right, of course. We’d all just stood there open-mouthed at what we’d just seen emerge from the deep and chomp down on a hook you could hang a car on. We should have been ripping off our tshirts and greasing ourselves up for the fight like proper men, but we were cowards, every one of us. The Scottish pair stood closer for some kind of protection and the German was cuddling his son tightly. Still half a mile out from the harbour entrance, Captain Antonio pushed the throttle forward and shook his head again, muttering under his breath. The prize of bragging rights for a Captain in a poor fishing season was gone. The fish was lost.

I was looking forward to getting back to the hotel bar. Our Mary had almost made the harbour, which promised safety from the waves, big fish, and Captain Antonio. I would be off the vessel within twenty minutes, back in the bar in an hour from now and listening again to that retired ex British Foreign Office guy I’d met the day before on the sun terrace telling me all about transsexuals in Brazil in the 1950s.

“Whheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee”

“Get in the fucking chair!”

Nobody moved again. “It’s your rod,” the deckhand shouted at the German. “Get in the chair!”

The German grabbed his child and started to weep. “Oh for fucks sake!” the deckhand shouted. “Someone please!” He had hold of the rod and was struggling with it as he moved towards the empty fighting chair. The two Scots didn’t look like they fancied it, so I did what anyone else terrified and pumped full of the self-preserving agitation of norepinephrine would have done: I sat into the chair and tensed up. The deckhand slotted the butt of the rod into the hefty metal holder by my feet. He handed it to me with the words “Don’t do anything. This fucker is big!”

Truth be known, I wasn’t into hurting animals. My initial plan on this trip was to see some dolphins, look at the island from the sea, and maybe get some free booze. This was a curveball from every angle I could think of. Now here I was, in a serious situation where something could die. What were they going to do with the fish if we did manage to land it? Was the glorious victor meant to rip out the monsters heart with a single motion? Was I meant to pose for a photo with the fish strung up on the Quayside, dripping its last meal out of its bloodied mouth? Suddenly I wished I had asked some questions four hours previously.

The last time I’d been fishing I was in my late teens. I was pretty wasted but I remember catching a fish of about 4lbs in weight. Surely this couldn’t be much different? Sit, hold the rod, wind in the line. Simple. I took some weight on the rod as the deckhand was clipping the belt around my waist, fastening that to the big golden reel, and then tying me to the boat in case the fish pulled me out of the chair and over the side. My feet were planted firmly on a board attached to the chair on a swivel. I’d watched Jaws. This was the same, even down to the panic. It was man against the sea, it was Hemmingway; I was Hemmingway!

The first thing you notice when there’s a fish of this size pulling on a fishing rod is the power. I wasn’t supposed to be doing anything yet – the reel was still screaming – but I could feel the strength of this thing when I tried to lift up the rod tip. Up here in the bright sunlight something which felt like an elephant was trying to pull itself free in the blue depths. About five seconds passed, then the creature broke the surface about two hundred meters away. It was at least ten feet long. It leapt again two or three more times, thudding on the line, shuddering my arms downwards, and pulling me around in the chair to the left.

“Go!” the deckhand said. So I lifted up the rod and began to try and wind in but it was impossible. No matter what I did, the line just kept on spooling out. After ten minutes it’d slowed down but was pulling Our Mary backwards south down the coast away from Funchal. Captain Antonio was overseeing things – without talking – from the fighting bridge and he looked eager nobody screwed this one up. Ten minutes turned into twenty, which turned into forty in a blur of tired arms and legs and the relentless pull of the beast on the line, boat, and me. Other charter boats started to appear, full of American sport fisherman, until about seven of them made a little flotilla around us. Antonio had been on his radio and blared out across the frequencies that he’d got himself a fish of the season, maybe. People were curious, seeing as the takings had been slim and the fish even slimmer for the past month. The Americans were whooping and cheering across the water “Yeah, boy. Pump that fish up…. Wooo hooo.” Some of them were videoing the fight, others drank beer and high-fived each other.

My arms were hurting. So was my back. The deckhand could see the pain and arranged the rod so the two Scottish guys bore the weight on their shoulders for a few minutes, just to give me a rest. The fish had quietened down but was deep and not going anywhere.

There’s only so much you can write about holding a fishing rod in the sunshine, just as there’s only so much you can do when nature is telling you you are a loser. I was beginning to want to let the fish go – see, there is something telegraphic between two entities brought together with a thick nylon line and the prospect of death for one of them. There is a communication of fear. This was making me sad.

Two hours had now passed since the beast was hooked. The deckhand started exchanging worried glances with Captain Antonio. “What’s the drag set on?” asked the Captain.

