The sun began peaking out behind the bright orange and purple-swathed clouds on the horizon. These colors painted the sky and reflected cleanly off the smooth waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It was a breathtaking scene and it would have stopped me dead in my tracks in reverence, had I not deferred to another more beautiful monument. She was clad in a small, striped bikini and her tanned skin was covered in goose bumps from the cool breeze that blew in off the ocean. Her curly, blonde hair was tied back and bounced lightly as she stretched in the morning light. Her bright green eyes seemed to flicker against the vivid backdrop.
I was young and inexperienced with girls. I had met many girls on the beach over the years, though they were all tourists. Tourists were a different breed. They weren’t going to be around long and they knew it, and they were enjoying the atmosphere of Padre Island. A well tanned boy with a boat full of fish or a surfboard under his arm only added to the allure of the island, and so my brothers and I often garnered the attention of the tourist girls. Kati was no tourist girl. She was a local and had dated her share of surfers and deckhands. It was a surprise then that she had been so enthusiastic to join me when I had mentioned going fishing this morning. My boat was small and my methods unconventional and not at all flashy. I preferred to stick to the less popular inshore oil rigs and I didn’t bother fishing for big reds, trout, snapper or dorado as the flashier guys did. And although I was quite good at what I did a freezer full of fish fillets was not a common commodity when attempting to sway a mate.
I dropped the boat off the trailer and into the sand. The wind was gentle but it would be enough to power my sails. It was still chilly from having spent the night blowing across the cool, spring waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I shivered, but not so much from the low temperature as the idea that I would soon be miles out to see on a gorgeous day. I would be alone, on the boat… with her. The prospect was tantalizing and stirred in me a wealth of anxiety. She on the other hand seemed calm and collected; she had offered to help me unload the boat but I told her to relax and enjoy her coffee. I tried to avoid spending too much time looking at her body but it was difficult and on multiple occasions my eye had darted off and caught hers after glancing at various aspects of her anatomy. I covered with a smile or by looking past her towards something else or by talking to her. She had either not noticed or likely she hadn’t cared. And the idea that she hadn’t cared was as attractive as any of her physical features.
I started by running the boat aground on the first sandbar and I walked Kati out and helped her on board the vessel. All of our supplies were already packed inside and on this day I had not even needed to pull my truck up the beach to the dunes; the tide would be dropping over the course of the day and I did not need to fear that an incoming tide would bury my tires in the soft sand. She took a seat on the bow and held on as I wrenched in the mainsail. The wind whipped the sail as it fluttered and rattled against the mast. After a moment the sail popped and stretched and whisked into place. The boat leaned over in the breeze. I dropped the center board as we crossed the gut between sandbars and the boat straightened and began peeling off towards the horizon. I placed the pin in the hole that held the centerboard in place as I enjoyed the cool air rushing through my hair.
After leaving the small breakers of the beach behind us Kati took up residence on the bow of the boat. She laid out a towel and rested herself back with arms stretched out behind her head; her tanned body contrasted nicely against the bright white fiberglass hull of the boat. I looked out to the horizon and over the rail of the boat in an effort to avoid staring. The water looked clean and clear; as we crossed the fourth sandbar I saw the shadow of our boat bouncing across the bottom. There were storms on the horizon, but they were far East of us and would not be crossing our path today.
We were headed for Spadefish pipe; a small, out of commission oil rig that sat just a few miles offshore. It was a perfect spot; we would be all alone there and the fishing was going to be fantastic. The pipe was situated ten miles from the nearest port of entrance. As a result the big sports fishermen would rather spend the time and fuel required to reach that distance heading directly out to sea rather than down the beach for a rig so close to the island. And the charter services never got more than two or three miles from port. Few fishermen would take their boat out and launch from the beach as we had done, and so as was often the case the pipe would be ours to fish alone this day.
The trip to the rig took over an hour though with Kati sunbathing on the deck the time had gone by far too quickly. I pulled up to the rig and tapped it with the nose of the boat before dropping the sail and waking Kati from her nap. I joined her on the deck and tied us off to the rig making sure to leave enough line so that we drifted off a few feet to ensure that the boat would not be thrown into the dais if the waves happened to pick up over the course of the day.
