Tale of the gale: fishing in a storm

Author:
Publish date:

Dropping right out all the time, announces a familiar voice from above and behind me. The captain squints into the gathering breeze at a traffic jam of small scud clouds that have been piling up for several hours along the horizon to our southwest. Oh, yeah… droppin’ right out, he mutters again, the refrain thick with mirthless sarcasm. I look down, prepare to sling another scoop of butterfish chum off the starboard bow. I swing hard with the ladle, but the chunks don’t get far. When I look over my shoulder, the captain has disappeared.

The chief yield of experience running or working in big seas and gale-force winds is profound and lasting humility.

I hand the chum ladle off to one of our regular patrons and instruct him to lay it on heavy until I return, then hurry aft to confer with my oiler-clad counterpart, Sparky. Morale among our 20 anglers has been soaring since a quick flurry an hour ago put one big albacore and a pair of run-of-the-mill yellowfins in the box.

When I ask a regular customer whether he’s seen the other mates, he points up the ladder to the top deck. I hear a staccato burst of foul language overhead. I know exactly what’s happening. I climb fast, scan the deck and home in on the source of the commotion. Sparky holds another orange-clad figure upright, apparently against the latter’s wishes.

Our third mate is an 18-year-old greenhorn who was the only warm body we’d been able to dredge up on a half-hour’s notice after we’d jettisoned our last disposable protégé for staging a “lie-in” in his bunk during a lock-and-load tuna bite last trip. But to Sparky’s chagrin, our latest future ex-protégé has undergone a total metamorphosis in the 12 hours since we cleared the harbor jetties, his former tan now a pale gray-green, legs wobbly as my more seasoned colleague holds him upright by his bibs and delivers a non-traditional pep talk (keywords: “f-bomb” and “useless”) while the poor lad flinches away the high-velocity spittle.

Sparky stops suddenly, looks at me and cracks an evil grin. Then, turning back to the greenhorn, he says, in a much more even tone, “Why don’t you come down below and help me start rounding up rods — might wanna bring your sleeping bag down, throw it in the cabin before it gets soaked.”

While they head below, I stagger up the rolling deck to the wheelhouse and duck in to get the updated game plan from our fearless leader Russ Benn. When I enter, Benn is wrapping up a quick chat with a boat that is preparing to clear out of the Dip, a notch in the Continental Shelf two canyons and maybe 25 miles to our west. The other skipper wishes us luck, tells us to be safe and signs off, noting he’ll be standing by on the sideband and VHF.

He looks at me. “Jesus. You know, I thought we were gonna get this trip in — they’ve been saying this wind’s about to drop out, come back up again day after tomorrow. But obviously that’s not happening, think we’re gettin’ it a day early. Wind’s come up quite a bit the last hour or so, as I’m sure you noticed. Tide’s about slack now, but it’s gonna turn soon, and I don’t wanna be here to see what that looks like. … You probably wanna get a jump on this stuff — make sure you tie down anything that might go for a ride, rope off the pulpit, and let these guys know I don’t want anyone up on the top deck for the ride home.”

“What are they givin’?” I ask.

“They were saying northeast 10 to 15, diminishing 5 to 10,” Benn says. “They just upgraded it, though: gale warnings, northeast 25 to 35, gusts to 45 knots.”

I am armed with Benn’s obscenely huge coffee mug and an intensifying feeling of dread — not fear for our safety, more the burden of unpleasant knowledge I’m best served to keep to myself. No point in freaking these guys out. After all, if you have no personal frame of reference for the effect of bracketed wind speeds on sea state, the information is pretty close to useless. As I descend the aft ladder, I note that conditions have deteriorated noticeably, even over my 10 minutes topside.

Back at the chum tote, up forward, the building heave alternately lifts the bow skyward with a sucking hiss and drops it back onto the face of the next wave with a jarring boom! As if reading my mind, Benn scratches the mic on the loud hailer and begins to address our 20 or so anglers — explains that he’d thought we’d get the trip in before weather fell apart, apologizes for the early departure for home, then stresses, in plain language, the high probability that our present location will be a horror show within the hour, thanks to a tide change that will pit already-fast-building seas against the wind, closing the troughs and building waves at an exponential rate.

