If you return me, to my home port,
I will kiss you mother earth.
Take me back now, take me back now,
To the port of my birth.
–I’m Your Captain Grand Funk Railroad 1970
I had always dreamed of going on a deep-sea fishing excursion. The romantic vision of me on a boat, suntanned arms hauling in a 200 pound fish, is crystal clear in my mind; with sweat dripping from my brow as I fight the monster for three hours, finally hauling him in. The captain of the boat congratulates me, telling me it’s the largest fish he’s ever seen. Later, on the pier I stand next to my trophy, hanging by its tail, nose dragging the deck, as a crowd of onlookers push to get a closer look, amazed at what they see; all while my picture is taken by numerous photographers representing newspapers from surrounding towns. Yes, I had a dream, or rather a fantasy that no actual event could ever live up to and in fact would turn out to be much different from what I had envisioned.
After Christopher was transferred to Fort Bragg for his Green Beret training, I finally realized that Fayetteville, North Carolina was only ninety miles from the Atlantic Coast; Wilmington being the most direct destination. I began doing some research, thinking that this might be the opportunity to fulfill my lifelong dream. I had an opportune moment a few years earlier when Julie and I had vacationed in Ixtapa, Mexico. At the resort there was a sign up sheet for anyone interested in a deep-sea excursion; the fish of choice: marlin. I immediately signed up, but as the day approached I was informed that not enough had signed up and the event was cancelled. To say I was disappointed would be a gross understatement. I thought I may never get the chance again. Wilmington, North Carolina would seemingly give me the chance to make up for lost time.
I began to research on the internet a variety of fishing outfits. I found their websites engrossing and most had exciting videos of prior fishing trips. Everything I had imagined seemed to be fulfilled in these videos. Large fish after large fish was hauled in (marlin, grouper, mahi-mahi, tuna, king mackerel, snapper, amberjacks, etc.) with everyone on the boat seemingly having a great time, high fives all around at each catch. One outfitter even had bikini clad “mates” to help bring the fish aboard once it was reeled to the side of the boat; a bonus to be sure. I watched the videos over and over, helping to keep the dream alive and make the long winter tolerable.
I found an outfitter that fit my needs (specific need being price; I’ve been known to be frugal or cheap depending on who you ask) and contacted Captain Bill to see if a date was available during a planned trip to Fayetteville. He had a decent sized boat according to the picture, and he had a grizzled, experienced look about him that said to me, “This guy knows what he’s doing and knows how to get into the fish.” He asked for half the money up front and the remainder to be paid upon arrival. I informed Christopher and he was as excited as me. Now to wait out the next few months until Memorial Day weekend arrived.
Julie and I arrived in Fayetteville on a Wednesday and the only thing on my mind was the extended weather forecast; it looked good for Friday. I called Captain Bill and he informed me that it would be better to call him the night before as the forecast on the ocean could change from moment to moment. I called him Thursday night and told him that the report I saw was forecasting decent winds with two foot waves. I wasn’t sure if two foot waves were bad enough to cancel the trip, but when he said that they wouldn’t be an issue, I was excited as I hung up the phone.
We got up early Friday and packed a cooler of food and drinks; the girls joining us as we drove the ninety miles to Wilmington. The girls were intending to hang out at the beach while we fished. When we finally reached the harbor, I was concerned with a couple of things. One, the boat didn’t look as big as it had in the videos and so I asked Captain Bill about it. He said the boat they normally used was in the shop getting repairs, but this one would do. I was satisfied, but a bit suspicious as this boat looked more like the ones I saw going up the Cape Fear River; not quite the seaworthy outfit I had in mind. Nevertheless, he was the captain and I was the novice, so I let it go. My second concern; the eastern sky was dark, the wind was blowing rather briskly and the waves were showing whitecaps. Again, I deferred to the captain who said, “We’ll go offshore a few miles and see if it isn’t a bit calmer out there.” I asked how high these waves closer to the shore were and he replied, “Two feet.” I noticed one more thing that concerned me; the captain had a cast on his right leg and like the boat, he was not quite at full strength. At this point I decided to take a couple of more Dramamine. (Oh, and I did see that we too had a first mate, but he wasn’t wearing a bikini; I guess that’s what I get for being cheap.)