As I set up my rods and pulled from the hull my scuba bag Kati got up and joined me at the back of the boat. She had a couple of open beers and she handed me one as she questioned what I was doing. It was all pretty boring, particularly compared to the ostentatious and convoluted ways the more professional fishermen prepared. Rather than spending gallons of gasoline dragging large, colorful and expensive rubber lures across miles of ocean in an attempt to shore up large marlin or sailfish I chose simply to float a pair of mullet fillets out behind the boat. I would not be catching large marlin or sailfish with these; but then the guys who were fishing for them weren’t very likely to be catching one either. They had the same odds of running up a king fish as I did, and I spent far less doing so.
Kati watched in eager anticipation as I set the rods and then as I pulled from my dive bag a pair of masks and fins and my spear gun. Her eyes lit up when I set the spear in the gun and removed the little rubber band that held the wings against of the tip against the shaft of the spear.
“Are you really going to spear something?” She asked, her bright green eyes were fixed on the gun. I smiled. If the idea of me spearing something were this interesting the reality of what I was about to do was going to blow her away.
“Yeah, yeah I am.” I said assuredly. I put on the mask and fins and jumped into the water. She watched from the rail of the boat as I took a breath and dived down.
A different world opened itself up to me as I dived down towards the bottom. The surface had been lazy and quiet, the only sound coming from the waves lapping against the sides of the boat and washing against the rig. The sea was in a constant state of motion, but nothing ever changed. It was a vast expanse of nothing. But down here there was life. I heard the clicking of small shrimp and crabs as the chipped away at the barnacles. Blennies, runners and amberjack darted around the legs of the rig as I followed it down to the sea floor. I trailed a school of menhaden downwards and once there I grabbed the rig to hold on and conserve my breath and energy. I looked around patiently. Long lines were drawn across the bottom. They were the paths of snails, crabs and starfish as they made their way around. Several dark bumps protruded from beneath the sand; they were the wandering eyes of large stingrays watching me to see if I posed a threat. I did not. As much as I loved the white flesh of stingray meat I was smart enough to know that I did not have the strength required to pull one out of the sand. I took a moment to survey the depths of the rig in search of snapper, large reds or a big sheepshead. There were none and that was fine with me. They had long since been fished out by the thousands of fishermen that came by every month. All the inshore rigs and most of the offshore rigs suffered the same fate. It upset me; my father had taught me to fish many years before and when he did our boat was one of the best. We always brought home fish and stopped only when the cooler was full. We proudly displayed our catch at the docks every afternoon; we took pictures with the tourists and explained our trip and told our tales and flirted with the girls. But those were different days and nobody caught fish like that any more. At least not the sports species; today I would be filling my cooler though unconventionally and it would be as full as it had been every time I fished.
I looked up from the bottom. The large school of spadefish for which the rig had been named had followed me curiously to the bottom. Their large, broad bodies made them slow and their calm demeanor made them easy to shoot. I waited as the school passed. The larger spades followed the school of smaller, younger females. As they passed the large bulls swam by completely unaware that I was even around. I calmly pointed my spear at the head of one of the largest spades and pulled the trigger. The spear flung forward and pierced him just behind the eyes and it severed his spine. He shivered and fell lifelessly to the end of the rope that attached my spear to the gun. I swam him to the surface and cast him over the side of the boat.
Kati gave me an enthusiastic welcome. I had been down for several minutes and she had grown worried that I was in trouble. I laughed and I felt a swell of pride as she told me her concern. I had not known how long I was down nor did I concern myself with the fact that she would not be able to see me from the surface. I did however realize in hindsight how fashionable I must have appeared to her and reveled in the fact that I was at this very moment her hero and the center of her attention and envy. At this moment I had her in the palm of my hand.
I pulled the spear from the fish. Kati asked if she should throw it in the chest and I told her to do so if she could. With keen pursuit I watched as she lifted the large fish and fumbled it into the ice chest. It was a large spade; nearly thirty pounds and it had been difficult for her to lift. I knew this would score me points, and so I went back down and brought back another. And then another.
