I was a plebe long-range fisherman leaving from San Diego on an October 10-day trip.
We were heading south into Mexican water to fish for pelagic species along “the ridge,” a very long, narrow highpoint which parallels the coast and rapidly disappears into water thousands of feet deep.
Perhaps because it is the time of year when daytime temperatures there start to transform from brutally to less brutally hot, October traditionally offers good action on the widest variety of sought-after species. Yellowfin tuna, Wahoo (competing with the Shortfin Mako and the sailfish for the title of Earth’s fastest fish), Dorado (also known as Mahi-Mahi or Dolphin Fish), and Yellowtail are the usual species sought.
Designed specifically for long-range San Diego-style “stand-up” fishing, the aluminum boat was over 90 feet in length and it weighed approximately 90 tons. Thirty-one souls were aboard, including seven highly-experienced top-shelf professional crew.
We’d been loitering in productive fishing grounds for several days. The weather was standard for this time of year—sunny and hot, demanding frequent sunscreen application and incessant drinking of water. Anglers and crew endlessly reminded each other of these necessities. The boat is only as strong as its weakest component, be it man or machine.
Cruising on a sport-fishing boat, days away from land, survival is not guaranteed. The long-range boats in the San Diego Fishing Fleet have on-board freezer capacity for two cadavers: sometimes things happen when rod-in-hand-fighting big fish in deep seas.
At sundown the Captain announced that weather was approaching, so he’d make a move after dinner. Everything went normally: weather was calm and our meal was outstanding. As anglers prepared for sleep, the crew began their nighttime watch rotation. The anchor was pulled, engines brought to life, and we headed away seeking more fishing adventure.
My cabin was in the focsle, which is defined as: “…a superstructure at or immediately aft of (i.e., behind) the bow (i.e., front) of a vessel, used as a shelter for stores, machinery, etc., or as quarters for sailors.”
The bow is the front of the boat. It forces water to move to either the starboard (right) or port (left) side, and is usually the first part of the boat impacted by oncoming waves.
When underway the rhythmic vibration produced by the diesel engine, faintly detectible in the hull, sounds like a beating heart. The three-dimensional motion of the boat is mesmerizing: forward, up-and-down, side-to-side, gently rocking through space and time.
I had the cabin to myself. My bunk was long and slim. My head lay adjacent to the inside surface of the bow. The combination of an exciting and productive day, warm shower, delicious meal, comfortable bunk, rhythmic beating of engines, and reassuring sound of parting ocean permitting us passage, put me into deep sleep within breaths of lying down.
I was instantaneously transformed to maximum wakefulness by a tremendous jolt, as if the boat had fallen off a cliff and crashed into something which was relatively firm. The hull was vibrating at a resonant frequency—the boat had become a gigantic tuning fork!
The thought which entered my mind at that moment was (I bet you can guess): “We’re gonna die!” Inexplicably I felt that this was a good time to speak with the Captain, so I headed for the wheelhouse.
The boat was rocking and rolling like a punk in a mosh pit, a cork in a washing machine. It was hard to sit and harder to stand: I had to use arms and legs as oppositional anchors, as if climbing a crack in the side of a cliff. Opening the cabin hatch was dangerous: it had to be opened and closed using both hands and both feet. Walking in the gangway was impossible, as was trying to climb ladders to upper decks—four-limb crawling, staying as low to the deck as possible, was the only “safe” way to make forward progress.
I opened the hatch to the fishing deck. It was alarming to see how extreme the seas were, how the boat was being tossed about like a hot potato. Water was crashing aboard and flooding the deck, sometimes to the rail, before disappearing through lightening holes.
I had to reach the ladder leading to the wheelhouse deck, six feet away from the hatch I was hanging onto. Making this move required timing the waves, and that involved an element of risk because chaotic storm waves travel at different speeds and angles relative to the boat. When storm waves meet and integrate they can become a mountain or a sinkhole, depending on their interaction.
I timed my leap and grabbed the ladder handrails. I couldn’t afford to be thrown off the ladder by waves, so I pinned legs and arms inside the handrails and inched upwards like a human caterpillar.
I made it topside and continued to crawl forward, spread-eagle, only lifting my face off the deck sufficiently to breathe. I slithered twenty feet, stopping at the wheelhouse hatch.
I timed my move to open the wheelhouse hatch a few moments after a hard hit—when the boat momentarily stabilized. I flung the hatch open, swung inside, and closed the hatch using both hands. The entire crew was present, but I was the only angler.
Gripping the wheel with both his hands, without looking away from the waves in front of the boat—the deck boss exclaimed: “You’re not supposed to be here!” I replied I wasn’t leaving. We all silently watched in enthralled horror as the boat battled the angry seas.
A rogue wave approached the bow. The mate throttled down to try to reduce the angle of attack. Our boat was pulled at a steeply downwards angle towards the base of the wave. The top of the wave towered above the wheelhouse. For the second time in minutes I exclaimed: “We’re gonna die!”
The boat hit the base of the wave and our forward motion halted. The boat shivered as the top of the wave crumbled on top of us. We were completely under water…
We were a fishing submarine!
Moments later the boat emerged on the surface of the ocean, in fine shape. The same thing happened again a little while later, but it seemed far less dramatic.
I said good work and good night to the crew, retraced my way back to my bunk, and had a great night’s sleep.
Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.
January 20, 2021