It’s Friday, November 26, 1982, a perfect Friday evening after a long day fighting traffic in “Boomer,” my 18 wheeler with an awesome pneumatic driver’s seat and 10 gears to use while maneuvering through in the heavy Southern California traffic.
A quarter moon casts its pale blue light upon the surface of the water, painting a perfect self portrait in the calm slack tide of the harbor as I stare in complete contemplation, so relaxed it’s almost painful to move when the time is right.
The fish aren’t hungry; it’s one of those nights offering this fisherman hours of quiet introspection interrupted only by the occasional seagull squawking in the distance, and the distant waves crashing on the breakwater. Even my fishing buddy is quiet; highly unusual for the bear-sized man with a booming voice. Even his nickname is fittingly “Bear.”
The only activity I’ve seen tonight is reeling in the line to see that the ever-present, yet invisible thieves of the ocean have absconded with my bait, again. Reel it in, rebate the hook and drop it back into the water only to repeat several minutes later.
Clever little shits, those denizens of the deep. I’ll not be convinced for a moment that the “lesser” creatures of this world have no reasoning power and I know of no other fisherman who will ever accept that theory either.
11:00 PM; still no activity.
“Hey Bear! Watchya say we give it up for the night, finish off the beer and head home? The in-coming tide must’ve fed them too well tonight.”
“Yep, let’s crank’em up and give it up, we’ve got a big day on the boat in the morning anyway. Maybe we’ll make up for it then.”
I begin hauling in my line. It feels much heavier than an empty line, but it’s dead weight so it’s certainly not a fish, probably some seabed trash or kelp; hell probably both, it weighs maybe five pounds, it isn’t kelp alone, that’s for sure.
I reel it towards me from our perch on the bridge twenty feet or so from the water’s surface. It’s taking a couple minutes to get the clump of “stuff” from the bottom of the channel to the bridge where I can cut the line and toss the kelp back into the water or the trash into the back of the pickup. A quick gulp to finish off the can of beer that was sitting by my feet and I resume reeling in the line.
The end of the line has arrived, but it’s too dark to see any details of the mass hanging off the end, a pretty sizable blob of seaweed alright.
Now, ALL fishermen know that teeth are meant for far more than simply chewing; like Bubba’s shrimp recipes, the list of uses for a fisherman’s incisors can be endless, including cutting fishing line rather than taking the time to locate the cutters stored somewhere deep in the tackle box.
Besides tackle boxes in the dark can be a pretty damned painful place for bare fingers.
The dark, shapeless “clump” of seaweed is but two feet from my face anyway, so I grab the line, pull it towards me to sever the line with my pearly whites, planning to let the entire mass fall back into the water below and head for home.
As I pull the line towards my face, in a sudden and terrifying forward motion, the “seaweed” comes to life and I see a thousand dark fingers reaching out for me in an instant. It all happens so rapidly in fact that I have no time to make any assessment as to what the hell it is; besides, some of those dark “fingers” are but a fraction of an inch from grabbing my face.
I jump several feet in reverse and scream out Holly Jesus and Fuck the Devil man!
Looking in his direction – “FUCKING HELL BEAR! DID YOU SEE THAT SHIT?”
I gather enough courage to look back at My fishing pole, which is now lying on the ground, the tip hanging over bridge’s rail and the clump of “stuff” hanging over the water from edge of the bridge with gravity doing its best to take the line, equipment and “clump” all back into the ocean below.
All I can hear in reply is Bear’s roaring laughter. Even in the pale light of the moon, I can see that he’s literally crying he’s laughing so hard. And I really can’t blame him as he was watching something few fishermen ever get to see – a five pound octopus attacking a man’s head in self defense.
That wasn’t enough excitement for our holiday, so we resumed our fishing the next morning, two days after Thanksgiving.
We take a boat fishermen euphemistically refer to as a “cattle boat”,” a boat that takes large groups of fishermen out to fish in the open sea. The boat is scheduled to take us to a reef about half way between Davey’s Locker in Newport Beach Harbor and Catalina Island.
It is a year of a hellish El Nino that wreaks havoc on the coastal areas of Southern California and for many miles inland. Landslides, flooding and several very large piers with restaurants and other businesses on them are swept off of their pilings and into the ocean.
It is the wettest, most destructive storm season in decades and certainly the worst I have encountered during the twenty years I lived in California.
The boat normally leaves around midnight in order to get to the reef by early morning, so we board the 65 foot steel-hull boat about 10:00 PM from the waiting room in Davey’s Locker.
Somewhat stunned in line, I see one girl in her early twenties in the crowd as we board. A sole female amongst fifty or so rambunctious (and some drunk) men could invite trouble. A female on a cattle boat is certainly not unheard of, but not terribly common either. Women are far more inclined to be with a group of people they know on a charter boat, so it kind of causes one to pause for a brief second.
Anyway, we board the boat and the first thing I always do is take a look overboard; no particular reason, I just like to see the ocean, and this trip was no exception; less than four feet away from where I’m standing, legs pushing against the boat’s gunwale while looking over and downward, the water is not even visible it’s raining so hard.
I think to myself; “this is not going to be a particularly enjoyable trip!”
As we normally do, Bear and I go to the galley, have a couple beers and play cards with some of the other fishermen when we feel the customary lurch as the boat leaves its moorings and heads out to sea.
Ahhh! The open sea!
But wait1 The weather is so bad it’s even a bit rough in the relatively small harbor; something I’ve never seen, nor felt before.
And the best is yet to come.