An hour later and I was dizzy from the constant change of pressure on my sinuses. The ice chest had been filled and there was a haze in the water from the countless fish I had speared and bled. The deck of the boat was covered with blood and Kati had not concerned herself with washing the scales and blood from her stomach or legs. Anything that drew the eye to her body was a welcome addition, even the blood and guts from the innumerable fish that I had handed her.
As I rested at the surface and cleared my sinuses one of the rods arched down to the surface of the water and its line began humming off the reel as it ran off the spool. The cesspool I had created below had brought in something, and it had taken my bait. I instructed Kati to take the rod and to begin reeling it in as I climbed back aboard the vessel. Once on deck I examined her technique. She was holding fast to the rod with it pointed straight up into the air. The reel clicked unreliably as she spun the handle needlessly. The fish continued to gain ground on her.
She tried to hand the rod over but I refused to take it from her. It was her fish and I would not take that from her, instead I offered to help her land it correctly. She gave me a laugh and a smile. I wrapped my arms around hers; she pressed her body back into mine flirtatiously as I grabbed the rod and showed her how to pull the fish in. I instructed her to drop the rod to the horizon, reeling quickly as she did so. Then I had her heave the rod slowly upward in an attempt to turn the fish and to gain the ground needed to reel as she again dropped the rod to the surface of the water. I continued to explain the process though my explanation was elementary and at times unintelligible; I was more focused on having her in my arms, on her hair pressing under my chin and her back wedged tightly against my chest than I was in the fish at the other end of the line. She asked me what she had hoked; it felt large and cumbersome but not at all athletic. She had hoped it was a shark but I told her that it likely was not; sharks were far faster and athletic than whatever was dragging on her. It was probably a large red fish or snapper; either way a prime catch.
When the fish became visible I thought for a moment I had been wrong; two pectoral fins jutted away from the slim, dark figure of a large predator. But it was not a shark. We had hooked into a ling and I was excited to do so. Ling are some of the best eating fish in the sea and this would make for a fantastic dinner, something that I had desperately wanted in order to show off my cooking skills to Kati. Reluctantly I released Kati from my grip and I grabbed the gaff. I hooked the fish from beneath the gills and pulled it over and into the boat. Kati was rolling in excitement. She gave me an insatiable hug and admired the large fish that she had caught. I explained to her how much of a delicacy this was and that she had the catch of the day, hoping to extract another hug as I talked up the value of what she had done. Her smile and bright eyes were far and beyond more enticing than any fish I had seen that day or any other day, but I would save those lines for later.
It was later in the afternoon now. Normally I used this time to drink beer and smoke a cigar as I waited for the sharks to move in. They could smell blood in the water from miles around and after chasing schools of spadefish around I was sure to hook into a beast. I did not tell this to Kati and for good reason. For starters I did not want her to worry about me or about getting in the water herself. The other problem with fishing for sharks now was that if we were to hook one it would be several hours before we got it back to the boat and we were then unlikely to get back to the truck before dark. And I did not want to be sailing with her a night. If the seas had picked up or the currents changed or the winds picked up it was very easy to get stranded or washed out or tipped over at night. I had a healthy respect for sharks and did not want to run into one at night after tipping over a boat full of bloody fish. But what was worse were squid.
Sharks are smart, far smarter than you think they are. They know how to tell the difference between a fish and a hand and many times when a person is bit it is because the shark simply made a mistake or they were curious. People get bit by sharks from time to time, but they don’t get eaten. Squid are a different predator altogether. They are pack hunters and attack like colonies of ants invading a meal. Thousands pick and peck and grapple with their prey like piranhas in the Amazon. They wrap you up in droves and pull at you. There are numerous stories of sailors surviving at sea after their ships have sunk only to be faced with being eaten alive by the creatures that inhabit those waters. Sharks get the credit for these incidents, but many believe that it is actually squid that are the culprits.
This was a calm afternoon and I was enjoying our bountiful harvest and the tanned, bikini clad body of my passenger so I cleared my head of all these thoughts and untied us from the rig. We drifted for several minutes as I lashed down my rods and latched the cooler and stored my gear. When all was done I righted the boat and pointed it for the coast, then pulled in the sail and we were off.
