Fish stories are modern fables and legends. The big one that got away! The 100 year old catfish named Lucifer in Lake Okeechobee! I hear a fish story a week from friends, guys at the pier, or just folks I meet on a lazy beach day. But, what I realized is that up until a few weeks ago, I never really had a fish story to tell. Sure, I had some OK marlins that broke the line and a giant red clam that ate my worm once (no metaphors here), but never that audacious, attention grabber that you tell a couple of Joes about at the clambake over a cold beer or two (or six).
But that all changed on a cool April weekend in the Gulf. And it changed more than my story telling. It changed my life. But, like all good fish stories, no one will believe me except my wife and daughter who were there.
It was the 2nd weekend in April 2001. I had just purchased a beat up '84 Endeavour sailboat in September. I spent the mild Florida weekends in St. Petersburg, restoring some of the rigging and sealing a small hole in the front. I had it repainted and named her Gwen, after my 1 year old daughter. I was proud as a papa, and I hoped to welcome my new baby into the family with a leisurely sail down the Florida gulf coast. No rush, no mainland, just some warm, breezy days and cool nights, fishing and hanging out. We set out from Clearwater, just north of St. Petersburg on Friday morning. We packed some food for 5 days, games for the kids, fishing gear, a couple of bottles of wine for when the kids go to sleep, and most importantly, my favorite shorts.
You will soon know the importance of my favorite shorts, but first you need a little background about the historical importance of them. They were painter pants. Shorts that were sort of in-style in the early 80s. If I can remember it right (and I can't), they were the only below-the-waist garment to touch that area of my body between 1987 to early 1991. During that time I followed the Grateful Dead in my quest for inner harmony and the best space jam. My favorite shorts and I shared many experiences; Dylan and the Dead, Brandford Marsalis and the Dead, David Crosby and the Dead, Santana and the Dead, the Pittsburgh Police and the Dead, Bruce Hornsby and the Dead, Steve Miller and the Dead, excetera, excetera, excetera, and the Dead.
Because of this special time we shared, my favorite shorts and I have a special bond. Some may call it spiritual. Others may call it psychotic. But like all created things, age takes its unruly toll. My favorite shorts had to be sewn and patched and stitched and even glued. All to my wife's dismay and disapproval. She refers to them as my "shipwreck shorts". She would've preferred that I just toss them. But, we shared a bond that she could never understand; the bond of a man and his shorts.
Ok, back to the fish story.
So as I stated earlier, we departed from Clearwater early Friday heading south, with clear skies with a light, but steady northeasterly breeze. We tacked for a little while until we found a warm stream and left the Florida mainland as a distant dot in our sights. It was a good day to be sailing. We stayed about a half mile from shore Friday night, and on Saturday we stopped near Cayo Costa for dinner. The water was beautifully still that night and my wife and children fell asleep early. It was the perfect opportunity to put on my favorite shorts and spend the night fishing for sea bass or whatever little fish I could gather for the next night's dinner. It was about 9:30 p.m. The water was still calm. There was a light breeze. The stars were glowing and spectacular. I dropped the line with some frozen squid that I keep in the cooler for just such an occasion. I turned on the CD player and was listening to Miles Davis. All was right with the world.
I had no action on my line for the first hour, but that was OK. It's rare in life that I get these genuine opportunities to appreciate life. With work and computers and phone calls and the traffic of Central Florida where we now reside, it is the moments on a sailboat that make life worth living. Especially when that time is spent with family or friends. But wait, I think my line jerked a little. Then nothing. Then again. I grabbed my pole and began to reel it up. I'm figuring I was at about 75 feet. Not too deep for the area. The line rolled in fast. Nothing heavy on the other end. Maybe 10 lbs at the most. I got it up and grabbed my net. In the dark I saw an eye. A very large eye. Not at all like a fish. More human. More intelligent. Like a small child. Glossy. I dropped my net and grabbed the flashlight from the bench. I was overcome with the feeling of rocks dropping in my stomach. As I shined the light down I realized something. From the corner of my eye I could see something moving in the water from the behind the starboard side. Like a paddle from a canoe. As I turned to see what it was, I moved the fishing pole that was still in my hand and still hooked to the creature that was staring at me.
