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!”
“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.
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.