Ripe and one sliver shy of full, the cantaloupe moon shone a flashlight beam along our path as we steamed east through the Gulf of Maine. It was glassy calm, and running lights glowed dimly on the stabilizing birds at the ends of the booms, rounding their edges to appear like jet engines under wings, red on port and green on starboard. This breathless night allowed us to haul the birds out of the water and gain a full knot in speed, as they normally ride below the surface to retard the roll of the boat and they slow us down in the process. The steady drone of the diesel two decks below added a soothing hum to the slow, gentle rocking of mysterious origin. The last of the lime green landmass had crept from the edge of the radar screen as the faded umbrella of city lights closed over our wake. At sea—it’s more a feeling than it is a place.
It was this feeling, the state of being at sea, that I hadn’t experienced in ten years. This sensation is the result of living the total contradiction of burden and freedom. I am the captain, I thought. The freedom to make all decisions, unquestioned and without input, was something that I had missed during my sabbatical. To be held ultimately, although not solely, responsible for the lives and livelihoods of a loyal and capable crew was strangely exhilarating and empowering. But high hopes and expectations were weighty loads. It’s the willingness, and not the ability, to bear that burden that separates captains from their crew. Right here and right now, as the Seahawk plodded along, I was fondly embracing the burden of that responsibility. Just being on the boat made me feel good. I was confident. And confidence is a key to success.
I tweaked a knob on the autopilot to correct our course two degrees and remain on a perfect heading according to the numbers displayed on both GPS’s. As I eased myself back into the captain’s chair, Arch pulled himself up the narrow stairway and into the dark-paneled wheelhouse beside me. “Everything is secure below. Timmy is in the engine room doing a few things, Dave is reading a magazine at the galley table, and Machado is sleeping,” he reported. “I really like Machado. He’s so funny! I think he’ll more than make up for not being around to help at the dock. You got a great crew!”
“Thanks, Arch. I know I do.” I meant it. Confidence in my crew fed my personal confidence. I believed that this was the best crew I had ever sailed with. Certainly the most mature; we probably wouldn’t be plagued by the usual crew problems that stem from basic personality differences and lack of sleep. I wouldn’t have to break up any fistfights or garnish any wages as punishment for poor behavior. Small squabbles could be annoying, I knew. And nothing was more exasperating than trying to reason with real, solid, mutual hatred when both parties are virtually connected at the hip for an extended voyage. Liking one another was huge. As far as work ethics go, nothing beats the older, more experienced guys. It’s very much like the “young bull/old bull” thing. Four of the five of us owned and operated our own boats, so we already knew the basic moves that otherwise needed to be taught. Mike Machado was the only non-captain aboard, but he was also the only one other than me with any Grand Banks fishing experience. And between the two of us, I suspected that we had racked up more miles along the salty way than any pair I could think of. “Yes,” I said, “I think we have a winning team aboard. Just the right combination of talents and strengths.”
“Speaking of talents and strengths, here I am,” Tim said laughingly as he popped his head through the back door of the wheelhouse behind Archie. “The engine room is looking good. The water maker is cranking out, and the ice machine is making great ice—lots of it. I just shoveled. How’s the list?” he asked, referring to whether or not the boat was leaning. I looked directly at the bow to determine that we were indeed not listing to either side and gave a silent nod. I was happy to forgo the usual lecture on the importance of keeping the boat on an even keel and the dangers inherent in not doing so, which is why I’d asked Tim to compensate by moving ice or fuel.
“Why didn’t you tell me? I would have helped you shovel,” said Archie.
“You take care of the galley, and the rest of us will handle the shoveling. Thanks for dinner, by the way. It was great,” Tim said. I was relieved that Timmy had understood without having to be told that Archie was valuable in many ways and that none of his assets were in evidence on the end of a shovel. At his age and with the range of experience and breadth of knowledge that Archie had concerning just about anything, I didn’t want to waste him in the fish hold. Again, I was appreciating the maturity level of my shipmates. I knew that Archie and Tim had a mutual liking and respect for each other, reminding me of father and son.
