Captain Jack’s Deep-Sea Fishing
Niles M Reddick
When Lee’s dad, who was our manager at the Ponderosa, said he would take us deep sea fishing in the Atlantic off the coast of Jacksonville, I wasn’t sure. I had been in Bass boats in ponds and lakes and even in the alligator infested Okefenokee Swamp in rural Southern Georgia, but I had never been on a boat in the ocean and wasn’t sure I wanted to see “Jaws” in the real world any more than I had wanted to in the theatre when a group of us had seen the film when it was first released.
There were four of us, plus Lee’s dad, and we each had to pitch in to cover the costs. The others were stoked to deep sea fish. I figured if we went too far from land, we would have life vests and rafts in case something happened, so I said I’d go, too. I wasn’t sure what would happen at the Ponderosa restaurant since we were busboys and dishwashers, but Lee’s dad said some of the cooks were going to assist while we were away for the day.
Lee’s dad drove their family’s Bonneville, and with the early morning darkness, the cool wind blowing in the open window vents, Lee’s dad’s Marlboro smoke, and the plush seats, I drifted. The sun hadn’t risen when we arrived at the marina, and Captain Jack wasn’t all that friendly and smelled of stale beer. He tossed some ice bags in a cooler, cranked the old boat, and unraveled ropes tied to the dock. He warned us, “You boys watch your step and don’t slip.”
We had all worn our Sears tennis shoes, gym shorts, and t-shirts. I had wrongly assumed the boat would have a restroom and asked.
“You can hang it over the side or use my bucket in the cabin,” he said. We only had one shared bathroom in our house, but we never used it at the same time or with the door open, and I didn’t feel comfortable everyone on the boat watching everyone else, but using the restroom was the least of my worries.
Moving through the harbor in the still water was nice, and light showed just at the horizon. I imagined it would make a great painting. Once the boat passed the rock jetty, we rollicked up and down like we were riding a mechanical bull in a cowboy bar, and Jeff, the buffest and toughest guy among us threw up the biscuits, eggs, and bacon his mom had made him for breakfast.
Captain yelled over the motor and crashing waves, “Boy, you’ll be alright. My first time out, I got seasick, too.”
I was queasy, but I held my cinnamon pop tarts. Once we were out, the water was calmer, and land disappeared. We came to a stop and bobbed up and down. The Captain tossed the anchor over, told us it was a good area because of a shipwreck below, and helped us bait the hooks with small fish. I wasn’t quite sure how he knew there was a shipwreck, but I didn’t want to question him and get him angry. After all, he was in charge, and I had been taught not to question those in authority.
I had been used to red wrigglers or earthworms to catch bream or chicken livers to catch catfish. He showed us how to cast and cautioned us to hold the rods tight and with both hands. Within five minutes, Lee, his dad, and Jeff had bites and yelled, reeled, and pulled their red snapper and sea bass into the boat and tossed them in the cooler. For the next six hours, we did one repeat performance after another, catching over two hundred pounds.
At one point, we saw a huge vessel about a mile away, and Captain Jack shared from his binoculars, “She’s Russian, probably spying.” It seemed frightening to me given the escalation of rhetoric Dan Rather shared on the nightly news about Reagan and Gorbachev. I only hoped that if tensions escalated while we were at sea, that we would be the least of their concern.
Lee’s dad cut the heads off fish and tossed a bucket load overboard and I felt the boat bump. I turned and looked down into the water and watched a shark’s fin glide through the water around the boat. I whispered to Joe, “Did you see it?”
“Hell, yeah, I saw it. It’s huge.”
“He’s not as big as Jaws, but he was still big,” Joe said.
I hadn’t thought about the life jackets or rafts since I had initially committed, but I didn’t see them anywhere, and suddenly, I wasn’t sure who I wanted more—my parents or Jesus. Quite frankly, either would have sufficed.
After a few minutes,“Jaws’” fin disappeared into the murky deep, and the fish stopped biting. The Captain said he thought it would take about an hour to get back, and I felt elated the adventure was almost over like my first ride on Disney’s Space Mountain, my first drive on the interstate, feeling almost blown off the road by the eighteen wheelers, or even the first football game we lost, but I also felt between the Russian ship and the shark, I was reassured that land was where I belonged. Unfortunately, we had a way to go before we reached land, and as we bumped and busted each wave, I noticed a dense fog surrounding us, and Captain Jack slowed the boat.
“Gonna have to slow her down, boys. Never know what you might hit in a fog. Instruments and radio don’t work.”
“Did he say what I think he said?” Joe asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t like this.”
“You think we’re in the Bermuda Triangle and might disappear?”
“Shut up, Joe, or I’ll make you disappear.” I didn’t tell Joe I had already thought the same thing, but we had recently completed Geography with old man Ferguson who showered the front row with spit, and I remember the triangle was further South near the Bahamas.
“One of you boys needs to get up there on the bow and look port and starboard to make sure nothing is in the way.”
I was relieved Jeff sprinted into action. Every now and again, Jeff yelled “Looks clear”. I imagined ghost pirate ships and fins surrounding us, but I changed my thoughts to family and prayed that if we made it home, that I would stop conjuring nude images of the Morgan twins in class. It wasn’t my first broken promise and wouldn’t be the last.
We heard the bell on a buoy and barely missed running into it, but Captain Jack said he knew exactly where we were and which direction to take. The closer we got to land, the more the fog cleared, and especially when the jetty appeared in my vision, I felt I could swim if needed. When the boat bumped into the dock at the marina, I didn’t help unload the coolers of fish. I headed inside the market to the restroom and vowed if I ever went fishing in the sea again, I would stay on or near the jetty, stay close enough to see land, make sure to have life vests and a raft handy, and go on a boat with a restroom.