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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Shhh . . . Let Him Sleep

I heard this story about a charter fisherman whose usual mate called in sick the night before a big tuna trip to the canyon. The mate knew he was leaving the captain in the lurch so he told him he'd send a replacement, a friend who he said could handle the task at hand. The captain didn't have much choice. (This story goes back a ways. Today, with random drug testing, an owner/operator has to be more discriminating.)

The next day the replacement showed up at the dock as promised. He weighed about three hundred and fifty pounds and looked like hell. The first thing he did on the boat was slam down a box of jelly doughnuts. Then, after the boat shoved off, he went into the salon and stretched out on the convertible sofa, whereupon he fell fast asleep.

The captain, a little peeved about the mate's obvious laziness, went to the flybridge and began what was to be a five or six hour trip to the grounds.

After about three hours at the helm, the captain couldn't stand it anymore. He switched on the autopilot and descended the bridge ladder, intending to inform his new mate if he didn't take a turn at the wheel or mix up some chow for his customers he wasn't going to get paid. However, when the captain walked over to the mate and called his name, he got no response. He yelled at him, then shook his shoulder. The mate was stone-cold dead.

Rather than terminate the trip, the captain told his passengers the mate wasn't feeling well. He recommended they not bother him -- and they didn't. In fact, when it was over, they had a pretty decent trip. They caught some tuna and had a lot of fun. They even gave the captain a tip for the mate.

Sly captain went one step further and avoided a Coast Guard inquiry by calling 911 and claiming the mate stepped off the boat and collapsed at the dock. Ambulance came, pronounced death. End of story.

At least I think it was the end. For all I know the sly captain is serving 1 to 3 years for something, at the very least transportation of a corpse.

Of course, this story illustrates the value of a good mate. I've been blessed over the years with the best, and, like every other captain, I've suffered through the worst.

When I was sixteen I learned three valuable lessons from my thirteen year old brother, now a well respected surgical radiologist. The first: Never take anything for granted. The second: Never try and push a boat off a beach stern first. And the third: Don't go where you're not invited.

My brother and I had been fishing Western Long Island Sound in my father's boat, a 23' cabin cruiser with a single outdrive. Sometime in the late afternoon, while steaming between Execution Rocks and Stepping Stones, we developed motor trouble. I looked around, saw salvation, and made for Crescent Beach. My plan was to drop anchor in the bite between Barker Point and Sands Point. I knew we would find good holding bottom there, and anchoring in the shoal water would keep us out of the traffic going east and west.

Crescent Beach is the local name given to a pebble-strewn stretch of private property that looks like something out of F. Scott Fitzgerald's imagination, or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, the point is that ordinary people aren't supposed to walk in the footsteps of the Great Gatsby. Nor should they disrespect signs that read Private Property, No Trespassing, or Violators Will Be Shot.

When I got into fifteen feet of water, I hollered to my brother to drop anchor. Without a moment's hesitation, he had the hook up and over the side. Unfortunately, I'd detached the rode a few days before (to spray the anchor with zinc paint) and the hook went sailing into the Sound never to be seen again.

As usually happens on the water, little problems beget bigger ones, which is precisely what happened on that fateful day.

After we lost the anchor, the engine failed, the boat drifted side-to, and we hit the beach like a dead whale. I had just enough time to up-end the outdrive with the power tilt.

While the boat pounded and scraped on the beach (nothing life threatening, mind you), my brother and I got the engine started (turned out the master fuses had shorted) and tried to push her off the beach stern first. I figured that once the outdrive was in deep water, I could back out. However, the two of us alone couldn't move the boat against the wind and chop. We needed help. And so my brother went up the hill to find a couple of good Samaritans. Five or so minutes after he had disappeared over the dunes, a stranger appeared with some important advice. "You'll never get her off that way," he said. "You've got to push her bow into the waves."