“I’m gonna call Marge tomorrow and get a recipe for chicken,” Arch said. “Do you mind if I hook up the satellite phone in this corner? It’s the only place the antenna wire reaches. Everyone can use it to make calls.” He was twisting the small coupling at the end of the rubber-coated wire that came through a hole in the aft bulkhead and terminated in the corner he’d mentioned. The five of us had a lot in common, I realized. Our similarities went beyond the fishing gene. Food was of utmost importance, as was family. So a call home for a chicken recipe was a no-brainer. “I’m gonna fix that computer on my watch tonight. Did you find the manual for the weather fax? I know I can get that going. I bungeed the hell out of our stateroom. These things are coming in really handy so far,” he said as he pulled a short loop of bungee cord out of a hip pocket. “These and the two-part epoxy . . . I can keep us going with this stuff.” I had always known Archie as a guy with a short attention span. I guess you’d call it adult ADD.
“All I want to do is catch fish!” Hiltz had entered from the stairs and delivered what had already become his mantra. “Are we there yet, Skip?”
“Almost,” I said, taking a closer look at our ETA below the track plotted on the only functioning computer monitor. “One thousand miles at seven point three knots—you can do the math,” I told him as I slid out of the chair and leaned over the navigational chart built in on the after bulkhead. I’ve always preferred paper to electronics. I circled our present position in pencil and inscribed it with date and time.
“Where’s Scotty?” That was Dave’s other obsession. All he wanted to do was catch fish and know where Scotty was at all times. I understood his interest in the whereabouts of the Eagle Eye II as we went farther from shore than Dave had ever been—a lot farther—as a way to seek peace of mind through safety in numbers. As long as Scotty was in our vicinity, however wide or vague that might be, Dave seemed to relax.
I was more interested in the whereabouts of the Bigeye. Her captain, Chris Hanson—or “Chompers,” as he’s commonly known—is reputed to be one of the more disliked fishermen on the eastern seaboard. Although I had never encountered him, I had heard that Chompers had a history of doing whatever he had to do, regardless of fishing etiquette or safety, to pay his bills. From the radio chatter I gathered that the Bigeye’s captain was in Newfoundland outfitting for his Grand Banks debut.
I explained to Dave that Scotty couldn’t be very far ahead of us, as I had caught a glimpse of the boat before the sun went down. We would be tracking slightly south of Scotty’s course, since he had to steam to Newfoundland to pick up two crew members. His extra miles would gobble up what Scotty would otherwise have gained in a tiny speed advantage, so we would reach the grounds and make our first sets on the same evening. I suspected that the Eagle Eye II was capable of making better speed, but the price of fuel had bolstered her captain’s innate patience, and he had pulled the throttle back. Satisfied that Scotty would not be out of radio range for the next sixty days, Dave eased into a story about the scars that ran the length of his arm, acquired while tub-trawling or halibut.
The four of us started trying to beat one another with tales of personal injuries inflicted at and by the sea. I joined in after Dave’s second round, which ended in an episode of near amputation, and regaled the men with a litany of broken bones suffered, including a badly fractured ankle that snapped when I was suddenly buried in a pile of oversize offshore lobster traps. My crew literally dug me out of the mountain of gear that had given in to one hellacious wave, surprised to find me alive. I hobbled around on the ankle to finish the trip—two weeks—until it had healed out of kilter and had to be rebroken in a surgical procedure. Tonight, before the end of the third round, I had totally extolled my own bravery and pain threshold with the telling of my left hand’s battle with a half hitch of thousand-pound-test monofilament. Although my hand won by parting the fishing line before being torn from my wrist, it was so badly swollen that it could not be put in a cast. So I did what any self-respecting fisherman would do and went back to sea with an Ace bandage and a bottle of aspirin. None of the episodes we chose to share proved much in the way of possessing brain cells. When the tales wound down to nicks and cuts and scars “that used to be right there,” I decided to begin the night watches.
Arch was to stand watch first for two hours, waking Dave to do his two-hour stint. Tim was on the list at number three, and Machado was last and would wake me at 4:30 a.M. The watches would rotate, last man first up the next night, so that no one would be permanently saddled with the dreaded middle watches. Although the British navy would bristle at it, I had always referred to these as the “dog watches.” We didn’t sound bells every thirty minutes either. Night watches aboard a commercial fishing vessel require . . . well, watching. The men would watch the radar for traffic or other obstructions; the horizon for lights indicating traffic; the engine room for leaks, fires, and other problems; the ice machine for production; the GPS for our progress toward the fishing grounds; and the compass as a check on navigational electronics. Basically, the watch standers were responsible for keeping the boat on course and safe while the captain got some sleep.