This time Kati sat just in front of me and talked excitedly of her catch. She informed me that she had fished before and she mistakenly mentioned that she had done so with “other boyfriends.” She did not catch her mistake (or she did not care to) and she went on to tell me that they had never let her actually catch a fish. They had hooked small kings and other mackerel or snapper and they had let her reel them in. But she had never actually set the hook and landed one herself. I was thrilled to have created such a lasting impression on her. She spent twenty minutes telling me of her past experiences, how she had been invited onto their boats only to be shown off to their friends or other boats as they passed by. It was a role that she wasn’t uncomfortable with; she didn’t mind being shown off nor did she mind being the eye-candy on the boat. But she wanted to be more than just eye-candy, and on my boat she was.
Kati returned to her towel on the deck of the boat, still excited about her catch and about the trip in general. She continued to talk about fishing and about the things that we could do on the next trip or how she wanted me to go out with her and her dad on his 32 foot Bertram. It would be a lie if I said that I hadn’t dreamed of captaining a boat like that. It was a dream unrealized, although all dreams with Kati seemed attainable. Even she was attainable now. The idea delighted me.
“It’s going to take a while to get back, right?” Kati asked.
“Yeah, the wind isn’t really working with us.” I returned in an attempt to explain why the trip was so long. I did not want her to be bored and was trying to get us back as fast as I could. “It might take us two hours to get back.”
“That’s perfect.” She smiled at me and rolled over onto her stomach, then reached around and pulled the tie at the back of her top. The strands fell to the deck of the boat and revealed entirely the length of her muscular physique. She had a deep tan that contrasted with a lighter stripe of skin where her top had been. “You don’t think anybody will see if I lay out, do you?”
“Ummm… No.” I answered her hesitantly and with all of the gusto of the charm and charisma of brick. There was nobody around; no boats were going to be passing near us today and she was several hours from a desolate stretch of beach where there would again be nobody around to see her. But by nobody what I had meant is that there would be nobody to see her… except me.
“Ok, then I’m going to tan.” Kati turned her head to look me in the eye with a seductive smile. “I’m sure you won’t mind… Will you?”
“Not at all.” My confidence surged and my response was brawny and poised. I looked her in the eye and returned her smile.
We shared a stare and a smile and for a moment nothing else in the world existed. Then her countenance changed. She was no longer looking at me but through me. Her smile disappeared.
“What’s that?” She asked.
I turned around to see what she was referring to. The ocean was open and calm and the only boats around were sleepy shrimpers anchored on the horizon. For a moment I saw only Spadefish pipe in our vicinity, though it was distant by now. Then a dark line pierced the surface a few yards behind us, followed by another six or eight feet behind it. We watched as the figured skimmed through the water until it was next to the boat. We looked over the side into the clear green water to see a large shadow swimming next to the boat. It was a bull shark, and it had been attracted to the scent of blood by my spearing at the pipe. And now it was following us back to the beach.
This was not the first time I had seen a shark around the boat, although this was one of the largest sharks I’d ever had around. It was nearly the length of the boat, and though my first instinct was to drop a bait and catch him I knew that I did not have the equipment necessary to do so nor did I have enough time to catch him and get him to the beach before the sun set.
Kati was terrified. She had seen large sharks before, too. Her dad often came home with large mako and hammerhead sharks when he went offshore but she had never been so close to one alive, and in their own environment. Indeed we were visitors to his home and he was quite interested in us. She quickly slipped off the deck and back to her seat in front of me as she stared at the monster swimming next to us. She clutched her top to her breasts with one hand and held the railing with the other.
“What are we going to do?” She asked with fervent consternation. “Is it going to attack us?”
“Oh, he’s just checking us out.” I said with mock bravado as I tried to calm her nerves. It was a terrifying sight to see such a monster so interested in the boat but he wasn’t going to attack us and I told her so. I reassured her that this was not the first time I had run into a shark like this (although I had a growing confidence that this was the largest shark I had ever seen) and that if he were a little closer we could pet him without worry. Kati laughed, her fear dissipated and she slapped me on the shoulder.