We kissed the girls goodbye, paid the captain the remaining fee and climbed aboard; excited about and anticipating a grand adventure. It took about thirty minutes to get into open water and the anticipation was getting to me. I looked at Christopher and he also seemed antsy. Something else was beginning to get to me as we hit the open water and the boat began to roll, up and down over wave after wave. The intensity and size of the waves increased the farther out we went and along with the rolling sea my stomach was rolling toward queasy. I had taken two Dramamine, but decided it was time to take another. The sea wasn’t getting calmer as the captain conjectured, rather it was getting worse. When I tried to use the bathroom, the ship was lurching so badly I couldn’t stand in one place, and spent more time trying to keep my balance than do what I went in there to do. As I went back out to the rear of the boat, we hit a huge swell and a cooler and its contents as well as much of Captain Bill’s personal belongings flew off the upper deck and landed at our feet. It was rough. I tried to hide from Christopher the fear I was feeling, but I kept thinking of the possibility of the entire boat, passengers and crew ending up on the bottom of the sea.
I finally decided to climb up to talk with the captain, staggering across the deck and climbing gingerly up the ladder, unsure if our current course was something we wanted to continue. “Hey Captain Bill, how high are these waves anyway?” He studied the horizon for a moment and responded, “They look to be about six feet, maybe seven.” I then asked, “Well, what does that mean?” He was short with his response, “That means the water’s rough.”
At that point I went down to let Christopher know the good news. In the meantime the first mate began putting some lines in the water and he placed Christopher and I in position to reel in a fish as the opportunity arose. The pitching of the ship didn’t subside and to keep from losing my breakfast I stared at the line going into the water to remain focused. I didn’t have a mirror, but I’m guessing my skin tone was a shade of green. I held on to the side of the boat with one hand and the chair with my other. As I stared out into the dark gray sea, waves tossing to and fro, dark clouds on the horizon, I wondered if I had made the right decision in booking this trip. Catching fish was not on my list of concerns at this time.
A few minutes later we noticed the first mate and the captain having a serious conversation on the upper deck. Captain Bill then came down and met with Christopher and I. “We’re going to take her back in closer to shore to see if we can find calmer waters. We’re out about twenty miles so it will take a while to get back to shallower water. Just sit tight.” Christopher and I looked at each other and it was evident that neither one of us had a problem with the captain’s direction. I sat there thinking that the dreams I had of that wonderful deep-sea fishing excursion were fading fast. Off in the east there were dark clouds and lightning and the closer we got to shore, the more satisfied I was.
We finally reached a point about a mile off shore where the water was calmer. The first mate put out the lines again and we began trolling the shallower waters. At one point the first mate shouted, “Hey, you’ve got a fish on.” I hadn’t noticed the pole bending or the line tightening up, but I grabbed the pole and began reeling it in. I finally saw on the end of the line what all the fuss was about. It was a Spanish Mackerel, about twelve inches in length. It didn’t even put up a fight, the lure itself giving just as much resistance. Again I thought to myself, “I can catch fish bigger than this back in the Ozarks on the Big Piney.” Christopher was busy reeling in his “trophy” and I could see that he wasn’t exactly enjoying the moment. This went on for about a half an hour and I was getting more and more frustrated by the minute.
There were surfers in the water around us and paddle boats and little sailboats moving past us into deeper water; this wasn’t exactly what I had paid for. Where was the deep blue sea, the spray of the surf in my face, my suntanned arms, and the three-hour fight with my huge trophy fish? My body language and facial expressions must have hinted to the captain that this trip was going nowhere fast. Another meeting between the first mate and Captain Bill took place on the upper deck as Christopher and I remained on alert; after all, we didn’t want to miss catching those twelve-inch mackerels. Captain Bill came down to meet with us again. “Guys, we’ve decided to cut this trip in half. We’ll give you half of your money back. I’d like to do more, but we have to pay for the fuel and our time.” It didn’t take Christopher and me long to acquiesce; the beach and the girls suddenly quite appealing.
As we rode the thirty minutes back to the pier, I could only think of what could have been. The disappointment was written all over my face and I could see it in Christopher’s too. We finally made it back to shore where the girls picked us up and we headed to the beach. They tried their best to console us and only laughed at us a few times. We ended up having a great day; the sun came out, the waves calmed down and the beach was a blast. In the back of my mind I wondered if I would ever attempt a deep-sea fishing trip in the future, considering how this one had turned out. I think I would, but if the waves were six feet high I would give the captain this advice: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”.