© Copyright 2007 by Lance Wills
2007 General Nonfiction Winner
Photo by Alex Steyn on Unsplash
In 1980, I was hired as a deckhand aboard the oilfield supply vessel Commander Gail. I was 18-years-old and had no experience. I spent two months aboard the Gail, learning the meaning of work from hard men who toiled without complaint in fair weather and foul, under spartan conditions, isolated and far-removed from family and friends. Thrust together, my two crew mates and I gradually came to accept each other. Despite notable foibles, we parted as friends, never to see each other again.
I had just drifted off when Little Mike flipped on the overhead lights. He yanked open my jerk curtain and shook me roughly. “Wake up!” he said. I opened my eyes and looked at him. His bearded face hovered inches above my own. His lips were pulled into a lunatic’s grin, and his eyes were gleaming. “Come out on deck, quick!” he said. And nothing more. He left as abruptly as he had come, slamming the door behind him. It was 2:30 am.
I’d been working as a deckhand aboard the Commander Gail for two months. A 120-foot oilfield supply vessel, the Commander Gail functioned as a mobile storage platform, supplying offshore platforms with fresh water, diesel fuel, and equipment. For three months she had been tethered to a natural gas platform 100 miles south of Cameron, Louisiana. The platform was having mechanical problems, and the Commander Gail was on stand-by to evacuate the rig’s crewmembers in case it exploded.
I rolled out of my rack and pulled on a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and my steel toed boots I had no idea what was going on. I’d heard no alarms. The boat was quiet. I walked down the passageway and climbed the stairs to the galley. I’d been awake for nearly 24 hours, and I felt groggy and disoriented. My eyelids were sticking together, and my hands were swollen. I opened the galley hatch and stepped out onto the back deck.
I had seen some strange sights during my time aboard the Commander Gail: millions of sea trout migrating on the sea surface, their silver sides shimmering in the peach-colored glow of an oil rig’s halogen floodlights; a moray eel still biting more than a half-hour after it was decapitated; roustabouts initiating a greenhorn by slathering his naked genitals with pipe dope, a waterproof lubricating grease.
To that list I could now add another. Little Mike and the Commander Gail’s captain, Larry Tibedeaux, lay side by side on their stomachs, folded like towels over the bulwark circumscribing the back deck. The bulwark’s steel plating obscured their torsos, so that only their backsides and legs, jerking and kicking, were visible. I stared for a moment, my mind weighing the reasons why they would assume such a posture. Food poisoning, perhaps? A joke on the new guy?
I walked over and grabbed a leg from each, but the mystery only deepened. Both men were holding onto a line that ran along the Commander Gail’s rounded hull and disappeared into the black water beneath its stern. The line was taut. Whatever they were pulling against was pulling back, and whatever that was, was winning
“It’s heavy yeah,” said Captain Larry, grimacing. “Pull, goddamnit.”
“I am pulling,” said Little Mike. “Why’d you have to untie the bitter end?”
“Well I didn’t know it was going to be so goddamn heavy, did I? Besides, it didn’t feel so heavy when I first started pulling on it.”
“Yeah, well, it feels pretty heavy now,” said Little Mike. “I can’t hardly breathe.”
“Well stop breathing and start pulling.”
“I am pulling.”
I knew this line. Captain Larry had spent the previous afternoon rigging it into a hand line for game fish. He called big sport fish “Old Timers.” The hand line was simply constructed. It consisted of a 200 foot length of black, pencil-thick polyprophelene line, four plastic milk jugs for floatation, a length of steel wire for a leader, and a stainless steel swivel connected to a giant barbed hook. A side of Amberjack, a relative of the tuna family, served as bait.
Captain Larry spliced, lashed, and knotted together the hand line’s constituent parts with an easy expertise. A Cajun from Morgan City, Captain Larry was the son and grandson of Louisiana shrimp boat captains. He grew fishing the brown waters along the Gulf Coast, and he claimed he could smell shrimp on the breeze. He had hoped to become a shrimp boat captain himself, but he switched to oilfield work when shrimp populations collapsed in the early 1980s. He was in his mid-40s but looked older, with thinning blond hair and wrinkles around his brown eyes. A sullen man prone to mood swings, he eased his frustrations with deep inhalations of Lucky Strike unfiltered cigarettes.
“What do you think it is,” I asked him.
“A big fucking tarpon, I bet,” said Little Mike. “Maybe even a Marlin.”
“Ain’t no Tarpon,” said Captain Larry, “And it sure ain’t no fucking Marlin. Marlin move fast, man. Fight hard. Try to spit that hook out by flying out of the water. They don’t sit like this one. This ain’t no Marlin.”
The line was difficult to grip. It was slippery and hard as wire. With three of us pulling, the line slowly began to yield. It crept up over the rail, and we gradually assumed an upright posture. Little Mike threaded the line through the bollard and took a turn around its horn. The hand line vibrated under the strain, whipping the water like a chef’s whisk.
“Take another turn, Mike” yelled Captain Larry.
“It’s slipping. It’s slipping! Take another turn, goddamnit!”