“Shut up!” She said playfully. “You would not.”
Kati gave me a lurid, ponderous smile and then returned her glance to the shark.
“He isn’t going to follow us all the way back to the beach, is he?”
“I seriously doubt it.”
I was wrong. Although he disappeared from time to time he continued to resurface behind the boat or a few yards away for the next few hours. It was almost cute; he had bumped into the boat a couple of times as a means of testing the waters or as a result of carelessness on his part but he had never appeared aggressive. Of course I knew that his interest had nothing to do with anything other than hunger, and I made sure to be overly careful when steering the skiff so that I would not throw Kati or myself overboard.
Suddenly there was a large thrashing sound at the front of the boat. We turned to see the shark as its back broke the surface and its large tailed flailed through the air. The water around the spoil exploded with mullet as they jumped and danced across the surface to get away from the beast. Then a series of fins broke the surface in different directions. They tore through the water and splashed about as they chased through the school of bait fish. It was apparent that multiple sharks had joined our tag along, and that we now had a frenzied school of sharks trailing the boat.
The scene was unnerving and though I tried to hide my unease Kati was beginning to become distressed as well. To my dismay she retied her top and started looking for conversation to break the tension. She asked about the sharks; what kind they were and how big they got and if they were dangerous. The questions sparked a calming conversation and the exchange took our mind off the looming predators. The fact of the matter was that they were not going to attack the boat and unless we were in the water they posed absolutely no threat. Soon we would be back on the beach. I would make a fire and fillet two of our fish and prepare them for her on the beach. I could think of no more romantic way to spend the evening than dining under the stars on our lone stretch of beach lit by fire and talking of our narrow escape from the treacherous sharks that followed us home.
We neared the beach. I could see the truck on the shore, although a new problem presented itself. The surf had picked up since the morning. Normally this was not an issue. The boat was made to tumble and roll in the waves. Over the years we had tipped the boat over many times in the surf; it took only a few minutes to turn it back over. In fact I would have (under different circumstances) considered tipping the boat “accidently” just to get Kati in the water, to right the vessel and to give us an exciting end to the day. What better way to be a hero than to save her from such an incident? I would not do that today though; the appearance of multiple sharks hungrily following our boat had ensured that. Although we had nearly an hours worth of daylight left the sun was beginning to drift down towards the dunes and that is when the sharks begin to anticipate feeding. Our pack of sharks had likely grown hungrier with their voyage, and I wanted to avoid meeting them in the water under these conditions. The surf wasn’t terrible and I was an experienced sailor. I knew that I could traverse the breakers carefully. I knew to drift along the guts between the sand bars while waiting for a lull between sets. Then I would speed across the sandbar and back into the safe depths of another gut. I need only do this across the third and second sandbars. After that the surf was far smaller and I could ride the boat directly up onto the beach.
The tide was low and that had caused the surf to break stronger. It was common for the tide to drop excessively this time of year and other than facing steeper breakers the shallow shoals would normally pose no other problems. Today however we came across an entirely new problem.
The waves swelled as they rolled over the fourth bar but the water was still too deep for them to crest. Followed closely by our entourage we zipped across the bar riding a swell as we did. It passed beneath us and for a moment left us floundering on top of the bar as the sail filled and tried to catch the wind. Then the boat lurched and shook. Kati and I both slid across the seats and gripped the rail tightly as the vessel veered and dragged. I tried to turn the rudder but it did little more than readjust the nose of the boat a few inches. The water was far shallower than it had been when we left in the morning, and the center board had jammed itself into the sandbar. For a moment we sat marooned on the bar before another swell picked us up and washed us a few more feet across the bar. We sat stuck in the sand again before a third and final swell broke us free and pushed us into the gut.
I apologized to Kati for the scare and asked if she was okay, to which she assured me that she was fine. She was done with the trip and wanted to be back on the beach and I felt the same. I turned the boat up the beach and sent her into irons, which left the sail to flap in the breeze. We drifted with the current as I climbed up next to the mast to retrieve the center board. As I edged up the railing I looked over into the gut. The sharks had followed us across the bar and they were beginning to circle.
