Dead in the Water: a Perilous Fishing Journey and Rescue at Sea

When I first became obsessed with fishing on the Vineyard, I read a quote I never forgot. I may have read it in a magazine or a book. It said simply, “if you spend enough time ‘out there’ [as in, out on the water] eventually something terrible is going to happen.” It’s true.

At 4:30 AM, I was down on the dock in Menemsha waiting for Captain Buddy Vanderhoop. He had asked for my help on a tuna charter with Charles Ogletree and his three friends. Tuna fishing is virtually impossible to do alone. The gear is a massive undertaking and requires constant watching and adjusting. We’re usually towing at least six or eight lines with outriggers to spread them out away from each other. Just to drive the boat and deploy them without tangling or other problems is not an easy job. When you get a fish on, let alone a double or triple hookup, all I can say is that all hell breaks loose. Then you immediately reorganize and set out again, hoping to catch more fish in the school while gutting and icing the fish already aboard. It’s incredibly exciting, and I was happy to have been invited to help out.

That day, Buddy said it might be a bit bumpy going down, but the seas would settle in a few hours and it would be beautiful. We were headed for the dumping ground, or the “Dump” as we refer to it around the docks. The “Dump” is a one hundred square mile piece of water. A six hour steam from Montauk (and made quite famous by Capt. Frank Mundus and his hunt for great white sharks that was arguably used as the basis for the character Quint in the book and movie Jaws) a bit west of Nantucket and 40-60 miles south of the Vineyard. Below the “Dump” are the canyons, literally huge underwater “Grand Canyons” where you find everything that could possibly get caught up in and swept north by the almighty Gulf Stream and brought within reach in its eddies. We keep watch on these magical clouds of warm water that billow off the main stream with temperature charts these days. Temps can be in the eighties down in the heart of the Canyons and then in the sixties and seventies on its “walls” and in shallower water. It’s a veritable smorgasborg of baitfish, billfish, whales, porpoises, turtles, sargasso weed and pretty much everything you could imagine. The temperature “edges” are the key to finding the fish. The veritable lines of water that can mark a three degree or an eleven degree change in temperature. Follow these lines, and you will catch fish if they are there and you have the right presentation. The canyons are ninety miles south and I had not yet ventured that far. It’s a long way to go on a day charter, and I had heard stories of terrible squalls, monstrous waves, and boats getting “caught” and “lost” at sea.

The trip to the “Dump” was a rough, bone-jarring ride from the start, and I remember it was the first and I think the only time I had taken Dramamine. I would be thankful for that later. I knew it would be a long day, and you never knew what would happen. Usually it was an awful lot of banging around, fishing, and not much catching. The tuna just weren’t there in huge numbers that summer. With the limited time in a day charter, you can’t get much farther out.

We stopped crashing our way southward as a huge red sun peeked over the whitewater and started trolling just above the center of the “Dump.” Things were slow at first. Buddy was fishing his squid bars, his obsession which seemed to attract some serious ire from others aboard when nothing was happening. I was getting leery of them when we got our first “knockdown.” That’s what happens when a big tuna-like fish hits your “spread,” the vast array of lines you are towing behind the boat. These multiple bait imitations resemble a rather large school of fish dancing, swimming and smoking through the water. The sheer force of the fish hitting a line actually knocks the line down from the outrigger to the deck with a bang. The line screams out, and you struggle to gain control before all the line on the reel is lost. The first fish on was a beautiful yellowfin tuna, probably sixty pounds and close if not a bit above average for that species in that water. I remember Buddy was heading east. As he gutted the fish and put the lines back in the water, I began driving the boat. I quickly retraced our path and we had two more yellowfin on. This was turning into a really good morning.

Everyone had been horribly seasick, but when the fish started to hit, they started to recover quickly. They fought fish, ate some saltines, drank some cool water and began to laugh and smile from ear to ear. The sun came out, the sky turned blue and the seas slowed to a gentle roll.

We switched up some lures during a lull, and moved along to the south listening to the crackle on the radio about hookups, figuring which boats they probably were and getting close enough to check out the action. Some were good, some weren’t, but we managed to find fish all day long. It was pretty spectacular. As a result, I found myself watching the fleet of charter boats (day trippers) turn tail and spill diesel smoke at us as they headed for home. It was definitely getting late, but tuna fever had gripped our Captain and crew and we weren’t even talking about quitting quite yet. The water was now calm and the evening was spectacularly beautiful. We were trolling slowly and Charles was in the fighting chair with a beautiful fish on. At this point, we were playing a crazy game of trying to land the fish before big sharks of all varieties could get their teeth into them and leave us reeling in little more than the head. It was becoming a bit ridiculous and definitely late in the day.

Buddy was topside and I was back in the stern next to the throttles when the boat stalled completely. After a second of silence, Buddy started to yell at me not to throttle back and asked why I stopped the boat. I stood there in silence and waited for him to take a breath, then calmly walked forward away from the charter happily engaged in the tuna-shark war and told him quietly that I had done nothing. The boat had just quit.

“Whaddya mean!?” He asked, irritated and a bit startled. “Just what I said,” I repeated. I didn’t touch a thing. It just died. At this point, Buddy and I looked at one another, knowing we could very well be in serious trouble. We were alone, sixty miles from land and dead in the water.

…To be continued

Jennifer Clarke runs Captain Clarke Charters in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and is also a singer-songwriter whose new album, Trinkets in Rubble is out now.

Comments are closed.