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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Risk Assessment

(illustration by Sollars)

Finback is pretty protected up the river, but in a westerly gale the wind can kick up a nice little chop. There were probably three-footers rolling in when I checked the boat yesterday.

I took the Pointer, a 23' center console skiff with a 150 hp Yamaha. The little boat took spray over the bow and pounded the whole way out.

Tying up was a little tricky, getting underway afterwards trickier. The latter required a leap of faith, wind and seas tearing at the boat and painter.

While the little boat was tied abreast to the big one, it thrashed and bucked at its lines like an animal trying to break free of its chains. Even with substantial fendering, the two boats slammed into each other on several occassions.

To get Finback started I had to jump it off the battery in the Pointer, which meant running a 20' jumper cable across the rail and into the pitching and rolling skiff.

It all worked out. I got the big boat started, ran it for an hour. I would have liked to get underway, but. . . . Being by myself, tide ebbing, working against the clock and such, it just seemed like I was pushing the envelope.

I'm glad I didn't have to get underway. I'm glad my income, my very survival, no longer depends on getting underway in rough weather. So many others who work on the sea aren't as fortunate.

Not My Time

Several years ago I was hired to due a story on a highline tuna fisherman from Cape Cod. I won't use his real name, though I suspect many readers will know about whom I'm speaking.

We went out early in the morning in his 31' BHM, aided by a spotter plane. The waters were rich with activity. Whales, dolphins, sharks, and huge schools of giant bluefin. We eventually stuck (harpooned) one at the end of the day. Fish dressed out at 850 pounds.

But that's not the point. Point is, for a good while, this fisherman and I were in the tower together, high over the boat and the water, probably 25' to 30' up. I remember feeling the tower buck, twitch actually, with every wave. It was an odd movement. I'd been in many other tuna towers and never had I felt that pecular type of motion. I mentioned this to the captain and he said he didn't notice it. He also said he'd had the tower extended recently.

After we unloaded the fish, after we put the boat to bed, this fisherman and I said goodby to each other and I travelled back home to Maine. I wrote the story, which ended up as the cover story that month. The fisherman was quite pleased with the way it came out, even though he never wanted his name used.

Two or three weeks later, the guy was fighting for his life in a hospital. What happened was, on another routine tuna trip, the tower collapsed. The guy and his mate were slammed against the rail, then dumped into the sea. The boat, of course, with no one at the helm, kept going.

Fortunately, their lives were saved by the quick thinking of other tuna fishemen in the area, who spotted the boat motoring around with its tower broken in half, and the good survival instincts of the captain, who, despite serious internal injuries, kept his mate afloat until help arrived. They two were eventually airlifted to a hospital.

As Luck Would Have It

When I was a little kid, about 12 years old, I went with my mother and brother to this house in the suburbs. While the others were inside, I went out to watch this guy with a spinning rod cast a small lure into the swimming pool. I watched for awhile, and then something really strange happened. I felt this tugging at my eye. No shit, this guy cast the lure across the pool and hooked me in the eye.

My mother -- who is now suffering from Alzheimer's and can't cook an egg or boil water without help -- took me up to the bathroom and removed the hook from my eye. The barb had gone through the eyelid, in and out, but somehow, miraculously, did not penetrate the eye itself.

I think about luck all the time. I think I was lucky it wasn't me thrown into the sea on that tuna boat. I think I'm lucky I have both my eyes. I can think of dozens of other times I was lucky. And I wonder if I'm running out of luck.

A friend of mine, ship captain and pilot, a guy I worked with as captain of the pilot boat, was interviewed for a story in a local newspaper. The reporter asked him what skills or qualities were needed by a pilot. He said: "After the obvious ones, seamanship, navigation, etc., the most important quality is luck."


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

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