The centerboard was a simple piece of fiberglass that fit down into a notch from the top of the craft. The pin continued to hold it in place. I pulled the pin and placed it into its holding place on the mast, then grabbed the handle of the centerboard and gave it a pull. The board did not move. I braced myself and pulled at it again; and again it did not budge. I acted as though this was normal so as not to alert Kati and dropped to my knees in order to get a closer look at the problem. The back end of the handled appeared to be sticking up from the deck, which was not normal. The issue was slight and had slipped my attention at first, but after seeing it I knew immediately what had happened. When we had hit the sandbar it had bent the board back at an angle and crammed it into this aberrant position. It had likely ruptured the hull as well; I had experienced similar issues with the boat before and had become accustomed to patching cracks afterwards. I tried again to tug the centerboard from its hold, to no avail.
Kati watch with growing fear as I contemplated the problem and possible solutions. With the centerboard down I could not get anywhere near the third sandbar, which was itself over a hundred yards from the beach. Suddenly an idea came to mind. The riggings of the mast were a machine that all sailors used to accomplish various tasks other than the simple raising and lowering of a sail. I tied off the mainsail to the mast and untied the blue standing rig from the sail. It ran through a pulley at the top of the mast and was used to raise the sail. Now I lowered it down and tied it tightly to the handle of the centerboard. I wrapped a loop in the other end of the line and created a foothold to stand on. Then I grabbed the line and stood up on it.
The line stretched from the pulley and pulled taught at the handle of the centerboard. I leaned back and pushed against the boom to create additional pull on the centerboard. It didn’t move. Finally I began jumping on the foothold. The desperate act was more than the pulley could take; it snapped violently from the mast and fell to the deck below. I dropped to the deck and nearly fell backwards over the railing in the process. Kati let out a yelp; she watched in horror as the episode unfolded.
I sat on the deck of the boat and looked towards the island. The sun was touching the dunes and soon it would be dark. As confident as I was in my ability to effectively traverse the breakers on the third I knew that it was by all accounts an impossible feat at night. We would get rolled, and at that distance it would be faster to walk the boat back to shore than to right it and sail to the beach. The entire time we would of course be at the mercy of our followers and their ever increasing appetites. Kati looked to me for some reassurance, for some warming assessment of the situation or at least a contingency plan. I had none. I ran my hand soothingly along her back and shoulder. She dropped against my chest and nuzzled into my arm.
“We will be okay.” I told her.
“I trust you.” She reassured me.
I couldn’t pull the centerboard from the hull, that much was certain. With little more to grip than the handle I had no leverage. Not only was my ability to pull on it hampered but I had no way of wiggling it or working it loose. There was of course another way of solving this problem. As I had done many times on many boats I could go underneath the boat and push it up. The bottom of the centerboard was right now less than two feet above the bottom of the gut. I could easily brace myself beneath the boat and give it a heave upward. I could work it back and forth to coerce it from its lodging. In short the odds of dislodging the centerboard were significantly better… if I was in the water. I could see no other options.
Kati reacted with revulsion and fright at the idea. She had no idea what to do if I were attacked by the sharks, which was a near certainty. She didn’t know how to sail the boat even to shore and if she figured it out she was sure to wreck it over the falls of a set wave when she approached the bar. I took her apprehension into account, but told her that this was the best option. With any luck I would slip the centerboard out quickly and be back in the boat before the sharks ventured past curiosity to investigation with the peculiar new visitor in the water… and finally experimentation with its taste. I told her to keep me informed of the shark’s whereabouts by tapping on the boat in the direction I needed to look to see them. Furthermore if they appeared to get aggressive I encouraged her to throw a spadefish or two as far as she could down current. This was a last resort; once they tasted the spade they were sure to get hostile and assertive and doing so only bought me enough time to get back on the boat before they began taking bites out of anything they could. But it would in theory buy me the time to make my way back onto the boat. Giving her a task to assist in this escape seemed to calm her nerves a bit. She had a responsibility, something that she had commended me for earlier. And now I was entrusting her with a far more important undertaking.
