A picture and the thousand words it summoned

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The cold, hard facts of the case made mine a difficult position to defend. It happened thus.

Zach Harvey

When my wife entered the living room I was yelling at the back cover of a magazine. She asked what was going on, a look of minor concern on her face, at which point I flipped the magazine over, revealing — this is where I blew any chance I might have had of mounting a rational defense — a boat advertisement. Not a fiery op-ed, not a back-page column laden with typos that tend to send me into orbit, not one of my own pieces edited badly or run with the wrong byline. An ad.

Summoning the outward cool I’ve cultivated over the nearly two decades of our relationship, I chose not to attempt any explanation of my little episode. Such a defense would sound mealy-mouthed, make me look crazier than I really am. Pick your battles, my brain told me.

What set me off, left me literally hollering at the back cover of one of the slick national fishing magazines, was an image of a large (maybe 33- or 34-foot) high-end center console in midflight — not one square inch of its running surface, not one prop between three grand-total outboards, in contact with water — the occupants frozen in time a split-second before the unavoidable crash landing.

It’s not that I have some fiberglass-induced rage disorder or that I had a horrible stepfather who was a center console. It’s that after so many years of fishing I absolutely cannot stand the extent to which our cultural fixation on all things “extreme” or “hardcore” has led the sales and marketing folks to create a chest-pounding mythology in which “real” fishermen run their Sahara-thirsty fiberglass missiles across troughless 3-to-5s at wide-open speeds at all times. For the salts in this picture — each with neatly pleated cargo shorts, a brightly colored Team Head Trauma shirt, $2,000 polarized glasses, an earth-tone visor, a perfectly coiffed mane and the customary 5 o’clock shadow that serious anglers maintain through repeated trimming throughout each trip offshore — it’s not the journey but the destination. These are the men of the 1,000-Fathom Curve. The two dozen visible gold-plated reels tell that part of the story.

And still, it’s not the carefully orchestrated setting or the four models on loan from the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog that launched my little tantrum. All of the magazines I read are packed with staged photos and beautiful people. I seldom scream at the latest New Yorker.

The 'cowboy mentality' often results in missing subtle cues that add up to success in long-distance fishing.

I can’t help but imagine the two frames that followed. In the first, I imagine three of the four visored “Miami Vice” throwbacks hurtling through the air while the fourth — the helmsman — recoils onto the console bench seat, limp and probably unconscious, having pulverized the windshield with his forehead when the bow obliterated the big, square face of the oncoming sea. In the next frame, a tower of whitewater shoots skyward from the impact; the bow has disappeared beneath the surface as the stern, its three props whirring like eggbeater blades, begins its ascent. The hull, just shy of 30 degrees to the water’s surface now, has begun to kick around toward the camera in my head while at least six of the rods pinwheel through the air.

Every joint in my body, every disc in my lower back screams just looking at this bluewater horror show. To this point I have no real defense against my wife’s silent suggestion that maybe I need another hobby — crocheting or stamp collecting, perhaps.

The real problem — what initiated my untimely detonation sequence — is the utter disconnect between this flash of marketing mythology and the gut-level reality of offshore fishing. What actually scares me is the certainty that some percentage of the guys who’ve stared at the image actually aspire to live the distant-waters fishery exactly as it’s represented in high gloss on the back of the magazine — what a friend calls the “cowboy mentality.”

In the interest of full disclosure, let it be known that I cut my long-range fishing teeth on 8- and 10-knot boats — big, beamy, high-sided Down Easters designed to get nowhere in a hurry but to get you home in one piece, come hell or high water — and often both in the same day. Long steams on slow boats taught me much of what I know about bluewater fishing — about running boats in general. Considering the rate at which I’ve seen things go to pieces under a mere 9 knots of southward headway, there’s a great deal to be said for a prudent throttle hand and a high level of situational awareness, a mode of helm work that becomes a degree more elusive with every knot added to cruising speed.

I learned to hold a compass course, to read Loran and then GPS, to conduct security calls, to operate the single-sideband radio and countless bits of mechanical wisdom while steaming a hundred-plus miles to the edge of the continental shelf. I learned that sea conditions often deteriorate noticeably along the depth contours and that much of the fixed commercial gear I strove to keep out of our running gear also lay in those areas. I learned the rules of the road and the earliest warning signs of bad weather’s approach at 8 knots. I learned a dozen knots and a hundred bullet points of trolling theory en route to the canyons. Above all else, I watched staggering volumes of water, spotted a multitude of offshore critters, played hundreds of truly awful practical jokes and came to know a good number of the folks I count among my closest friends offshore.

What's the rush? Savor the journey; the destination is the icing on the cake.

My own training as a fisherman — and to some extent, my love and respect for the fishery — bear out the message that is the very antithesis of the go-fast, hardcore image plastered across that slick magazine’s backside: On our ocean, it is the journey and not the destination that holds the lion’s share of the rewards fishing offers.

June 2013 issue