The beachcomber and I pushed the boat into knee-deep water, and while he held the bow into the wind, I jumped aboard and lowered the outdrives just enough to cover the props. A minute later I was safely off the beach.

Meanwhile, my brother had walked across an expansive lawn to the tiled patio of a beautiful mansion. He approached a sliding glass door and saw a woman in a bathrobe talking frantically on the telephone. She was waving her hand at him and yelling. He thought she was saying: "I'm getting some help". But when he got closer, he realized she was yelling: "I'm calling the police on you!" He tapped on the glass and tried to explain that we'd gone ashore, and she answered him with: "I have a gun and I know how to use it!" (Imagine that, a grown woman in a multi-million dollar house scared of a thirteen year old boy in wet shorts.)

I'm sure it was all a terrible misunderstanding, but when I saw my brother again, he was running toward the boat and flailing his arms like a madman. A couple of hundred feet behind him, gun drawn, was a uniformed police officer. This unexpected turn of events, unfortunately, prompted the kindly beachcomber to flee eastward at a high rate of speed, and, as a result, I never had the chance to thank him.

I know now that my brother should have stopped, but he didn't. Instead, he jumped in the water and swam to the boat, whereupon I hoisted him aboard, put the engine in gear and sped away. No shots were ever fired, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Many years later, on my last boat, Blue Glory III, I had an equally instructive experience . My recently hired mate and I were taking a group of six wreck divers to a sunken liberty ship. We were headed southwest on the long leg of a three hour steam when I asked the mate to cut some webbing for some weight belts. He went on deck and took care of it, then came back to have a turn at the helm. A few minutes later I looked around and figured we were skewed off course. I yelled to him from the deck to make sure we were on the right heading. He answered back that we were, and read off the compass heading, which was correct.

A few more minutes passed and I still couldn't shake the feeling we were going in the wrong direction. I walked back to the helm and looked at the compass. Sure enough, he was dead on, except for one thing. He had laid his steel knife right next to the compass. The course he thought was right was really wrong. It had deviated fifteen degrees by the magnetic interference of the steel knife.

Good mates are damn hard to come by. When you find one, you know right from the start how lucky you are. Good mates don't have to be told how to adjust the fenders when you land at a new float, or how much scope you need on a dock line, or where to stow gear, or how not to oversteer in a following sea. They don't have to be reminded to walk around the boat and make sure everything is in its place. In fact, they think of things about a half a second after you do.

Perhaps there's no place more worthy of a good mate than the deck of a fish boat. Fishing compounds a mate's job about ten fold. Whether it's a charter boat, a head boat, commercial fish boat, or a recreational sportfishing boat, a mate's abilities can make a big difference in the day's events.

On a party fishing boat, a mate has to be proficient at untangling snarls, as well as gaffing and cutting fish. He or she also has to get along fairly well with people, and be extremely reliable. (If the mate doesn't show on a given day, and a captain leaves the dock alone, there's a good chance he's in violation of his Certificate of Inspection.)

On charter and private sportfishing boats, the mate doesn't have to untangle as many snarls, but he or she has to be equally good at gaffing and cutting fish. And there's the added complication of rigging bait and handling leaders on boats that troll for the big ones.

My friend John used to own and operate a party fishing boat out of the same dock from which I used to run. He fished for cod, cusk, hake, and pollock, groundfish mostly. His old mate, Bruce, was (and probably still is) a big man, the kind of guy you think can drive sixteen penny nails with his thumbs.

One time one of the passengers on John's boat consumed a little too much beer. John told the guy nicely that enough was enough, that time had come to abstain from the brew, but the guy refused to listen. Instead, he reached into the cooler and grabbed another beer. But just as he prepared to pop the lid on the can, Bruce came up behind him, wrapped his big maw around the guy's hand -- beer and all -- and squeezed until the can burst. The guy didn't drink any beer after that.


Copyright © Bob G. Bernstein (seabgb) All Rights Reserved!

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