A full moon casts its pale blue light upon the surface of the water, painting a perfect self portrait on the near black surface of the water during slack tide in the harbor as I stare in contemplation, well perhaps even deeper thought than mere contemplation, more like deep meditation, so relaxing it’s almost painful to move when the time is right.
The fish aren’t hungry, it’s one of those nights offering this fisherman hours of quiet introspection interrupted only by the occasional seagull squawking in the distance, even my fishing buddy is quiet; highly unusual for the bear-sized man with a booming voice. Even his nickname is fittingly “Bear.” The only activity I’ve seen tonight is reeling in the line to see if the ever-present, yet invisible thieves of the ocean have absconded with my bait, again. Reel it in, rebate the hook and drop it back into the water only to repeat several minutes later. Clever little shits, those denizens of the deep. I’ll not be convinced for a moment that the “lesser” creatures of this world have no reasoning power and I know of no other fisherman who will ever accept that theory either.
11:00 PM; still no activity.
“Hey Bear! Watchya say we give it up for the night, finish off the beer and head home? The in-coming tide must’ve fed them too well tonight.”
“Yep, let’s crank’em up and give it up, we’ve got a big day on the boat Friday anyway. Maybe we’ll make up for it then.”
I begin hauling in my line, it feels heavier than an empty line, but the line is dead weight so it’s certainly not a fish, probably some seabed trash or kelp, hell probably both, it weighs maybe five pounds, it isn’t kelp alone, that’s for sure. I reel it towards me from our perch on the bridge twenty feet or so from the water’s surface. It’s taking a couple minutes to get the clump of “stuff” from the bottom of the channel to the bridge where I can cut the line and toss the kelp back into the water or the trash into the back of the pickup. A quick gulp to finish off the can of beer and I resume reeling in the line.
The end of the line has arrived, but it’s too dark to see any details of the mass hanging off the end, a pretty sizable blob of seaweed alright.
Teeth are meant for far more than simply chewing; like Bubba’s shrimp recipes in Forrest Gump, the list of uses for a fisherman’s incisors can be endless and are often used for cutting fishing line rather than taking the time to locate the cutters stored somewhere deep in the tackle box, besides tackle boxes in the dark can be a painful place for bare fingers. The dark, shapeless “clump” of seaweed is two feet from my face so I grab the line, pull it towards me to sever the line with my pearly whites, planning to let the entire mess fall back into the water below and head for home. As I pull the line towards my face, suddenly the seaweed comes to life and I see dark fingers reaching out for me in a flash, it happens so rapidly in fact that I have no time to make any assessment as to what it is and it is but a fraction of an inch from grabbing my face.
Startling the hell out of me, I jump several feet in reverse and scream out “FUCKING HELL! I look at Bear and scream; “GODDAM!! DID YOU SEE THAT SHIT?” My fishing pole is lying on the ground with the tip hanging over bridge’s rail, the clump of stuff now hanging in the air over the water from edge of the bridge.
All I can hear in reply is Bear’s roaring laughter. Even in the pale light of the moon, I can see that he’s literally crying he’s laughing so hard. And I really can’t blame him as he was watching something few fishermen ever get to see – a five pound octopus attacking a man’s head in self defense.
That wasn’t enough excitement so we went fishing again a few days later, the day after Thanksgiving, taking a boat fishermen euphemistically refer to as a “cattle boat”,” a boat that takes large groups of fishermen out to fish in the open sea. The boat is scheduled to take us to a reef about half way between Davey’s Locker in Newport Beach Harbor to Catalina Island. It is a year of a hellish El Nino that wreaks havoc on the coastal areas of Southern California and for many miles inland. Landslides, flooding and several very large piers with restaurants and other businesses on them are swept off of their pilings and into the ocean. It is the wettest, most destructive storm season I had encountered the entire twenty years I lived in California.
The boat normally leaves around midnight in order to get to the reef by early morning. We board the 65 foot steel-hull boat about 10:00 PM. from the waiting room in Davey’s Locker, the boat owner. I recall seeing one girl in her early twenties in the crowd as we board. A female fishing on a cattle boat is certainly not unheard of, but not terribly common either, so it kind of causes one to pause for a brief second. I suppose it could be analogous to seeing a cat running in a pack of wild dogs.
It’s raining so hard that the water in the harbor, less than four feet away from where I’m standing next to the boat’s gunnel is not visible.
As we normally do, Bear and I go to the galley have a couple beers and play cards with some of the other fishermen. In retrospect, I now wonder what in hell we thought we were going to do when we arrived at the fishing point.