“Sunset.” He replied. “It’s on maximum and there’s nothing stopping it.”

“You don’t think it’s been taken by…er…..” Antonio trailed off. This was potentially bad news for all of us. What I knew, like they knew, was this was Great White shark country. And they had been known to take hooked sportfish and then get hauled to the surface to gnash and tear on some poor sods fibreglass pension. Nobody wanted that kind of horror, especially since Great White Sharks are protected and there was too significant an audience present to get out the shotgun I’d seen stowed below. They talked for a minute, then decided it had to come up, whatever it was. But I was spent, the fish was too heavy, and Captain Antonio wanted an end to it. What he didn’t need was an out of condition newly wed messing up the best chance anyone on the Island had had for three months.

They decided to pull the boat forward, then reverse it quickly, allowing me time to wind in the difference on the reel. It worked. “Holy shit, Sonny!” said the Scottish father who had his nose over the side, “Would you look at the size of that!”

The wire trace was above the water now, so I unbuckled my belt and handed the rod to the deckhand. Doubled up with cramp in my back, I staggered to the side of the boat and looked down into the water. A shape was appearing out of the darker blue. My fish. Up, rising, turning from dark blue to silver. It was on its back, and had nearly broken my own back in the process. This fish had pulled us two miles down the coast. Now it broke up to the surface tired and lay there as the other charter boats moved closer for a look. The deckhand put a rope threaded through a small piece of slim drainpipe, so it made a noose, over the 3ft long bill of the animal and removed the large hook cleanly with some pliers. He handed me the rope. I was all that was holding on to the fish. I dragged it through the water, letting it slip back in the current. Seemingly no weight at all. I know the cliche well, but I really did look into that massive eye and saw it stare back at me with some form of intelligence. The message was clear between us: you’ve hurt me. I didn’t like it.

They measured the fish’s length – 14 feet – and took some other measurements to work out the weight – 950lbs. Second biggest of the season. News spread in the flotilla – “Jesus Christ boy!! That’s a monster!! Woooop woooop.”

Antonio sat looking down at me like an approving pope and lit another cigarette with his zippo. The deckhand tagged the fish and let me take the final look into that huge eye as the electric blue flashes started up on its skin. The fish rolled over the right way and gently moved the huge sickle tail from side to side. It was time to let go before I had no choice. My last view of the creature was her gently swimming down into the depths. A 100yr old sea monster. A Blue Marlin.

Back at the hotel I ran into the reception, full of testosterone and machismo, and bellowed “I just caught a monster blue marlin!” at the receptionist. She looked up from the desk, “Oh, that’s nice,” and went back to filling in the hotel register.

Out on the terrace I ordered cocktails and watched the sun go down over the cruel Atlantic, a sea I had fought and knew well. I was a hero……

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Marlin pt2

We stood on the quayside next to the gently rocking Our Mary. A father and his grown up son (both Scottish), a fat German man and his 8year old fat son, and me. On board the boat the rodent-like deckhand was showing us how to get strapped into the white leather fighting chair. “You belt up like this… Do not forget to clip this rope on this metal attachment or the fish could drag you into the sea when the rod is clipped to you.”

There was no way I’d be forgetting that, or anything else – like staying away from everything with sharp teeth and the ability to severe a femoral artery. Captain Antonio sat stoically up on the fighting helm above us, Ray Ban sunglasses on, thin white hair looking remarkably well coiffured, even in the slight sea breeze. He was watching us.

We drew lots for each of the four main rods, then pulled slowly out of the harbour entrance while I watched the deckhand rig up the huge rubber squid lures and start to deploy the outriggers. “Where are the hooks?” I asked.

“Here,” he replied, opening up the lurid yellow rubber squid legs. The single hook was forged steel, as thick as my finger. It curled round perfectly following the curve of my palm. There was no getting away from it, whatever we were hunting was big. He strung out the lures. They skipped out across the surface, settling to about 50m from the back of the boat. Captain Antonio motored to cruising speed out north, hugging the coast towards the gigantic sea cliffs.  We were fishing. It beat the river Torn.

The afternoon was hot. The glare bounced off the water like glowing ping pong balls. I’d forgotten to put extra sun cream on, and my head, I was sure, was going to bake like a cooking apple. As Our Mary chugged slowly out to sea, the huge cliff line of Funchal’s northern shore rose up to our right. There was some nervous chatter. The Scottish pair were unintelligible. The German held his son tightly and whispered and pointed at things I couldn’t make out on the shore. Valkyries maybe. Or maybe a donut shack.

