Part II, continued from “Dead in the Water: a Perilous Fishing Journey and Rescue at Sea”
We were ?shing an old 28-foot Mackenzie Bass Boat. I have no idea what year it was built, but it had de?nitely been on the water for more then a few decades. They used to make them on the neighboring island of Cuttyhunk (within site of the Vineyard to the north). It was all wood planks with a wood cabin down below which had only bench seats. The tuna tower was added later, and a bit unorthodox. A tuna tower is series of square platforms suspended above the deck and bridge, the control center where you run the boat with steering, electronics, etc. They rise up in smaller and smaller mini decks that you access by a metal ladder. There is a very small area at the top that serves as a lookout. It is incredibly helpful in sight ?shing for sword?sh, tuna, marlin, etc. Serious “sport ?shing” boats are rigged with steering and throttles up there as well so someone can stay up there all day moving the boat toward whatever they see. The line of sight can be absolutely amazing, but the climb up and down can be a bit unnerving. Sometimes just being up there can be quite uncomfortable if you are at all afraid of heights. I have no idea where or when this boat’s tower was installed, but it was made of an unusually heavy, lead-like material. There were no controls up at the top. It was downright frightening to climb up to and down from it. Because of its weight and height as well as the fact that it was really never meant to carry a tower, the boat rolled much more violently in the water than it should have, which is never a very safe thing.
I set about letting our clients know that we were experiencing a bit of mechanical trouble and Charles asked if he could keep fishing. I recommended it and said Buddy would probably figure out the problem soon. Charles was used to experiencing engine trouble of all sorts while fishing with Buddy so he was not yet alarmed. The others looked at me kind of blankly. I could see they were trying to hope for the best before letting any other concerns set in. What else can you do? It’s nice to hope for the best for as long as you can. I knew immediately that we were screwed. My head was spinning with thoughts of how to make a phone call. The cell tower in Montauk, NY was a long way off and probably our only hope for a connection. Then I had to figure out the one best person to call because I’d be lucky if I could reach anyone.
I began to pull in some of the gear from the riggers. We were adrift and the gear would tangle if left unattended. I had a “daisy chain” lure pulled in on the port rigger, but I hadn’t unclipped and stowed it yet so as the boat rolled in the waves it would just touch the water with a dimple and then rise up again. It was like a bomb went off: the water below the rigger exploded and the line released and started screaming out. We simply couldn’t believe a tuna ?sh would launch itself out of the water and hit a bobbing lure when we weren’t moving and it was probably two to three feet up in the air! Charles was still in the ?ghting chair, so I handed him the rod and he settled in with a huge smile to ?ght the ?sh. It was big, that was for sure. Buddy was initially amused, but quickly ducked his head back into the engine. I knew then that he either had no idea what was wrong with it—or more likely, had ?gured out the problem and simply knew that we didn’t have the parts to ?x it.
As Charles fought the tuna through the gathering sharks, trying to land it intact, a cold breeze came up. By the time a giant blue shark bit through his catch right beside the boat, it had started to rain. It was like we went from day to night in an instant. I looked up and saw Buddy at the very top of the tuna tower with his cell phone. I hoped to God he was getting through to someone. My instinct was to call Karsten Larsen, an avid commercial tuna fisherman who was frequently offshore and an all around lunatic, whom I knew would come find us and somehow get us in. Buddy’s idea was to call his brother, Chip Vanderhoop, a great fisherman and harbormaster, and have him haul out all the gear he thought we’d need to fix the boat. Chip got the call and I silently put my phone under my foul weather jacket I had grabbed and quickly put on. “He’s on his way,” Buddy said while climbing down the tower. “He’ll get here in a couple of hours.”
Buddy’s enthusiastic news was met with silence. A couple of hours out there in that weather was a long time. A lot could happen in a couple of hours. Everyone was crowded around under the bimini top, which only covered about the forward half of the boat. Charles had ducked below to get whatever waterproof gear they’d brought or anything a bit warmer as the temperature began to free fall. The rain was coming down so hard it felt like someone was pelting me with rocks. I walked out to the stern to look around from beneath my hood. I couldn’t see more than 30 feet in any direction. There was definite concern in the air and maybe downright fear among the clients as I took Buddy aside at the stern to talk. Rain poured down.
I was convinced that Chip would never find us. Our electronics were still working, but we were wearing the battery down to blinking trying to reach help from another boat out there and I knew they’d be completely dead soon. I also noticed as the seas built that we were drifting south and east away from land and away from our cell tower and we were damn lucky to have gotten one call through. Soon, that wouldn’t work either. So how was Chip going to find us literally somewhere in between Montauk and the Azores? Radar? He would never see us through the “clutter” of rain that would fill his machine like so many targets or boats. It was about as possible as winning the lottery, I thought. Funny what you think about when the very real thought of possibly perishing against insurmountable odds takes root in your mind.
Buddy went back up into the tower as the first of the squalls subsided. “It’s Chip!” he yelled to me and I quickly began to climb up too. The phone calls kept dropping out, but Buddy was making out a few words from him with every brief call. I couldn’t believe we still had any signal even though it wasn’t very good. “Shit,” Buddy said “Oh, shit… Now he’s in some kind of trouble south of Nomans. Jesus Christ, I think he said the waves were fifteen feet up there… What the hell!?” I suggested that we should call Karsten. Buddy said, “No, Chip will get it together and get down here.” That’s when I expressed my doubts at him ever finding us. Buddy looked at me and I could tell he agreed, but we hadn’t come up with another plan yet.
“How about I shoot off a flare just for the hell of it?” I said. Buddy nodded, thinking, and obviously worried about his brother. It was nearly dark and he hadn’t understood clearly what had happened to Chip. How much trouble had he gotten into trying to come get us? And how could he have been put out of commission just seven miles south of the Vineyard on the backside of the island we fished often on half day charters? We figured we were a good 40 miles south of that! I climbed down from the tower and announced to everyone that we were going to have some fun with some fireworks because what could it hurt right? I remember the cheer of approval from those poor guys who were cold, mostly soaked, exhausted and definitely concerned at that point. So I stepped down below into the cabin and was happy to find no shortage of flares onboard. I noticed some water under my boots that wasn’t there before, but stuck to the task at hand. I took the biggest and baddest one I could find and brought it up. I looked at Buddy and gave it to him to shoot. He’s a freak for shooting anything, and his instincts are just uncanny. Plus, I trusted him instinctively. I swear he has some serious connection to his Wampanoag ancestors and their spirit world. He’d even shared a story or two with me about being “led out of trouble, or pointed home” in really bad situations he’d been in by unseen forces familiar only to him. I think of it as his “mojo.” And it’s got some serious juice, in my humble opinion.
We watched it go off like a rocket, arc, pop and start to float down in the distance. Buddy had calculated well, and he timed it just before the clouds would envelop us again. Suddenly he said, “Did you see that boat, Jen?” The big dragger or something over there to the north?” I could barely make out a big grey shape on the water and just before the lights went out in another blinding downpour I could swear I saw it turn. But it was hard to tell. So we waited and listened for the crackle of the radio.
To be continued…