We feel the customary lurch as the boat leaves its moorings and heads out to sea. The weather is so bad it’s even a bit rough in the harbor, but when we pass the breakwater hell is unleashed by Poseidon himself. That huge, steel-hulled boat is tossed around like a toy in a pool full of rambunctious children. Bear and I sit in the galley, holding onto the sides of the chairs and the table, glancing at one another to see if there’s fear in one or the other’s eyes as the boat encounters massive wave after massive wave.
With each wave, the boat shudders like an earthquake as it climbs up the mountain to the crest only to shoot to the bottom of the trough like a high-speed rollercoaster gone off its tracks. I’m certain the propeller leaves the water as it crests the wave as the ship literally rattles like marbles in a tin can. After the second or third wave, the boat hits the trough so hard, all the latches intended to keep kitchen tools; plates, bowls, pans, KNIVES, spoons, glasses, etc. in the cabinets break and the contents begin flying around the galley like missiles, canister bombs and steel Frisbees.
We hear the boat’s captain on the speakers; “attention all passengers! To avoid injury, please go below to the bunks. Please go below to the bunks! All deck hands to the bridge.”
“Now that’s a good idea” I think to myself and by the look in Bear’s eyes, he’s in full agreement. But an idea and the execution of an idea can be miles apart at times. MILES.
Traversing a very narrow passageway, down very steep steps into a large dark room filled with bunks while the boat is jostling around like a car tumbling down a hillside sounds pretty damned difficult you say? DIFFICULT? Hell it’s damned near impossible!
Had it not been so worrisome, it would surely have been hilarious to watch. Everyone is slamming their heads on the bulkhead, against the walls and against other heads. We’re falling down the steps, running onto each other and each and every one of us are swearing like truckers, I swear I can even hear the voice of the loan female in the swearing fest.
After poking one in the eye, waking some others and receiving the resulting choice words from those who’d been in the bunks while Bear and I were in the galley, I finally feel my way to one of the top bunks, climb in, cover up and hold on for one hell of a ride.
The damned lights finally come on (one 60 watt bulb at each end of the big room full of double bunks) and when they do, I realize that my face is but a foot or so from the top of the room. Claustrophobic as hell, I begin hyperventilating and sweating like mad in a room where the temperature was probably around 35-40 degrees F. Hoping to alleviate the crushing feeling of having something that close to my face, I reach up and touch the clammy, hard, steel surface and it suddenly occurs to me that this scow of a boat may be my casket, buried under hundreds of feet of water, but even that didn’t bother me as much as the closeness of the surface.
Hoping to stop the panic, I turn sideways and pull the blanket over my head with just enough of an opening to breathe freely and for my eyes to see across the room. I can feel my heart rate slow as I scan the dimly lit room where there are three rows of bunks, one on each side and one down the middle.
Directly across the very narrow aisle (I could have easily reached out and touched the bunk adjacent to mine) I see movement under the blankets, it catches my attention and takes my mind off of the looming steel above my head. The occupants (yes, plural) of the bunk stop moving, they must have sensed my gaze and the lone female peaks out from under the blanket for a few seconds, unknowingly staring right at me. She resumes her activity after satisfying her concern that “no one was watching.” I can’t believe my eyes; they’re having sex! One girl among what was likely 40 or 45 men and she’s having sex right in the middle of them all! WHILE THE BOAT IS DAMNED NEAR SINKING!
What a surreal night. What a strange damned sight!
After about 4 hours of trying to get to the reef, the captain announces that he’s turning around because, get this, “it is too rough.” He calmly says “Davey’s Locker,” (the company that owns the fleet of fishing boats) will provide all with rain checks so we could come back when the when the weather isn’t so bad.”
My first thoughts are of the irony in the name "Davey’s Locker" and our impending doom. I wonder if we’ll even make it back.
It takes us 45 minutes to return to the harbor from the point it took us 4 hours to get to. We learn later that we had encountered not 1,not 2, but 3 water spouts (tornadoes over the ocean) during our joyride.
When the hoard of faces, devoid of blood and pale white, leave the boat and walk into the waiting room to receive our rain checks, I glance to the side and sure as hell, the girl who was having sex with her bunkmate is standing right next to me. I avoid looking at her for very long, fearing she’d sense that it was I who was across from her, below deck in the bunks.
We cash in our rain checks two weeks later, using the same boat to the same destination, calm seas though. That was a night I’ve never forgotten and likely never will.