I had many nightmarish stories of bad watch-standing practices to share. I spared my crew all the minute details, but the gist of the bedtime story I now chose to tell them was not aimed at putting them to sleep. There were many episodes of falling asleep and narrowly missing a fatal collision with another vessel or a landmass, but what appalled me even more were times when the watch stander was wide awake and making decisions in the well-intentioned interest of allowing the captain more sleep. In one case the man in charge had a bout of “get-home-itis.” He looked at the chart and decided that a straight line was indeed the shortest distance between our present position and the dock that he so yearned to step onto. He changed course to shorten our steam, saving fuel, and manipulated our ETA to better suit the making of happy hour at the local watering hole. To this day I don’t know how we made it through the dangerous shoals that his new course took us over. When I looked at our track line on the plotter that evening, I knew I’d seen a miracle. With the weather and sea conditions as they were, we should have been dead—all five of us.
I usually told a new crew about the time that a man fell asleep on watch and nearly ran us between a tug and its tow. And how I slapped him across the face to wake him. And how I fired him on the spot. But I didn’t feel that was necessary tonight. Relying on luck to keep us alive did little to instill confidence. Relying on ability did. All of my men were savvy navigators and conscientious guys in general. So I should have no trouble sleeping away my eight-hour time off the wheel.
“Sleep tight, Linny,” Arch said softly as I relinquished the chair to him. I wasn’t accustomed to crew members calling me by such a familiar nickname. But Arch was an old and trusted friend who was more like family. And I preferred this nickname to “Ma,” which is what Ringo and company had teasingly (and I chose to believe lovingly) called me. “We’ve got a lot to be proud of,” Arch said as he took the chair. I knew that he was speaking to us as a group, so I hung around to acknowledge him. “This old girl is gonna be fine,” he said as he patted the arm of the chair affectionately. “We brought her back to life from close to the grave. Think of what we’ve accomplished. And we haven’t even caught a fish yet.” Archie’s voice cracked a bit. I sensed that he was very emotional, so I said good night. We were way beyond captain and crew aboard the Seahawk. We were a group of friends. It was cool.
“Thanks for bringing me fishing with you, Linny,” said Hiltzie.
“You’re welcome. Thank you for agreeing to make the trip.” I hurried down the stairs into the stateroom I was to share with Archie and climbed into the top bunk. I’d never had a roommate on a fishing trip before and would have preferred my own space. But as long as I had to share, I was sure glad that it was with Archie. I hoped that Dave would still be thanking me at the end of the trip. This should really be a great experience for him, I thought as I pulled my sleeping bag up under my chin. And I was certainly feeling good about affording Dave this unique opportunity. If we could “hatch” the boat (fill the hold with fish) twice and hit the market at the right times, we’d all be happy about more than just a good experience. I wouldn’t miss lobstering at all. I knew that Hiltzie wouldn’t either.
I really despise sleeping bags. They make me feel all cooped up, like a bug in a cocoon, but not remotely cozy. I would have unzipped the bag, freeing my claustrophobic feet from the skinny, dead end if I could have sat up. This had to be the smallest bunk I’d ever been crammed into. There wasn’t an inch of extra room in it—even turning over would be prohibited by hips and shoul- ders. Good thing I could sleep on my back. Well, I couldn’t expect to return to swordfishing after being away so long and step right aboard the best boat. Archie was right—the Seahawk was fine. Besides, it had taken me many years to work my way up to the Hannah Boden. And the Seahawk had plenty of character. Small bunks but big personality. Plus, there really weren’t many boats left in the industry to choose from, even if I’d been given the option of running another, I realized as I started a mental count.
