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- Story Listed as: True Life For Adults
- Theme: Adventure stories
- Subject: Sports / Recreation
- Published: 08/03/2018
The Last Boat RideBorn 1954, M, from Cocoa Beach/FL, United States
The Last Boat Ride
My phone rang on Thursday night. Good, I’d been waiting. Kristian Kwiecinski’s name showed on the caller ID.
“Hey buddy,” I said. “Give me a good report.”
“I just came back from the Nassau docks and tuna were being cleaned.”
“Blackfin or skipjacks?”
“Both. The usual school of skippies is off the west end of the island, but blackfins have been schooling off the north side this week.”
“What time of the day?”
“They were hitting late this afternoon.”
“Great. This is the first time in a month there’ve been blackfins at the docks. These doldrums will keep the sea flat until a hurricane wanders our way. Nobody will be in the office tomorrow afternoon, so come on over around five and we’ll make a quick run.”
“Sounds good. I’ll see you then.”
I went outside to my driveway where Boat Tales, my 21-foot Aquasport, waited for me to finish loading fishing gear in her cabin. I prepared an array of tuna jigs for fast trolling on Penn rods and gold reels. No dead ballyhoo for bait tomorrow; they would spin and shred when trolled above eight knots. While yellowfin tuna grew to a hundred pounds or more, the smaller backfins were typically under twenty pounds. Though a resident school of lowly skipjack tuna stayed north of the island in the afternoons, their dark meat was too bloody for my taste. Back in Florida, blackfins had dark meat also, but their diet in the Bahamas was a different kind of baitfish that turned their flesh white, almost as good as the yellowfins I caught on long runs to the Abacos or Andros. A fisherman’s network at the docks let when to make a close run for the blackfins.
I had Boat Tales’ trailer hooked up when Kristian showed up with ice. He was a thirtyish, white Panamanian, short and stout with short dark hair and brusque face. Strong arms and back served him well for chasing large tuna and billfish. We both sported full-length UV protected shirts, long-billed hats, and polarized sunglasses to better see the fish. I also wore thin fishing gloves to protect my hands from the sun and perilous items encountered aboard a bouncing boat.
“Glad to see you out of that coat and tie,” I said while putting ice in the fish box.
He smiled. “I gotta do what I gotta do.”
His day job was an international banker, one of the few Bahamian businessmen who dressed in a suit. His only clients were rich businessmen from Mexico and Central America with accounts of $1,000,000 or more. They hid their money in the Bahamas so that their local banks would not watch their accounts to find kidnapping targets. Like the movie Man on Fire. He was also a tournament fisherman and regular first mate on Boat Tales.
I drove to the gates at the private port of Sandyport on the west end of Cable Beach, and with a bored face, flashed my government ID. When the guard waved me through, I proceeded to the sole boat ramp on the north side of the island and launched the boat. We waited for the guard under the Bay Street bridge to lower a cable at the end of the channel. He reminded us that he would lock the cable and leave at nine o’clock, closing the port until the next morning. When my boat tower cleared the bridge, I pushed the throttle forward. Boat Tales rose to a plane as we cleared the jetty, her deep bow sliced through the Bahamian Sea. I steered a northerly course toward the fishing grounds ten miles in the distance. The brilliant yellow sun threw hot rays across an empty blue sky, glittering on the rippled water to the west of us, and revealing clear aquamarine water to the east. A mile offshore, the water turned cobalt blue when we left Nassau’s reef and entered the 2,000-foot deep Tongue of the Ocean. The heavy salt air cleared my mind, pushing away stress and aggravation as I ran away to a world of wind, sun, and water.
“Good thing you have banker’s hours and left work early,” I said.
“Hey, even the bank is on island time.”
“How’s your wife doing?”
“She’s due in two weeks.”
“This will be your last fishing run for a while.”
“Afraid so. I’ll be losing sleep for a few months.”
“Are you going to keep fishing the tournaments next year?”
“Of course. That’s not going to stop.”
“I didn’t get a report from you about the IGFA World Championship. I take it you didn’t win.”