When we pass the breakwater, hell is unleashed by Poseidon himself. That huge, steel-hulled boat is tossed around like a toy in a blow-up pool full of rambunctious children. I, Bear and the other fishermen sit in the galley, holding onto the sides of the chairs at the table, glancing at one another to see who was gonna show fear first, as the boat encounters massive wave after massive wave.
With each wave, the boat shudders like a major earthquake as it climbs the mountainous wave to the crest, only to shoot to the bottom of the trough like a high-speed rollercoaster gone off its tracks. The propeller left the water several times as it crested the waves, for the ship rattles like marbles in a tin can and I wonder how close to the bottom of the ocean we get with each dive.
After the fourth or fifth wave, the boat hit the trough so hard, all the latches intended to keep kitchen tools; plates, bowls, pans,KNIVES, spoons, glasses, etc. in the cabinets break and the contents begin flying around the galley like missiles, canister bombs and steel Frisbees.
A few seconds later, we hear the boat’s captain on the speakers; “attention all passengers! To avoid injury, please go below to the bunks. Please go below to the bunks! All deck hands to the bridge.”
“Now that’s a good idea” I think to myself and by the look in Bear’s eyes, he’s in full agreement. But an idea and the execution of an idea can be miles apart at times. MILES APART.
There we are, in a semi-comfortable room and being told to to to the bunks. To get to those bunks, we have to actually leave the galley and GO OUTSIDE, then traverse a very narrow walkway, with the raging ocean only inches away, for about eight feet or so to the entrance to the bunk room; all the while we’re being lashed by rain, wind, and waves and bashed by the heaving boat.
Even after we pass that test; we enter the bunk room, stumbling and bumping down a very narrow passageway of VERY steep steps into a large dark bunk room in pitch dark. The room is filled with bunks while the boat is jostling around like a car tumbling down a hillside. It all sounds pretty damned difficult; doesn’t it?
DIFFICULT? Are you insane? Hell it’s damned near impossible!
Had it not been so worrisome, it would surely have been hilarious to watch. Everyone is slamming their heads against the bulkhead, against the rails and against other heads. We’re falling down the steps, running onto each other and each and every one of us are swearing like truckers; I swear I can even hear the voice of the loan female participating in the swearing fest.
After poking one in the eye, waking some others and receiving the resulting choice words from those who’d been in the bunks while Bear and I were in the galley, I finally make my way to one of the top bunks, climb in, cover up and hold on for one hell of a ride.
To top of the craziness, the damned lights finally come on (one 60 watt bulb at each end of the big room full of double bunks) after we’re all in bed.
I look around as best I could and realize that my face is maybe 12 inches from the top of the bunk room. Claustrophobic as hell, I begin hyperventilating and sweating like mad in a room where the temperature was probably around 35-40 degrees F.
Hoping to alleviate the crushing feeling of having something that close to my face, I reach up and touch the clammy, hard, steel surface and it suddenly occurs to me that this scow of a boat may be my casket, buried under thousands of feet of water, but even that didn’t bother me as much as the closeness of the metal surface.
Attempting to stop the panic building inside me, I turn sideways and pull the blanket over my head with just enough of an opening to breathe freely and for my eyes to see across the room.
I feel my heart rate slow as I scan the dimly lit room where there are three rows of bunks stacked three high; one row on each side and one row down the middle. Probably 60 or so bunks total.
ONE WOULD THINK; “NOTHING COULD TOP THIS EVENING at this point”, except maybe the damned boat sinking, with us entombed in a watery Davey Jones Locker.
Well if you thought that, you’d be as wrong as I was, for right across the very narrow aisle (I could have easily reached out and touched the bunk of which I speak) I see some radical movement under the blankets which, of course, catches my attention and takes my mind off of the looming steel above my head.
The occupants (yes, plural) of the bunk straight across from me and within easy reach, suddenly stop thrashing around, probably sensing my gaze and the lone female on the boat peaks out from under the blanket for a few seconds, unknowingly stares right at me. She’s clearly nude.
She resumes her activity after satisfying her concern that “no one was watching.”
I can’t believe my eyes; they’re actually engaged in sexual intercourse!
One girl among what was likely 40 or 45 men and bangng the guy she’s with – right amongst us all!
What a surreal night. What a strange damned sight!
They were either the the biggest risk-takers known to man,or they were scared witless; thinking their lives were about to end and they wanted the end to be a pleasant experience. As I thought of that, I actually felt a bit sorry for them for they were quite young.
After about 4 hours of trying to get to the reef, the captain announces that he’s turning around because, get this; “it is too rough.” He calmly says “Davey’s Locker,” (the company that owns the fleet of fishing boats) will provide all with rain checks so we could come back when the when the weather isn’t so bad.”
My first thoughts are of the irony of the name Davey’s Locker and wondered if any of us would make it back.
After 4 hours of attempting to get to the reef, it takes us all of 45 minutes to return to the harbor, riding the waves like a scared surfer.
We learn later that we had encountered not 1,not 2, but 3 water spouts (tornadoes on the ocean) during our joyride.
When the hoard of white faces walked into the waiting room to receive our rain checks, I glance to the side and sure as hell, the girl that was having sex with her bunkmate is standing right next to me. I avoid looking at her as best as I could in fear she’d sense that it was I who was across from her, below deck in the bunks, watching her “end-of-life ritual”.
Bear and I cash in our rain checks two weeks later, using the same boat to the same destination, calm seas though.
But,That was a night I’ve never forgotten and likely never will.