The position of skipper aboard a U.S. Grand Banks longline vessel is the absolute pinnacle of the commercial fishing world. I had always felt I was one of the few who remained of a dying breed of blue-water fishermen. And now that the number of Grand Bankers that sailed from the United States to catch swordfish was down to half a dozen boats or so, being one of their captains really placed me on an endangered-species list. I had always taken great pride in introducing myself as a commercial fisherman, in spite of the public’s misconceptions. We had long gotten a bad (and sometimes deservedly so) rap for pillaging our way through precious natural resources and promoting the eating of unhealthy fish, but the tide had turned. The latest government research had proved that the North Atlantic swordfish stock was totally rebuilt. And my understanding was that science was saying the presence of selenium negated any adverse effect or danger of mercury from consuming swordfish. I was proud to be heading out in more of a politically correct and environmentally healthy atmosphere than the one I had left. Yes, there is a certain snob appeal in being a member of such an elite group of men who risk all in pursuit of fish. And I had always felt that commercial fishing is a noble profession. We feed the world. But I had better get to sleep soon, I told myself. There wasn’t a lot of room in this bunk for a swollen head.
Apparently all my happy thoughts produced great sleep. “Time to get up, Skipper. Six o’clock,” Machado said, loudly enough to wake me but softly enough to not bother Archie, who was snoring in the bunk below. Had I really passed out for nine and a half hours? The stretch down from my bunk was a long one for short legs, and I had to place my foot carefully on the edge of the lower bunk to avoid stepping on my roommate. I hustled into my boots and scurried to the wheelhouse. “Good morning, Linda.” Machado greeted me with a huge infectious smile. “There’s fresh coffee on in the galley. Want a cup?”
“Thanks. I’ll help myself in a few minutes. And thanks for the extra rack time.” I looked at the electronics and was pleased with our progress and delighted that the crew had indeed kept us on course through the night. Archie had somehow managed to get the second computer of three up and running. So now I had a backup. I was glad that Arch had tackled the computer, as I had almost no ability and even less patience. None of the multiple fish-finding software or weather-forecasting programs I’d been promised by Jim Budi worked, but the feed from the GPS seemed to function. So I had another fine track plotter that was driven by a system with which I was just becoming familiar, Nobeltec. The rising sun in the windows made me squint, but I could never bring myself to wear sunglasses. There is something special about steaming directly into the sun and losing clear perception in its blaze on the ocean. I thought about the Grand Banks and how aptly named the area is. Grand indeed; these fishing grounds have quite an imposing legacy. Two of the most renowned maritime catastrophes in history occurred there—the Titanic and the Andrea Gail— creating an aura to match that of the Bermuda Triangle among seamen who work or traverse the massive banks and the surrounding expanse deemed so grand. But it’s not all about disaster. Not only do the Grand Banks produce some of the god-awfulest weather for mariners to contend with, but they also house some of the greatest fishing on the planet. Lifelong commercial fishermen who have never fished the Grand Banks are somewhat incomplete in their experience. To quote a late friend, “If you ain’t been to the Grand Banks, you ain’t been there.” In my own career the Grand Banks is where I have fished among icebergs and killer whales. Now I felt the heat of the sun through the window on my face and chest and knew that soon I would be shivering and that this warmth would be a memory.
Mid-September is not the optimum time to begin the GrandBanks season. Swordfish fall into the category of “highly migratory,” and typically they split from the Grand Banks when the Gulf Stream begins to pull offshore. This happens quickly and without notice, usually by the end of October. So we didn’t have the luxury of time. And the moon had been full two nights before. Again, not optimum. I wished that we had reached the fish- ing grounds a week earlier, rather than having five days yet to go. Trips should ideally be in sync with the lunar cycle—steaming and dock time were best done when things were on the dark side and in the new-moon phase. I had always been most successful from the first quarter of the moon through the full and up to the last quarter. We were 100 percent off of my desired schedule. But the weather was beautiful. And that counts for a lot when you are getting your sea legs aboard a boat that is unknown to you. Besides, I recalled that Scotty, John Caldwell, and Jim Budi had all confirmed that fishing had recently been good off-moon. So, they said, don’t worry about it. Ignore it, don’t fret . . . I couldn’t recall receiving such casual advice upon departing for a fishing trip in the past. I felt more relaxed and confident than I ever had in my years of captaining, and I attributed that to my age.