The lures skipped along just under the surface of the waves. “It’s the boat that’s the lure,” said the deckhand, “the fish are swimming deep and they rise up to see what the fuss is about. Then they zone in on the lures and whammo!”

“Whammo?”

“Yeah, they crunch on down on those fuckers and that’s it. Action stations.”

Action stations? Was I really ready for action stations? Probably not, all things considered.

Captain Antonio sat at the helm, gazing out at deeper water. I followed his line of sight. He was looking out with purpose towards where the ocean swell was gathering. You could make out a change in the waves about 5 miles away. They were large, threatening, and too big, surely, for little Our Mary. The kind of waves that have traveled unchecked for two thousand miles. He made another pass back down the coast like he was mowing a watery lawn, and then we veered off out to the ocean. It wasn’t where I would have steered without serious reasons. We hadn’t caught a fish yet, but that was no reason to die in the deep ocean. “They’ve got our cash already,” I thought, “what does it matter if we catch anything anyhow?” But something unseen and personal was driving the Captain. Had he gone mad? Years of fruitless searching can do that to a man. Why doesn’t he speak? What made him move here anyway and become a fisherman? It might have helped if I could have seen his eyes but he never removed his sunglasses. He said nothing, just kept his face to the horizon. I started getting paranoid about the intentions of everyone on board. The German – he had too much joviality about him, and the Scottish pair looked like policemen. I was worth nothing alive, never mind dead, but it’s hard to be rational out on the cruel sea with total strangers.

“What’s that?!”

Off to starboard a pale green object bobbed in the water. The boat wheeled off course for a closer look. About 20m away I could see what it was, and I didn’t like it one bit. In fact, if it had been anything but this object – even an unexploded mine – I’d have been happier. The slowly rising and falling plastic thing was a baby’s crib. And it was the right way up. “Hey!” I said. “Do we really have to go and look?” People don’t just get rid of baby cribs in the sea. It was an evil omen. And I didn’t like the idea of finding a corpse in the middle of the ocean. I mean, who wants to come across an abandoned crib even when they aren’t on the sea? Not me pal. Captain Antonio inched the boat nearer in the swell. Nobody spoke. There were a tense few moments before we all saw it was empty. “Babies are abandoned on Madeira,” said the Deckhand, “it could have been full. We had to check.”

What kind of a place was this? I came on my honeymoon to a country where they routinely set babies off out to sea to die?! What I didn’t want on this trip, or any trip, was unease. And I was feeling plenty of unease now.

We left it rolling around now in our wake and continued out to sea. A small pod of Dolphin joined us, mocking us with their splashes. They knew we didn’t belong out here. This place was never meant for recreational activities, it was a piece of the world for adventurers and the crazy. Or the lost. If I wasn’t lost, I was at least at little crazy I suppose. I couldn’t stop thinking about the horror of abandoned babies drifting in the open ocean.

About 3 miles out the waves lumped around like skyscrapers on their sides. Our Mary didn’t like it, neither did I and neither, thankfully, did Captain Antonio. The boat rolled and slammed up the peaks and lurched down into the troughs of the dark waves. We all held on and exchanged glances that read plainly “What the fuck are we doing, we’re meant to be on holiday.” No-one wore a lifejacket – I’m not sure there were any. As the boat turned back for the island, and we reached calmer water, the German pissed over the side of the boat in jagged streams of relief. But he badly judged the breeze and a lot of the flow ended up on his son. The little boy never moved an inch from where his white knuckles clamped him tightly to the chrome ladder up to the fighting bridge. Up there on the bridge Captain Antonio lit up a cigarette with a large zippo lighter.

Three and a half hours had passed. And not one bite, not even on the bait rods for small tuna or mackerel. The Deckhand made a series of excuses “It’s not the time of the year for fish…….. Too much weather…… The boats have been hitting the area hard recently….. Magnetic resonance of the Navy ships going by….” But his lies meant nothing. We were safe – except for the horrific sunburn on my legs. No-one had seriously thought they’d get a fish in a boat with a dumb madman, no fish-finding gear, radar, charts, or lifejackets. I began to wonder if £60 was a fair enough price to nearly be thrown overboard, pissed on, and to find out that babies apparently got routinely set adrift around here. But that all changed as we made the last run towards Funchal harbour.

I was watching out of the back of the boat, wondering if I could adequately explain to my new wife how sometimes men need to do things like this to feel alive, when a dark shape in the water caught my eye. It flashed back towards the lures around 50m away. Then, a large black object stuck a huge head out of the water and waved from side to side after the rubber squid bait. An evil mouth opened and closed, snapping at the flailing squid. The reel screamed and jerked the rod around in its slot. Captain Antonio turned around in his chair. The Deckhand had seen what I had, “We’re in!!” he shouted.

