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.
“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……