Far from worrying, I didn’t have a care in the world as the Seahawk glided effortlessly along, bobbing slightly as if nodding her head or tapping a foot to some unheard music. This many hours into our steam and with the boat purring contentedly, my confidence level in the Seahawk was growing. I wandered around the boat and found Archie in the galley cooking oatmeal. He sang while he stirred. The other guys were in the three-sided steel structure on the stern called the setting house, where they were working on gear. There was a satisfaction about their work, I thought. These guys seemed genuinely happy to be here. And now they took pleasure in doing something that had a direct correlation to catching fish. All the sweaty, dirty chores we did at the dock served no purpose other than getting the boat offshore. Of course, getting off the dock is necessary, but making gear is more pertinent to what we all had a passion for—catching fish. In the past I had to get on the crew a bit to be meticulous about how the gear went together, as they often hurried through the job and the results might be sloppy. With Timmy’s sportfishing experience, I knew that he would be anal about the gear—to a greater degree than even I was. As the greenhorn, Hiltzie would follow the lead set by the others. Dave Hiltz was bent on doing a good job, which was refreshing. Machado measured four-hundred-pound-test monofilament fishing line in two-fathom lengths and crimped a snap—a small clothespin-type gadget that functions to secure leaders to the main line—onto one end. Over and over he made the “tops” of leaders while Tim cut “tails”—three-fathom pieces of the same mono onto which he attached hooks using crimps. In this case they were D crimps, sized to fix this gauge of monofilament— half-inch sections of tube-shaped aluminum into which the newly cut ends of monofilament are shoved and mashed together with a tool called a crimper. The two sections of leaders are crimped together, joined by a small lead swivel. Hook-to-snap assemblies are called leaders, and the men would be busy making them until all three hook boxes were full—approximately three thousand leaders. It was enough work to keep them employed the entire length of the transit to our destination.
While Machado and Tim made leaders, Dave Hiltz worked onball drops. During fishing, the main line is suspended by flotation that keeps it relatively close to the surface of the ocean. The bullet- shaped Styrofoam floats—or dobs, as some fishermen refer to them—are attached to the main line using snaps, which are fixed to five-fathom pieces of monofilament that act to allow the main line to sink to that depth. The main line needs to be some depth below the surface to avoid some of the part-offs that are often encountered and the spin-ups that can occur when the gear is in the turbulence of waves. Spin-ups, which happen when the lead- ers and ball drops curl tightly around the main line rather than dangling freely from it, are a time-consuming nightmare. And a part-off, the breaking of the main line in midstring, occurs when the line is crossed by a ship that has a draft deeper than the line’s position beneath the surface of the water, or when a shark bites the line in two, or when it’s stretched beyond its tensile strength. A typical set is thirty to forty miles of thousand-pound-test mono-filament main line, a thousand leaders, and three hundred floats. So if the gear is constantly spun up and parted off—severed by sharks, ships, or current—you’re in for a long, hellish day.
Hiltz measured five-fathom ball drops, pulling mono from a spool hand over hand and stretching it at arm’s length, each stretch being six feet, or one fathom. Dave crimped a snap to one bitter end and tied a three-inch eye, or loop, in the other end, into which the floats themselves would be snapped when we set the gear out five days from now. Completed ball drops were cranked onto an aluminum spool, where they are stored when not in use. The main line was stored on its own drum, mounted to the deck just aft of the fo’c’sle and looking like a giant spool of thread with a motor on one end. The line would free-spool off the drum when “setting out” (putting fishing gear into the water) and would be “hauled back” (retrieved from the water) hydraulically.
The gear operation closed down when Archie announced that breakfast was being served in the galley. I had eaten frozen pizza nearly every morning for years aboard the Hannah Boden, so hot oatmeal was a bonus. We all managed to squeeze in around the tiny galley table, pushing Timmy’s bedding into a corner. Tight quarters were further diminished by the size of the men. I was elbow to elbow with Machado and Hiltz. The company was as warm and sweet as the bowl of oatmeal. It hadn’t taken long for this crew to develop real camaraderie, I realized as I nearly spit a mouthful of cereal across the table, unable to suppress a giggle at Machado’s antics. By the time I had inhaled breakfast, Tim was laughing so hard his face was McIntosh red and Archie was wip- ing tears from his cheeks. Hiltz sat quietly chuckling and shaking his head.
I hated to leave the breakfast scene. All that good nature, humor, and just plain positivity was magnetic. I had rarely shared a meal with my crew at the galley table in the past. Generally, the conversation was unfit for mixed company. Not to mention the fact that the crew needed time to bad-mouth their captain. But these guys were different. I had certainly shipped with gentlemen before. But not four of them at once. I had always eaten alone in the wheelhouse, paranoid about being away from the radios and missing some critical piece of information that might trickle in. There wasn’t much of a trickle happening these days, I knew. There may have been all of one boat out fishing last night. There were two at the dock unloading in Newfoundland and three in transit. Soon there would be more activity to keep track of, and I would need to have all radios tuned and ready. With this in mind, I excused myself from the galley and headed topside to program frequencies into our single-sideband radios.