I grabbed my mask and took sixty seconds to control my breathing. This was a tactic that I used to help dive deeper; it slowed my heart rate and therefore helped me to use less oxygen when I was holding my breath. As the clock ticked off the last few seconds I quickly increased my breathing rate in an attempt to hyper-oxygenate my system. Finally I took one lasting breathe and jumped off the boat.
The splash as I entered the water was loud and reverberated a wake against the hull of the boat. I had hoped that this would provide a shock and scare the sharks off for a bit while I got to work. I looked around to see if there were any around; there were none that I could see. The water was getting dark and the visibility was far less than it had been in the morning and with the lack of light from the setting sun it was difficult to make out anything at all. I could see the shadow of the centerboard beneath the boat, and I quickly made my way towards it.
As I had assumed the centerboard was turned at an angle and had been wedged awkwardly into its fitting. It was also no more than a couple feet from the bottom. I was glad to see this; the water in this gut was normally around twelve feet deep and without the ability to push against the ground I would not have been able to push against the board. I wrapped it up and braced my feet against the bottom. There was a tap against the island-facing side of the boat. I turned to see a small, four foot black-tip shark swim by. He hadn’t noticed me or hadn’t cared to investigate, but the ominous shadow as it passed by was enough to strike a chord of fear inside me. I watched as it quickly passed and disappeared into the shadows. Almost immediately there was another knock on the hull, this time behind me.
The water on that side of the boat appeared darker; the result of the sun shining on the sediment and casting shadows into the depths of the ocean. After a moment a larger black-tip came swimming almost directly towards me. Its face was lit in the glancing rays of light as it passed behind the shadow of the boat. It looked at me for a moment before passing by. I could have reached out to touch it, had I been born with enough spine to do so. With nerves tingling and an ever-growing knot in folding across my stomach I pushed and rocked the centerboard. It budged slightly, but not as much as I had hoped. I continued to rock it back and forth as I pushed at it, and it continued a gradual ascent. I heard another knock at the ocean side of the boat and compressed my body behind the centerboard to obstruct the shark’s view of me. I watched as the larger of the sharks careened by the side of the boat and then disappeared swiftly back into the depths. Nearly out of air I pulled myself up the side of the boat and took in a breath.
Kati was standing in the gaunt stern of the boat. She was leaning over the other side of the vessel and rapping against the hull. I would have admired the view if the moment was not so harrowing.
“Kati?” I balked as I called her name. She jumped and spun around, startled at the sound of my voice. She had not heard me surface.
“I just saw another swim by.” She said, panicked. “What’s taking so long?”
“I’m getting it, just needed to catch a breath.”
I took a deep mouthful of air and dove back under the boat. The centerboard continued to slide slowly upward as I pushed on it. Kati continued to rap on the hull and the sharks began taking a more collective notice of me. They seemed to smell me… or the smell of fish blood that I had been covered in… as they swam by. And every pass got closer. I began pushing them away when they swam by. It startled them and caused them to swim back off into the increasingly gloomy expanses of the ocean, but they continued to return and always more confidently. My fear began to escalate; I was seeing more of them and they were becoming more and more assertive and inquisitive of me. One approached me directly; I rolled my fingers into a fist and popped the shark directly in the point of his snout. He had seen my gesture coming and had rolled his eyes into the back of his head and opened his mouth in preparation to bite me, but slamming him in the nose had stunned him momentarily and it frightened him away. A shark’s nose is a sensitive region full of nerves and sensors, and not a spot they like to have hit. As a boy raised on the sea I had known this since my childhood, but never before had I been in proximity close enough to try it.
As I continued to wiggle the centerboard slowly upward I heard a distinct splashing and battering sound. Several sharks were tussling over a small school of mullet or bluefin at the surface. Immediately afterwards I heard another distinct splash. It wasn’t the whipping about of a shark on the surface, but a single “pop.” Several sharks swam eagerly by me and I watched as one came swimming violently back by with the head of a spadefish between his teeth. Kati had seen the shark’s aggressive display and had thrown a spade overboard. And now the sharks were no longer curious and probing; they were ravenous and devouring.