I must have jerked the hook in the creature's mouth, because suddenly, I was jerked forward into the cabin door as a wave of water shot across the deck. The fishing rod pulled from my grip and the line flew above the boat and wrapped itself around the mast. Still holding the flashlight in my hand, I jumped on top of the cabin and shined it forward. The boat was rocking and water was splashing in my face as the creature seemed to tug with all it's might to free itself from the super cable line I used. I yelled to my wife. "Megan, Megan get the hell up here! MEGAN!!!" At some point in this nightmare my wife and daughter came above deck. Still sleepy eyed.
"What?" Said my wife.
"I got a frickin' monster on the line!"
"Well what is it?"
"I dont know, but it has huge eyes. It has to be 25 feet long. Maybe 30."
The creature pulled away from the boat and we moved with it. I could hear a thud from below and our baby daughter crying.
"Get the net, get the net!" Said my older daughter.
"That's not going to work," I said. As I got myself to the front of the boat I could see it's skin in the starlight. Green. So help me to God, the skin was dark green! It kept going under, but I could see its fins.
"It has got to be a shark."
"Not around here," Said my wife. "We never see sharks in this area."
"Well you tell me what then, cause I can hardly see it in the dark."
"Cut the line then."
"Get me the sheers."
As my wife ran below and took my daughter to find the sheers, I ran to the rod, still wrapped between the mast and the sail. The line was stuck, and I tried to unlock the reel, but the line was tangled in a small knot. I grabbed the rod and pulled and shook, all while the splashing was still going on. It came loose. This is where my favorite shorts come into play. The rod came loose and fell from my hands forward, catching the rip at the bottom of my favorite shorts on the left leg, throwing me forward and into the baby-safe netting at the front of the boat. My left leg and rod pulled through the net and under the rail. I could see him. Moving left, then right. His eye. Looking at me. Into me. Through me. He stopped for a second and sunk under the water. The line became loose. I yelled again for my wife to get the sheers. The line let out again and in a last desperate attempt to be set free from this creature from the depths of the deep, I undid my favorite shorts and tried to get free from them, for I could not get free of the fishing rod. When the line pulled hard my shorts, from the years of bad stitching, ripped from my body, taking the rod and an unopened pack of sugar free Dentine gum with them. I was free. And after a couple of splashes the creature sunk back into the darkness that I had awoken it from. The drama had come to an end. My favorite shorts sank to the bottom of the ocean.
"Is it gone?" Asked my wife as she and my daughter emerged from the cabin with a paring knife. I stood up, naked as the day I was born, sweating bullets. But, covering my privates as to provide my daughter with a PG rating.
"Yes. Where were you?"
"Well, I couldnt find your scissors, and the baby was crying, and I accidentally broke the radio."
"Well, you could have helped here. I almost died."
"Well," she answered, "I told you to throw away those shorts a long time ago. I knew they would be the death of you."
So that is my fish story. I lived it. But, no one believes me. I never figured out what it was. Between the darkness and the splashing, it was just too dark to tell. A giant squid? Perhaps. A great white? Quite possibly. It was at least 45 feet long. Maybe 55 when I come to think about it. Maybe I should have turned all the safety lights on. That may have helped. Either way, I lost a friend. That creature took the life of a pal, a comrad, a true friend who served me well. My favorite shorts. Goodbye old buddy. My respect for the sea became ten-fold that night. You believe my story right?
Dedicated to denim and the deep.
Let us all now bow our heads for a moment of silence in memory of those who have gone before us. :) ed.
"...them are some nice shorts I got!"
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Letters from Abroad