Scotty had given me a short list of channels to monitor in order to stay up with the small fleet. Standing on my toes, I could just reach the two SSB radios that hung from the overhead behind the chair and above the chart table. Although the radios’ manufacturer was I-COM, a maker quite familiar to me, I had no experience with this particular model. Most radios are similar and straightforward in operation, enough so that operating instructions are unnecessary. Or at least that was what I thought when I began pushing buttons. I turned the tuning knobs around and around, scanning the hundreds of preprogrammed frequencies for the ones I needed until my arms were tired of being held over my head. When I couldn’t find 3417.0 megahertz on either radio, I decided to program it in. Frustrated after many failed attempts, I began a search for the instruction manual.
I’d been through the steps of programming laid out in the user’s guide several times with no luck when Timmy entered the wheelhouse. “Hi. How’s it going? Mike is organizing the fish hold and wants me to shut down the ice machine. I think I’ll change the oil in the generator. It’s almost due,” Tim said.
“No.” It was a knee-jerk reaction. “Don’t shut the ice machine down. What if it doesn’t crank back up?” I asked as I continued to push buttons on the starboard SSB. “That would be a real bummer. I’m never comfortable without it running, even if it means shoveling ice overboard to make room for fish. It’s a pet peeve of mine.”
He sighed. “Yeah, I guess that makes sense. We’ll keep stockpiling ice for now. But I’m sure between Archie and me we could always get the ice machine running again if we did shut it down.” I liked Tim’s confidence. Confidence breeds confidence. But I had cut trips short in the midst of very productive fishing when ice was depleted. Confidence does not erase memory. “Anyway, I heard that having a list was your pet peeve. What are you doing?”
“A list is my other pet peeve,” I chuckled. “I’m trying to program this radio. I need a three-megger to communicate with the other boats. I’m following the directions in this manual, but nothing’s happening. I’ve tried both radios,” I said as I continued to push buttons.
“Want me to give it a try?” Tim offered.
Normally, I don’t allow my crew to touch any of the equipment in the wheelhouse. But, I reasoned, Timmy was a captain. He owned two boats and has skippered some high-end sport-fishing yachts that would certainly put this rig to shame. The Seahawk wasn’t exactly state-of-the-art technologically. There was nothing on this bridge that was of a hands-off quality. Besides, I was getting nowhere in programming the radios that I desperately needed. “Sure. Thanks, that would be great. I need thirty-four seventeen simplex.” So now both Timmy and I scowled at the uncooperative radios and cursed the useless manual. (In all honesty, Tim did not curse.) We tried and tried, Timmy on the starboard and me on the port SSB. I had mistakenly assumed that programming the radios would be easy, and now I regretted not trying it before we departed the dock.
“I got it,” Tim whispered.
“Oh, thank God. I was getting nervous about not being able to hear what’s going on. What did you do?” I asked.
“I’m not sure.” It certainly didn’t matter how he’d accomplished programming the radio. But now that it was done, I would leave the starboard radio tuned to 3417.0 for the entire two months so as not to have to rely on Timmy’s stumbling across the right combination of buttons again. I thanked him and agreed that it was a good idea to do his engine-room maintenance while the weather was good. And before he disappeared, I reiterated my phobia about running out of ice. Tim assured me that as soon as he was done with the generator, he would resume the ice making. It sure was nice to have someone taking responsibility for the engine room without having to be told when to do things. I was absolutely confident in Tim’s mechanical ability and knew that Archie would be overseeing everything, too. I was lucky to have this crew. In the past, although I invariably shipped with a designated engineer, I had always been the best aboard. Trying to do everything aboard a boat was something that I now knew was a function of youthful stubbornness, or paranoia. I had found it difficult to delegate in the past and realized that doing so now would make me a better captain. Confidence in the ability of my crew would allow me to excel in my position of leading them.
