Just after leaving Barbados, Quest was sailing under a lovely broad reach. The wind was on our port side, slightly behind us. With a little bit of main and a full genoa out, we were flying along. Fishing-wise while we sail, Jack always puts his rod out to trawl behind Quest. We’ve had mixed results from this. In our three sailing seasons in the Caribbean, most of the time there’s no interest. None. Sometimes we catch barracuda which look like culinary-depressants and sometimes small tunas. We let both go. Go live your life, we like to say. Plus, Delphine doesn’t like the fish dying in Quest’s cockpit and we respect that. But if it’s a mahi-mahi/dorado/dolphinfish, then the decision is made. These fish are unbelievably delicious. Oh Mahi-Mahi, magnificent mohican-blunt-head; why do you have to taste so good?
Every once in a while a big fish hits, and always while we’re offshore. When it happens, either the fishing line breaks or the lure is taken. Or both. This time with Barbados behind us like it was still waving good-bye, the line began to whir. Before we could even scratch our heads, the fish ran off with 700m of our 1000m line. All the while, Jack was holding onto the rod, trying to tighten the gears on the reel. He bought this reel about two years ago. Solid, mid-range expensive. Eventually he found a knob that he hadn’t known existed before and turned it as far as it would go. And then some. Finally, the line went tight. Really, really tight.
Hmm. ‘What are we going to do?’ Even as I asked it, I winced. This obvious question was like admitting defeat already. This was because normally the show would be over by now. The rod would have gone slack with a fish this size. The fish would have been powerful enough to snap the line or saw through the lure. Not this fish though. For some unknown underwater reason, this fish was holding on.
‘Well, we can’t let it go trailing 700m of line,’ Jack said hoarsely, re-adjusting the butt of the rod so it didn’t cause gangrene in his ghoulies. ‘It wouldn’t be right.’ I gulped and nodded. After all, we’d been stupid enough to let out a fishing line into the Atlantic Ocean without a rod holder, a harness or those ridiculous chairs you strapped yourself into. I watched the rod flex now like it was trying to make out an alphabet letter. Those chairs didn’t seem so ridiculous now.
Inch by inch, we reeled the line in. The slowest thing on Earth would have looked at us and thought, man, you’re slow. We all sat and held onto the fishing rod while Jack reeled it in. Then, when he looked like he’d landed on the other side of knackered, I offered to have a go. I never thought you could feel a fish through a long piece of plastic string. Holding onto the reel, it was like playing the telephone string game without the plastic cups. I managed to get a few full turns on the reel as if the fish was taken aback. Then it got over any apparent surprise. The rod began to twitch unbearably. Even secured by the tightest gear on the reel, the fish weighed in on the line and the line began to slip backwards again. Buoyed by the oldest game in the world, tug-of-war, instinctively I pulled the rod back.
‘No,’ Jack said to me, ‘when it fights, you have to let it fight. You have to let it run.’
Great. No wonder the game of fishing rewards the patient. For the next two hours, we did just that. Back and forth. The fish dived, then got tired and then spent periods of time where it just seemed magnificently pissed off. All the while we held. Another inch. And then another. Hemingway wrote a whole book about this, I thought grudgingly. Indeed, as if on cue Jack said, ‘It would be handy if a shark took a bite out of it now. Half for us, half for the shark. Fair’s fair.’ I shrugged. Not quite fair for the fish though.
This brought the whole subject of fish identification to the surface. The whole time the fish had fought us, we hadn’t seen it. There had been no aerial battle. Still over twenty meters away, we were now catching glimpses of a wash, like a rolling wave coming towards us but there was no sign of fishy flesh.
‘Do you think it could be a shark?’ I asked, gritting my teeth. Holding onto the rod, my right arm was cramping up badly. I looked at it accusingly.
‘I don’t think so,’ Jack muttered. ‘I don’t have any steel trace on the line. A shark probably would have sawed through it by now.’
‘Right.’ I carried on frowning at my arm.
Lulu, the ever-enthusiastic fish catcher, turned to Jack. ‘It’s coming closer!’ she exclaimed. ‘Shall I open the gates?’
Jack shook his head. At that moment, we were using the back gates to plant our feet against. Without the gates, the fish would have happily pulled the rod, line and us out. ‘Not just yet sweetheart.’
At the same time, we were starting to become aware that Quest was dancing. George, our auto-pilot, was holding nicely but the conditions were becoming larger. Without the protection of Barbados, the bright blue waves rolled towards our side. Waves are funny things; they can look huge and scary. Quest seems to love them. It’s as if she was sitting on anchor, waiting. Like she’d been a leashed dog staring at squirrels. Out here, she was sucking the waves up and under her and spitting them out on the other side. We were rolling along. Quest’s leash was off.
By now, she was pulling another passenger too. We had slowed down by a good knot in speed. We’d gone from 6 knots to five, while our passenger was connected by a single spider web line. It’s wave was looking more like a small tsunami. And getting closer.
‘It’s two waves behind us,’ I said.
Jack nodded at my words but his eyes stayed on the water. We’d held this creature, felt its mood, stopped it from the instinctive dive. This creature was in charge of its destiny. No one told it what to do.
‘It’s going to make one more run when it sees us,’ Jack said. The fish was five metres away now. The butt of the fishing rod was now pressing into our very high-tech, bespoke fishing arrangement; a saloon pillow. ‘When it sees us, it’s going to try to run.’
I picked up the binoculars. It might see us but I still couldn’t see it. Despite the closeness, despite the sargassum piling up in touching distance on the line. The fish never showed itself. The rod gave an extra twist, an extra shriek from the line. I was still looking for the fish when the explosion came. First thought; the autopilot? I put the binoculars down. No, it was clear that George was still steering with his ghostly hands. Quest’s wheels were moving as normal.
‘The reel exploded.’ Jack said. There was no longer tension on the rod. He pulled in the last 5 of the 700 metres of line. It was all there. The white jelly lure was there too. Only the reel wasn’t turning anymore. The gears had popped and broken.
For a little while, we were silent. I flexed my arms. The muscles burned. All of this and we’d only just started our sail. And we had another potentially gruelling 250nm to get to Trini. The trade winds definitely weren’t giving us any sympathetic looks. Finally, I asked, ‘What kind of fish holds on for 695 metres and then lets go?’
The answer was written on Jack’s face. It had never been ours. We’d just dipped into its power for a little while. Jack held up his broken, albeit still solid-looking reel. His smile stretched from ear to ear.
‘A fabulous fish.’