I’m relieved that only a few of our customers grumble about the change of plans. It’s coming up on 1 p.m. when the anchor chain clatters through the pulpit, followed by the shank of the large Danforth. As I make the line fast to the bit, Benn puts the strengthening northeast wind on our starboard bow.

Sparky and I — our humbled rookie has retreated to a bunk in the forward hold to sleep — make a couple more rounds to stow loose gear, satisfied that nothing major is in immediate danger of going airborne and wreaking havoc in the cabin or sleeping quarters. I climb down into the engine room for a thorough inspection and then, still armed with Benn’s popcorn-bucket-sized coffee mug, stagger and zigzag my way up to the wheelhouse.

Sparky is in his rack, sleeping soundly within minutes — a satisfied look on his face despite the gathering insanity outside.

We make slow progress for the first four hours of the steam. A false ceiling of dense clouds overtakes us right around the time the remaining color starts to drain into the westward horizon. The wind, a steady northeast 20 to 25 thus far, cranks up again, and by full dark, after 6 p.m., it’s approaching 30 knots sustained, with an occasional gust well above that rattling every windward surface. The popular associations of high wind with wailing, screaming, whistling — with high-pitched whining — hold until around 30, maybe 35 knots, where the trend reverses and the sound of wind starts dropping back down through octaves. By 9 p.m. we have 33-plus sustained, and some of the top gusts must be touching 45, maybe 50. Seas by now have reached 12 to maybe 15 feet, with enough cresting walls of bone-crushing water well over that to keep Benn white-knuckled at the helm, with one dedicated hand running the throttles.

When weather comes up out of nowhere — when your only route home puts you on a direct collision course with it — you make whatever preparations you can, minimizing your windage, tying loose objects down, checking and double-checking the locations of replacement items (bilge pumps, Racor filters, etc.) and the tools you’ll need to change them. Be sure all scuppers are clear and that there are no items on deck that might shift or slide in heavy seas and wind up blocking them. Running in big seas often makes it impossible for the helmsman to leave the wheel or the throttles — sometimes for very long periods of time.

Particularly after sundown, running in a storm throws you into a state of suspended animation. You stand, arms and legs braced against any surface that props you upright at the wheel, the jittery pulse of adrenaline coiling your wits tight as a leaf spring, cranking the wheel to and fro, tweaking throttles to counteract the uneven force of wind and sea — holding the bow to weather now your life’s work. As the boat climbs the face of each rolling mountain, you stare into a murky sky. At the summit, you see-saw bow-down. Exposed at sudden altitude, wind gusts — 40, 46 knots — sound like the growl of twin locomotives barreling down both rails as sodden air cranks around the superstructure, bending antennae nearly flat.

The waves with backs, you skid down. The square ones, you fall off. Either way, it’s a liquid void dead ahead. Sky, trough, sky, trough, sky, trough to mind-numbing infinity. Three times an hour, we fall off some giant square sea and stuff the bow with a thunderous ka-boom! Occasionally, a meaty thump follows underfoot, announcing that another passenger has left his bunk and met deck in the cabin.

Creaks, groans, clanks and thuds merge with wind, engines and generator, the incessant whoosh and hiss of the marching heave into the white noise that your brain hasn’t the free capacity to process into consciousness.

At random intervals, a set barrels in across the grain, catching you off balance. And so every idle nanosecond you squint, bleary-eyed, into wind-driven spray, rain and foam, trying to pick out the oncoming sets, whose size, shape or heading might remove windows or climb aboard with force enough to cripple you, leave you wallowing in the trough, the boat trying to shake off 10 tons of green water and sit up straight.

For 12 hours more we jog homeward — at points barely holding our ground, at others making feeble headway. We’re steaming into hour 20 when we cross the 30-fathom, a chaos of shoaling water with the added bonus of lobster gear galore. An hour later — finally, mercifully — we’ve run up into the lee of Block Island and a different ocean altogether.

So went my first night in weather. So many others followed over the intervening 15 years — the particulars of each beating running into the ones before and after. In your greener years, you fear the punishment but also yearn to call the gales part of your experience. Once you’ve got it, you see it for what it is: not an achievement or accolade, not a bullet point on your resume or a brag, but a function of time in the game, a byproduct of the law of averages — and a source, over years, of a humility particular to those with experience that speaks for itself.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue.