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Coming of age

When a father and son go shark fishing, some time-tested lessons are imparted in a special way

Ted O'Connor (left) and Soundings editor Bill Sisson steady Bill's son, Michael, 11, as he fights his first shark.Photos by Jody Dole

There are things you do for your son that, on reflection, make you wonder about the choices you sometimes make. Reaching for a tag dangling from the hide of a feisty 8-foot blue shark held alongside a boat probably ranks as one those actions.
But my son, Michael, really wanted that tag. And having grown up on the water and handled fish my entire life, I felt safe enough hanging over the rail and quickly snapping it free. The toothy end of the shark, after all, was pointed at the bow and the tag was back by the dorsal. I consider myself a good judge of risk, but later when I was reviewing the photos, I had second thoughts.

Was that shark really looking at me? I like to think that the distance in the photos was distorted — shortened — by the lens. It didn’t feel that close. Anyway, I got the tag and the fish was released no worse for wear. No harm, no foul.
As Capt. Quint in the famous 1975 blockbuster movie “Jaws” intoned:

“I’ll catch this bird for you, but it ain’t gonna be easy. … Not like going down the pond chasin’ bluegills and tommycods.”

No sir, this “sharkin” business is not at all like catching bluegills.
This is the story of a shark-fishing trip and, perhaps, a story of coming of age. Or maybe it is just a sketch of one of those wonderfully long summer days on the water, an exciting 11-hour slice in the long process of stretching and testing and awakening for a preadolescent boy of 11.
Michael wasn’t quite sure what to make of all the stories he was hearing about mako and thresher and blue sharks as we clambered aboard the 30-foot sportfishing express this summer. He pulled his hat on backward as the skipper hit the throttles and then settled in for his first long run offshore a little apprehensive, I guessed, about just what he’d find when we stopped.

Sisson retrieves a tag from a blue shark.Nurturing a longing
For several years I have been carefully introducing my son to ever-larger experiences on boats and the briny, to those worlds that I have found so invigorating and pleasurable through the years. Progressively bigger fish, bigger water, bigger adventures. I also know that if you push too hard and too early you can cause a kid to change course and veer away from the very things you want him to find special, too. We’ve all seen it happen. You have to keep it fun.
The writer, poet and aviation pioneer Antoine de Saint-Exupery had the right prescription, even if the precise formula remains elusive. “If you want to build a ship,” he wrote, “don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the seas.”
That longing lasts a lifetime.
Last season, I’m not sure Michael was ready for a shark-fishing adventure. We talked about it, but I could sense some hesitation even as he said he “thought” he’d like to try it. So we stayed inshore, chasing stripers, exploring, swimming and snorkeling off the boat. Some afternoons, he and his sister would turn the deck of the Whaler into a touch tank for crabs and the like. He attended sailing camp and we watched his passion blossom for tippy little boats loaded with his waterlogged buddies.
And late last summer we fished for cod and haddock about 10 miles off Rockport, Mass., on a bumpy day as guests of Pete Shea aboard his 35-foot Mitchell Cove. There were seven of us on board, including a yellow Lab named Seamus, and we cranked up lunch and dinner from some 230 feet of water as whales breached and a school of tuna galloped past. Michael got a good feel for the change of seasons as we shouldered aside steep 3- to 5-footers on the run out.
That outing was a good precursor for this trip. He has grown bigger and stronger in the ensuing months and, like so many boys (and their fathers), he has long held a fascination with sharks.
Shark busters
I can think of no better hombres for initiating Michael into the world of offshore fishing than the O’Connor brothers. Tom and Ted are good, solid guys who have caught and released sharks since they were in their teens. I have known them for many years, and last summer a bunch of the old crew got together aboard their boat for a “big chill” shark trip.
They have taken umpteen newcomers out of sight of land for the first time, including their own children, opening a door on this world of oversized hooks, morning cigars and big fish. Tom, 55, chairman and CEO of Mohawk Fine Papers, a paper manufacturer in upstate New York, has four children. Ted, 54, the national salesman, has six. In addition to the four of us, the crew included Dana Hollingsworth, a friend of the O’Connors, and professional photographer Jody Dole.
Tom runs a clean, well-equipped Regulator 30 Express powered by twin 350-hp Yamahas. We left the dock shortly after 6 a.m., and the throttles went down as soon as we cleared the no-wake markers at the mouth of the Pawcatuck River. We ran south out of Watch Hill, R.I., for about 40 miles, past Block Island and the recessional moraine, out to where the sharks had found both the temperature and the food to their liking.
Shark fishing has a bad rep in some quarters, in large part because of past sins and excesses. But the O’Connors play it straight. If the shark isn’t suitable for eating, it’s released as quickly as possible.
By 8:15 the engines were turned off, the chum bucket was over the side and we were rigging our first bait. The swell and breeze were light and we drifted in 150 feet of water, the sea surface temperature hovering around 68 or 69 degrees. Someone turned on the music, Ted let the baits out, suspended under balloons (used as floats and visual markers), and the waiting began.