The centerboard was nearly halfway up and was beginning to move easier now. I was not nearly out of breath but I was desperate to finish the job without needing another. I pushed and worked it back and forth violently. It rocked the boat and I heard Kati stumbling about as I did. In my mind I apologized to her and prayed that I would not hear the loud splash of her body being thrown overboard. After a moment I heard a splash, though not loud enough to be her. A frenzy of sharks spinning a few feet from me alerted me to what was likely a fairly violent situation developing just out of my field of vision. I heard Kati’s feet again stumbling along the stern to the bow, and another fish splashed on the surface. I braced myself against the bottom and gave the centerboard another heaving push.
It ascended easily, as though nothing had ever blocked it at all. The simplicity with which it progressed threw me off balance and cast me forward. I swung my arms to reposition myself without the centerboard to cling to. As I tried to amend my position under the boat a large shadow caught my eye. The bull shark; our original, large devotee had returned and he was bearing down on me. The lumbering beast was huge and moving fast; I scampered to get out from underneath the boat and away from him but I knew that I would not be able to do so before he reached me. I held myself down beneath the hull with one hand and reared the other back. I watched him carefully as he came; I would get only one shot at his nose before he took an exploratory bite out of me.
I wouldn’t need it. There was another splash at the surface, almost directly next to the boat. A spade began to sink just in front of the bull shark. He opened his mouth wide and inhaled the fish, then he swirled around vanished sharply. I didn’t wait around to see if he would come back.
There was noticeably less light when I surfaced and I had a hard time identifying various items in the boat as I climbed back inside. The sun had receded behind the dunes and the sky was lit with bright oranges and pinks on the horizon. Kati helped me into the boat and then wrapped me up in her arms. She had tears in her eyes and was sobbing lightly, probably due to a combination of her utter fear and the immediate joy of having the situation resolved. It was several minutes before she would let go.
The trip over the third sandbar was entirely uneventful. Kati had taken a new position on the boat; right next to me. She held me close as I navigated between sets and zipped us quickly across the bar and into safe waters. The second sandbar had proven to be successively easier. When we got to the beach I dragged the boat up onto the sand. It was far heavier than when we had left in the morning, and still heavy after I removed our gear and the ice chest full of fish. I lifted the bow of the boat onto the trailer and a torrent of water began pouring out from the hull. The fitting for the centerboard had ruptured when we hit the sandbar and we had taken on a lot of water; the pressure from this was one of the reasons it had been so difficult to retrieve the centerboard in the first place.
With the intensity of the situation having passed and the beauty of the beach at night returning our spirits we decided as the boat drained to fillet her ling and cook it over an open fire. The brightness of her eyes was enhanced by the flickering light of the large fire, and our conversations returned to their original, flirty context. We sat in the sand and drank and talked of future trips and of the catch that we had managed that afternoon. Our conversation remained lively well into the night and had traversed many topics. As we talked we grew closer and as we did so did our chemistry and the discourse followed a natural progression to more primal, obvious topics. Of all that happened over the course of the night one thing stood out far more than anything else had. Our first kiss. It had started as a peck and had developed over the course of several minutes into something else entirely. But it had been electric and passionate and an expression of more than lust or the relief of stress from our daunting afternoon.
The summer nights of my youth were extraordinary to say the least, and I look back on them now with the same incredulity that you my reader likely feel. It’s a story. It’s not real. There’s no way that really happened. I think back on those times now and I smile. Never again will I live a day like that; those days have long since been replaced with the daily grind and my caring for a baby daughter. A daughter who with her curly, golden locks and bright green eyes has stolen my heart. Days like that are the spoils of the young and stupid. They are to be forgotten or if you are lucky written and then disbelieved and hopefully enjoyed by an unassuming public. I smile when I think that I lived an experience which is considered so. It is my legacy. The stories that I have to tell are all I have of my youth. That and the pictures of me on that boat or with those girls, pictures which mean little and tell no tales. I caught many fish at the rig over the years and I kissed many girls and I have sailed many boats since. But this tale is mine of the day I caught the best of all.