I spent the hours between breakfast and late afternoon reading manuals, trying to get some of the nonfunctioning equipment to come to life, and chasing wires around the wheelhouse. Hands-on was my style for learning, and I had plenty about which to educate myself aboard the Seahawk. The boat was old and had miles of power cables, connectors, and cords that all seemed to lead to or come from a major bird’s nest of multicolored rubber coated wires under the forward console. It was the most seriousball of confusion I had ever tried to make sense of, and at one point—after losing track of a cable I was tracing for the third time—I simply sat and laughed. In my younger years, I would have ripped the mess out and thrown it all overboard in a fit of impatience and suffered the duration of the trip without whatever it was. I didn’t feel that urge now.
I supposed that I had enough of the critical stuff working to get by with, and I realized that I’d never even heard of some of the technology I had aboard that didn’t work. So things were okay. I could always get by. That was my strength and perhaps my greatest asset. It would have been nice to have all of the latest gizmos and software and feel as though I were on a level playing field with the other boats. But we would persevere with the minimum. We would catch fish the old-fashioned way. That would be very satisfying. The old guys on the old, junky boat would outfish the best of them. I would have to be careful not to allow my confidence in my ability to run wild. Confidence would be healthy if it remained below cocky. I needn’t swagger. Now, if I had a bigger boat . . .
Archie came up and announced that he was going to grill steaks for dinner. The weather was too calm to bake chicken, he reasoned. Grilled steak was exciting. I shared this attitude with the rest of the crew. We were all about the food at this point, as was common during a long steam. Once we started fishing, food would become simply a necessity to fill a void. I wouldn’t care what we ate, as long as we ate it quickly and meals did not interfere with the work of getting forty miles of gear in and out of the water on a daily basis. My memory was fully engaged when we’d put together the grub list for the trip. I decided that I would eat a can of sardines every day for lunch and maybe a can for an occasional snack. Sardines were quick, easy and multi-weather-condition food. Arch agreed, as did Tim and Dave. We sailed with a hundred cans. And although a hundred cans would not last sixty days if we all actually did eat them every day for lunch, the quantity seemed a little excessive once they were delivered and stowed.
We were only one day out, and so far I hadn’t felt like eating sardines and hadn’t seen anyone else enjoying them either. But there would be ample opportunity as soon as the wind kicked up to a velocity that would make it impossible for Archie to prepare a real meal. Or if the trip was extended for whatever reason beyond our food supply, we would always have the sardines. I remembered a trip when sardines would have been torn into like a favorite meal. Poor fishing amounted to many more days at sea than I had originally imagined or planned for. The last week of that ill-fated voyage was filled with voids of all kinds. The cigarette smokers tried rolling lint from the clothes dryer, a can of cake frosting was used for coffee sweetener, and I ate codfish gills. This afternoon was a perfect time to light the grill, I agreed.
The sun had traveled to the stern of the boat. I stood on theupper deck behind the bridge and soaked up the last rays while Arch and Machado set up the grill below. Dave and Tim appeared from within the setting house and sat on the fish hold’s hatch cover. Dave looked up, smiled, and said, “All I want to do is catch fish.” Tim reported progress of eight hundred leaders for the day. Wow, I thought, at this rate we’d be geared up well before we reached the fishing grounds. A pod of large porpoises broke the otherwise flat surface just off our port quarter. They splashed and played, closer and closer until they swam alongside. I’d been wondering for the past ten years how it would feel to be back here, I thought as I watched Archie light the charcoal with a blowtorch. And right now I remembered at least part of what I’d missed about this industry. The confidence to command is powerful. To command a bunch of screwups is one thing. But to be a leader of real men is dumbfounding.
Archie cocked his head slightly to one side, listening to something. I imagined he heard the high-pitched squeal of the porpoises. He looked up with wide blue eyes, cupped a hand to his mouth, and yelled, “Shut the engine down! Quick!” He and Tim ran toward the fo’c’sle and disappeared. I flew to the controls, pulled back the throttle, threw the engine out of gear, and hit the kill switch. I took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds. I knew I had to join Arch and Tim in the engine room. I glanced out the back door where our wake had run off to the side and petered out. If being at sea is more of a feeling than a place, being adrift is a really bad feeling.
Excerpted from SEAWORTHY: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea © Copyright 2011 by Linda Greenlaw. Reprinted with permission by Viking Adult. All rights reserved.