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.