He shook his head with a grimace. “That was in Cabo San Lucas again. We caught three marlins on the first two days and were in the running for first place. On the last day, I caught one at 156 pounds, but another team from Cape Hatteras landed a 302 pounder and won the tournament.”
“Soo close. What kind of marlin did you catch?”
“They were all stripers. Blues and blacks come later in the summer.”
“I bet there were good parties over there in Mexico,” I teased with a smile.
“Not beforehand, we were getting ready. But afterward, oh yeah.” He laughed. “Lots of tequila.”
“What did the trip cost you?”
“The entry fee was $10,000 for the team. We booked a boat for a week and went there a few days early to learn the waters. Then we had tips for first mates and hotels. It added up.”
“And betting in the Calcutta?”
Boat captains had their own side bets in a fishing pool.
“Of course.” He gave me a sly look. “We made enough on that to pay the entry fee.”
“You’re running with the big boys.”
I turned the wheel over to Kristian and prepared four rods, two with medium sized cedar plugs and two with high speed skirted hooks on monofilament leaders. I didn’t use wire leader that tended to kink at high speed, because tuna didn’t have sharp teeth like other large fish. We put on fishing belts with cups to keep rod butts from bruising our stomachs. It was time to hunt. I climbed to my lookout perch in the tower as Kristian zigzagged northward. I looked back to see New Providence Island recede into the blueness as afternoon storm clouds built over her warm land. We were on our own with Mother Ocean and her bounty.
Yes, living in the Bahamas had turned into an incredible adventure. My wife, Annie, and I had moved to Nassau two years ago when I landed a job as the Drainage Engineer for the government’s Ministry of Works. Normally, jobs for non-Bahamians were difficult to find unless they needed specialized skills. I became the first U.S. engineer hired by the Bahamian government because of my expertise with stormwater flooding and pollution control. I happened to place an inquiry for a job opening at the right time. When the offer came, we ridded ourselves of many of our worldly trappings, packed light, and moved to the Bahamas, me in Boat Tales and Annie by plane with our cat, Luci Belle. Being a fanatic deep sea fisherman, combined with an insatiable desire to explore Jimmy Buffet’s magical islands, I quickly vanished into paradise. For me, this was the best of both worlds. The Ministry welcomed my engineering forte as I rapidly addressed multitudes of flooding issues, small and large, across the many islands. Management gave me a free hand to see what I could accomplish. Whenever I requested project funding, I watched the Minister of Works take the paperwork through Parliament and bring back an approval in short order. They were pleased to have someone making improvements to their islands. The Bahamian people were friendly and open to my suggestions for reorganizing staff duties, hiring contractors, giving news interviews for projects, and designing one of the first large retention ponds for flood control in the Bahamas. I was back to the basics of surveying, engineering, and construction with no pesky permits, regulators, and oversight that made work difficult in the States. Along with the professional satisfaction of improving the infrastructure in the Bahamas, Annie and I escaped on many weekends on Boat Tales to explore hidden harbors, catch multitudes of large fish, dive on rainbow reefs, and raise a toast to Margaritaville.
Thirty minutes later, we closed in on a smudge on the horizon which became specks of birds. I climbed down the ladder and pointed. Kristian maintained twenty-five knots as he turned toward the flock. He slowed to watch the swirling birds dive into splashing water that boiled with baitfish driven to the surface by a swarm of flashing tuna.
“They’re headed east,” he said and sped up to circle in front of the fast-moving school of tuna.
I grabbed a rod, released the drag, and dropped a cedar plug. It hit the water and spun line off the reel until I tightened the drag at thirty yards. I lowered the rod into an outside holder and set two more lures at forty yards and the shotgun line back at sixty yards. Kristian turned the boat, timing our speed so that the lures crossed the leading edge of birds and fish. A starboard rod bent, the reel screaming sweet music. I pulled the rod from the holder and cranked the reel. No need to set the hook. The tuna had hooked himself when it hit the lure at high speed. Kristian slowed the boat to ease my fight and reeled in the other lures. After two short runs, I brought the fish aboard and dropped it in the fish box. Kristian slammed the lid on the furious tuna. It’s tail fluttered hard against fiberglass for several minutes before giving up the fight. Tuna are one of the toughest of all fish.
