Saturday 6 December 2014

ARC 2014 Day Thirteen

We have been sailing on a broad reach all day, making reasonable progress and hitting our target of 200 miles in the past 24 hours, despite one hour of the day when we were almost stationary, all eyes focussed on the action at the stern of the boat.

It has been a relaxing day today after our drama with the spinnaker yesterday. The rope burns on Fatty’s fingers are mending slowly but she is limited in what she can do around the boat. Despite this she stood mother watch yesterday and served up some delicious salads. Kerry and I were on deck after lunch when we hear the unmistakable mechanical chatter of the fishing reel.  Ever since my father first taught me to fish, the sound of the ratchet as the line pulls against the brake has always made my pulse quicken.  My early memories were fishing for the legendry Mahseer on the Borelli river in India, then fly fishing for brownies in the lochs in Scotland, and later in my adulthood, for marlin in the Seychelles, salmon in Russia and for bone fish in the Bahamas. Despite my fortune to be able to fish in such great locations, I am not the most prolific fisherman, as Fatty will attest, but I do know a big fish when I see one and we have one on the line today.

The line is still racing out as I strap on my harness and lift the rod out of its holder on the guardrail and slot it into the socket on my belt.  I brace myself against the rail on the aft deck and tighten up the brake on the ratchet to slow the fishes run. This always requires a delicate touch: too little and the fish will strip out all the backing, too much and it can snap the bright fluorescent monofilament line like a thread. However as I slide the lever on the reel forward to engage the brake further, the line continues to strip and the additional load is transferred through the rod onto my arms. Still the line races out and by now I estimate that we have 500 metres in the water and no sign of it slowing. Gingerly I apply more pressure to the brake, grateful for the immense strength of the big Penn reel given to me by my crew on our last ARC in 2012.  I can really feel the weight of the fish now as the ratchet starts to slow and I struggle to hold the rod upright. Another early lesson from my father is that it is essential to take the weight of the fish on the rod as it arcs into the fish and absorbs the shock loads that would otherwise break the line.

By now we are all on deck, the sails are furled and the boat is moving slowly to reduce further the load. Finally the ratchet stops and the pressure comes hard onto the rod and line. Already I am struggling to hold the rod upright and Paul, Kerry and Fatty take it in turns to brace the rod so that I can ease the strain on my arms and shoulders. I estimate that of the 1,000 metres on the reel, most of it has been stripped by the fish with maybe 800 metres streaming out the back of the boat. I thumb the line to test the tension and it plucks like piano wire, taught to the point where it resonates with a high pitch hum and I fear it is near breaking. I tell myself that soon the fish will tire and swim towards us in an attempt to ease the pressure of the hook in its mouth, but 30 minutes into the fight and there is no sign of this fish tiring. I try to recover some line by pumping the rod but I can barely turn the handle on the reel.  As if to admonish us for this audacity the fish kicks again and another twenty metres goes into the sea.

By now my arms are aching, but I find it awesome that this huge unseen beast under the sea is effortlessly out manning us, despite the very best rod and reel and the manpower of four people taking turns to check his run. An hour into the fight and still no sign of the pressure easing; in fact every so often the ratchet clicks again and I imagine the fish flicking its tail in irritation at this irksome object in its mouth.  We start to think through the options. If we start the engine and motor towards the fish we might be able to take in some line or it might simply head off again towards Africa with us motoring after it losing precious hard-fought miles. If we are able to get the fish to the boat there is no way that we cold manhandle it onto the deck and in any event a fish of this size on a sailboat is a dangerous combination so we would have to cut the line in any event.  So reluctantly, I hold the rod away from me, shut my eyes to minimise the whiplash, and Paul cuts the line that vanishes immediately and the fish is gone. They say that fish work hooks out of their mouth overtime but I imagine the poor animal with half a mile of monofilament line attached to it. At least there is nothing for it to get snagged on out here in the ocean where the sea is four miles deep.

It’s another fisherman’s yarn of the one that got away but I can confidently say that despite having caught big sea fish before in the Indian Ocean I have never experienced the power on the rod that I felt today.  It is a salutary reminder that we are intruders in a vast wilderness, where huge beasts roam the hidden depths of the oceans, their natural habitat, not ours.  As my father would have said; ‘Son, it was a whopper’.

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