The bend in Ted O'Connor's rod shows the strength of what's on the other end.The company of men
I grew up listening to the tall tales spun by a trio of old-school charter captains who fished out of Watch Hill. I studied their boats and paid close attention to the fish they brought back to the dock. I found that whole world mesmerizing.
When I was old enough — 12, my early teens — I fished the rocks alongside men the age of my father and grandfather. I was usually the youngest in the tribe. The men who took me under their wing showed me the proper way to tie a knot, to work a plug, to gaff a fish. On my own I learned to swear like a sailor and to hold my ground when someone bigger and stronger tried to crowd me off a good spot. Not much older than Michael, I was trying to earn my standing in the company of men.
In that sense, the shark trip was another introduction for my son into the world of men playing hard but smartly and safely on the water, this time farther offshore than he had ever been, wrestling sharks weighing more than 350 pounds.
Boys who love boats should spend as much time as possible following in the wake of experienced sea dogs, folks who can show them the ropes and keep them out of trouble. And if they look as if they might have just walked out of a Hemingway short story, well, so much the better. Tom and Teddy fit that bill.
Kids need to hear adults banter and tease one another, they need to get a whiff of camaraderie born of long friendship and they need to learn to be comfortable interacting with adults who aren’t their parents, family members or teachers. What better place for that magic to take place than in the cockpit of a boat? And for an 11-year-old, it’s a good place to test your muscles against those of a shark. Michael pulled and pumped and held on for as long as he could. Together, we got the fish to the boat.

Tom O'Connor, owner of the Regulator 30 Express, is a capable instructor.Teamwork and brute strength
Tom and Ted are two powerful, carefully machined gears meshing together as only brothers can. They work the cockpit and helm of the Regulator smoothly and seamlessly. There’s no shouting or loose ends. No sloppy executions. Relaxed, they anticipate what the fish is going to do before the fish knows which way it’s headed. They make it look easy, a sign of mastery.

I wanted Michael to see both the teamwork and the raw, kinetic choreography that is the essence of shark fishing. Two parts brute strength, one part finesse, all done with respect for the forces around you — the sea, the large and powerful animals, the potential pitfalls that lie right beside you, invisible, waiting for a careless moment to pounce. It could be a couple of loops of leader, say, improperly wrapped around your hand, a big shark attached to the other. Trouble brewing.
Jody, the typically loquacious photographer who accompanied us on this, his first shark trip, too, was nearly dumbstruck when it came to summing up the experience. “It’s like there’s really no metaphor for this,” says Jody, who cut his teeth in the competitive world of New York City advertising photography. “It was so primitive.”

For Bill and Michael, it was a day of bonding and discovery.

We caught seven sharks — six blues and a small mako, which we also released. We laughed a lot, told stories. Ted, Jody and I smoked a couple of cigars. We peed off the swim platform, one hand on an outboard cowling for balance. It didn’t take long for Michael to get the hang of that. My son practiced tying a flying bowline during the slow spots. Tom had him monitoring sea-surface temperatures and checking a fact sheet that estimates the weight of a particular species of shark based on its length. A lot of smiles all around.
When we got back to the truck, Michael asked, “Can we go again?”
“Sure,” I said. “Let me talk to the guys.”
There was a pause.
“Can we go again this year?”

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.


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