“Way to go, Gordon.”
“First fish,” I replied, high-fiving Kristian. “Your position was perfect with the boat.”
“You’re probably a better first mate than banker.”
“I just wish it paid as good.”
I pointed at the same flock ahead of us. “They’re still up; let’s go. I’ll drive. It’s your turn to fish.”
I took the wheel and sped after the fast-moving school. Boat Tales was running at twenty knots before I gained on the birds. When I moved alongside the swarm, the water went quiet before Kristian dropped lures. The tuna had sounded into deep water.
“The fish are spooky this time of the year after being chased all summer,” he said.
“Yes, we’ll be lucky to get more than one pass at a school.”
The tuna bird flock dissipated, and the sea was still. I turned north again in search of more fish. Ten minutes later, Kristian pointed west at a few birds. I turned, and the birds became a flock diving into boiling water. He set the lures out as I crossed ahead of the melee. I slowed a bit to drop the lures beneath the surface. Kristian stood between the rods, ready to grab any of them. I waited with anticipation as fish splashed around the lines. Any time now. One reel spun in protest.
“Fish on,” yelled Kristian.
The line veered to the starboard side. Good. It wouldn’t tangle the other lines. He picked up the rod, spread his legs for balance, and cranked. I turned the wheel to port, away from the tuna and slipped the engine into neutral. We slowed, and the swarm of birds and fish engulfed us in chaos. Another rod dipped.
“Better get that one, Gordon.”
I picked it up, pushed the drag all the way tight, and turned the reel. The line approached the boat as the tuna dove deep. I reached back with one hand and bumped the engine into gear to stay ahead of the fish, then put the rod back in the holder so I could help Kristian.
“How are you doing over there?” I asked.
“It’s not too big, maybe 10 pounds. I’ll have him in soon.”
“Do you need a gaff?”
I snatched the gaff from a tower rod holder just in case. A glance at my line showed my fish was almost under the engine as it struggled to follow the school ahead of us. I pushed the throttle forward a little more and turned the wheel gently. No need to throw Kristian off balance. His blackfin was at the gunwale now, not too big but still putting up a good fight.
“Don’t need a gaff,” he said. I opened the fish box and stepped back. He dropped his rod tip to the stern, stepped into the corner of the deck against the transom, and reeled the line all the way tight against the leader. With a shoveling motion, he heaved the fish out of the water, twisted, and dropped a beautiful backfin into the box.
I shut the lid as the tuna dance began. Rattle rattle rattle.
“Way to go,” I cheered with a high five.
I took my rod and brought in another medium sized fish for our first double-header of the day.
We continued chasing bird flocks and bringing in more fish for another hour. By now we were fifteen miles from home.
“The fish gods have been good to us,” I said. “Let’s head home and save some for next time.”
“Okay, but we might see more on the way back.”
“You never know.”
I throttled up with reluctance and took a wide turn, putting the sun to my right. Staying out until dark would be fun but I did not want to spend the night at the port gate. Kristian climbed the ladder and took the lookout bench. I weaved in long, gentle turns on the smooth blue water. Halfway back to Sandyport, Kristian interrupted my tropical thoughts.
“Birds at two o’clock.”
He descended to the deck as I steered toward a blur in the sky that soon turned into a swarm of birds. A few minutes later, we cautiously approached the thrashing multitudes of bait and fish. I stayed fifty yards away to keep from spooking them.
“Which way are they swimming?” I asked.
“Straight into the sun.”
I took a course to run around the birds while Kristian let out the lures.
“The fish look a little different,” I noted.
“Yes. Not as many, but bigger than the others we’ve been catching.”
“The bigger the better.”
“I’ll drive. It’s your turn to catch one.”
I turned over the wheel and tightened my fish belt. I checked the drags on the reels. Too loose and the line would slip out. Too tight and the hooks would rip out of the fish’s mouth when it struck. Everything was ready. Kristian pulled ahead of the school, then slowed down. I watched the lures as noisy water and birds approached. A big tuna leaped out of the water in a perfect arch and savagely attacked the shotgun cedar plug, landing with an enormous splash. A rod bowed, its reel singing a high-pitched song.