Marlin pt1

There’s an art form in choosing the right boat to go big game fishing on the deep ocean. Deep water islands – like Madeira or Hawaii, or St Lucia – have every one of their harbours stuffed with charter boats designed to lighten the pockets of the unwary tourist. And the differences are subtle, yet vital. Most are locals who’ve made it good by simply finding the big fish regularly. Others are incoming predators with spurious bank balances and the dream of either a simpler Hemmingway life, or access to a means for washing ill-gotten gains in the salty blue off-shore water. The local boats will be shabbier as a rule but have captains with real sea-dog knowledge. They know where the fish are and, more importantly, the sharks. They know where to hit you in the side of the head with a gaff hook and they know the currents; useful for, say, calculating the likely whereabouts of a 200lb body after three days drifting on the early August tides. The incomers are less organised.

The incomer captains haven’t grown up on the sea. Neither have they known hungry nights in a shack when the fish weren’t biting. But they do know when the going’s good. And they’ll protect a steady stream of luck with a vigour that a starving man can’t match. Even out on the ocean. Unlike the locals they don’t tend to stick together, and they favour loose alliances hashed up over a bottle of Cuban rum, instead of blood ties and necessity. Which is fine on dry land, but when the swell is high and the winds are barrelling in from the south west on the back end of Hurricane DeathWish, every incomer would step over their own grandmother to make landfall. They are on their own whatever the weather. And hire prices are not affected. Never.

Radios never get used to contact the coastguard or the harbourmaster – unless a Fisheries patrol is within range and taking an interest. The radio is, for an incomer captain, a bullhorn for bragging about the fictional sizes of fish caught and rental prices suckered from the soppy Hemmingway wannabe tourists. They are not men of the sea, but they are prepared for most eventualities. A modified 40ft Ex-Navy Gunboat can plow through a local day-tripper vessel like a bull in a cabbage patch when there are more takers lined up on the quayside waiting to part with their holiday cheques. And it’s always useful to have a boat with the capacity to outrun a customs cutter while carrying a couple of tons of “special cargo”. Especially when it can earn you a healthy income out of season. You can’t put a price on speed. Like you can’t put a price on not spending 15 years in a tropical prison cell.

I’d always hated the sea, ever since I’d capsized in a 13ft racing dinghy when I was 9 and my sister fell into the water with the large sail on top of her. The sea will murder you in a heartbeat if you take your eyes away from the water. It’s all the sea wants to do. Kill. Maim. Drown. Gigantic waves come from nowhere, hurricanes, water spouts, Nigerian Pirates, unexploded WW2 bombs, and that’s all before we even get into things living beneath the waves. Like Tiger Sharks and poisonous jellyfish.

So it’s important to take the right approach when putting your life in the hands of a person at the controls of a boat of any size or description. Before you get out on the deep stuff, out of sight of land.

I went down to the harbour in Funchal – the capital of Madeira – after a couple of morning canecas. I’d read a leaflet the night before about Marlin fishing and, seeing as the day was bright and I was man enough to handle a 500lb lump of muscle, I thought I’d take a charter out into the Atlantic. See if I had what it took. Become a real man. It was my honeymoon after all.

The boat I chose (Our Mary) was captained by an English incomer who looked like Antonio Carluccio. He never spoke one word (until towards the end…but we’ll get to that). It was a 30ft custom made game fishing craft with outriggers and a 212hp sabre engine. Plenty enough power for a plastic boat. I picked captain Antonio simply because he was the last boat left in port – a bad sign, with hindsight. He was only going out for a half days fishing that day, which suited me since I wasn’t really up for a whole 8 hours stuck with people I didn’t know miles from anywhere and with the possibility of major peril. £60. All in. No food or drink supplied. My spot was the last one vacant. “One hour,” said the evil looking English deck hand. “Be ready and be prompt.”

I waited the hour out in a filthy local tavern near the brightly graffitied harbour wall by one end of the beach. In Funchal there is only one beach – a small, fake, dirty strip of rat infested sand bordered by fast food stalls and an ominous black shore that only the mad would swim from. The hour passed quickly and the extra booze steadied the nerves anyway. This would be a breeze. After all, by the look of the boat and the captain, there was practically no chance of any of us landing any fish at all, never mind a Marlin or a big Wahoo. This wasn’t a serious fishing trip, it was a sightseeing tour; taking in Europe’s highest sea cliffs and maybe some dolphin. I was wrong.