“Fish on,” I shrieked. “It’s the biggest tuna I’ve ever seen.”
Kristian slowed down and replied, “It’s too big to be a blackfin. Must be a yellowfin. Hang on to him.” He brought in the other lures and cleared the deck of rods, buckets, and gaffs in anticipation of a major struggle.
I planted the butt of the rod into my fish belt, tightened the drag, and watched the reel spin. And spin. No use reeling until this first run ended. A hundred yards out it finally stopped.
“Kristian. Give me a hand and chase him. I don’t want to fight all night.”
He turned the boat and sped toward the fish. I pumped and reeled, pumped and reeled, inching back line. This tuna was powerful. When the fish sensed the nearing boat, it dove. Deep and hard. Kristian steered until my line was nearly straight down, but still swimming at a good pace.
“Keep reeling,” he commanded.
“Yeah, yeah.” I bent my knees and rocked back as hard as I could to lift the rod. Then dropped the tip and reeled to gain a couple of feet of line. Over and over.
“You’re right,” I said through gritted teeth. “Gotta be a yellowfin. This will be my first.”
“Tighten the drag.”
I pushed the lever a little more. Pump and reel. For every six inches I gained, I lost two. What a test of strength. Me versus the fish. Pump and reel for fifteen minutes. I stopped to rest.
“This is your fish, Gordon. If you let it rest, it’ll win. Keep on reeling.”
Grrr. Back to cranking.
This would be my biggest tuna. Maybe even bigger than my 105-pound sailfish from Panama.
Kristian kept the boat directly over the fish as I slowly brought line onto the reel. “Keep pumping,” he yelled.
I was in a zone, totally focused on the fish and putting line back on the reel. And the pain in my arms and back.
“I can see color,” Kristian exclaimed. “You’re almost there.”
I saw the tuna at the same time it saw the boat. Line buzzed off the reel again. A second run started to the bottom. Back down a hundred feet. Oh God, not again. Time to start over. I tightened the drag to full stop and heaved up again. Wound down. Halfway into the next lift, the line went limp. No! Was it coming to the surface? I reeled furiously. Nothing. My shoulders slumped.
“What happened?” asked Kristian.
“It’s gone.” I slowly wound in the line. The intact lure cleared the water. I grabbed it and looked at the hook. Uhn.
“I used medium hooks for the little blackfin. He straightened it.” I shook my head in misery.
Kristian grimaced. “You fought it well. Next time you’ll get him.”
“The one that got away. Let’s call it a day.”
I was disappointed about losing a big fish, but the day had been great.
We secured the gear, opened two Kalik beers, and tapped their tops together. I brought Boat Tales up to cruising speed on a southerly bearing. The low orange sun shimmered on dead flat water hissing against Boat Tales hull as she skated back to port. I thought about today’s story. Part of Mother Ocean’s magic was that no two voyages were the same. She revealed something memorable on each trip.
“You handled yourself pretty good today,” Kristian said.
“Yeah, it was fun.”
“You know, our fishing team has gone to the World Championship Tournament the last couple of years. One of the guys dropped out. Would you like to join the team and fish with us at Cabo San Lucas?” He grinned, knowing what was going through my mind.
I paused for a moment, thinking about the ultimate fishing trip. “I’m really honored, Kristian. I know there would be several qualifying tournaments over the next year as well. I’m afraid that’s out of my league. Government bureaucrats don’t make banker’s money. I wish I could.”
“Okay. Just thought I’d ask.” We clinked beers again.
“Take the wheel. I’m going up top.”
I climbed the tower and stood in front of the bench with my arms out and hat off. Salty wind fluttered through my clothes. The engine hummed. A perfectly round orange sun touched the sea just beyond my reach as I floated through the air. The horizon encircled me with an eternal blue line. There would not be a more perfect day on a more glorious sea for the rest of my life. My job was wonderful, my wife was great, and the islands spun their magic on me. What more could I want?
Little did I know that the world would take a left turn and that would be my last ride on Boat Tales. Islanders have a saying that sooner or later we all end up in the soup, and I did. But that is another story.