Little Mike wove the line a few times around the bollard, locking the last turn with a half-hitch. Momentarily freed of our burden, we leaned over the railing and stared into the water, opening and closing our hands to work the stiffness from them.
It was a warm night. A soft, humid breeze ruffled my hair and fogged my glasses. Salt spray wafted on the wind, and diesel generators droned monotonously in the distance Floodlights mounted on the platform cleaved the night, encapsulating its superstructure in a corona of brilliant pink light. The glow reflected across the sea surface, creating a constantly shifting landscape of glittering reflections and deep shadow Fastened along the darkened horizon, the pulsing lights of a hundred oil platforms twinkled like a string of Christmas lights.
“Round two, boys,” said Captain Larry.
He eased off the wraps, and the three of us braced for the pull. Little Mike placed his boot on the rail, leaned backward, and pulled until he was standing nearly parallel with the deck. More of the black line inched over the railing. But despite our efforts, the object of our labors remained beyond our sight.
More than an hour had passed since we started pulling, and Captain Larry was growing increasingly agitated. His eyes had taken on a wild look that made me uncomfortable I’d seen it before. During a refueling stop in Sabine Pass, Texas, the three of us ordered up some drinks in a local tavern. Two Cajun shrimpers pulled up stools next to us. Captain Larry started talking to them. They switched to Cajun. The conversation grew heated. Captain Larry and one of the men began arguing, and in the moments before he leapt to his feet and punched the man squarely in the face, Captain Larry’s eyes burned with the same mixture of competitiveness and anger they contained now.
His mood had soured. “You guys pull like my 12-year-old niece,” Captain Larry sneered. “What’s the matter? You tired? You think this is hard? You’re pathetic. Neither of you’d last a day on a fishing boat. Pull!”
His ranting had the desired effect: we pulled until our hands burned and our breath came in gasps.
“We got this bastard by the balls yeah,” he whooped though a maniac’s grin. Little Mike edged close to the bulwark and looked over.
“I can see something,” he said.
Like most men nicknamed “little,” Little Mike was huge. A biker from the flatlands of Central Florida, Mike stood a full head taller than the Commander Gail’s overheads. He had a huge, hairy belly that drooped over his belt, and his arms were meaty trunks tattooed from wrists to armpits. Gold studs perforated his ear lobes, and rings festooned his fingers. Those rings were heavy, sharp-edged weapons that had slashed cheeks and shattered teeth in cinderblock saloons from El Paso to Daytona Beach. A racist and a thug, Little Mike liked to taunt the black roustabouts lowered on personnel baskets from the platform to the Commander Gail’s deck. He called them “Kunta” and “Kaffir” to their faces, but when they saw the eagerness in his eyes they wisely backed away.
A shadow appeared 20 feet below the surface. It circled in aimless, agitated ellipses. Its posture suggested anger rather than panic.
As it rose into the light, the shadow grew larger and more defined. Its was thick-bodied and powerful. Its pectoral fins sliced the water like wings, and its tail swept from side to side like a whip. Its sinister silhouette was instantly recognizable
“That’s a big fucking shark,” said Little Mike.
“Lance, get my gaff,” yelled Captain Larry, never taking his eyes off the apparition. His voice had risen a full octave above his normal speaking voice His commands were curt and sharp-edged, but I was grateful someone knew what to do.
“Mike, make that line fast,” he said. “Lance, get me a pair of pliers and a my gloves, too. Hurry!”
The line suddenly went slack. The water’s surface swelled. Moments later a huge gray head broke the surface. Black, baseball-sized eyes leered at us. For several moments the shark lay still, regarding us. Time dissolved. I felt a shiver of fear. “That’s a Tiger,” yelled Captain Larry. “Holy Jesus, we got us a Tiger!”
The hook had penetrated the floor of the Tiger’s mouth just inside its multi-layered rows of its teeth, and the barb had punched though the tough hide on the underside of its jaw. Blood smeared the animal’s mouth, turning its cavernous maw into a gory nightmare.
Little Mike wound the line around the bollard’s horn as I ran forward to Captain Larry’s gear locker. The wooden foot locker was secured by rope to a drain pipe just outside the galley door. I threw open the lid, but the box was cast in shadow. My hand discerned a chaotic assortment of fishing paraphernalia: spools of monofilament fishing line, fids and marlin spikes, a wooden mallet, filet knives, fishing hooks, electrical tape. I felt for the gaff’s wooden shaft. Seizing upon the gaff’s wooden shaft, I pulled it free of its clinging neighbors. Holding it before me, I thought ‘we’re going to need a bigger gaff.’
The animal erupted in seizures that churned the water. Its huge jaws, lined with rows of serrated teeth, opened to their full measure and crashed shut like a thick book slamming closed. Propelled by its great crescent tail, the shark heaved and bucked so violently that I thought the line would part. Every part of its body was in motion.
Little Mike leaned over the struggling animal. He stood silently, mesmerized by the animal’s fierce resistance. It was as though this violent man had discovered a kindred spirit, an essence condemned like him to a solitary life of constant motion by nature herself. The shark considered its quarry, it sensed its weakness, and when the opportunity arose it attacked with murderous violence. The shark showed no remorse, and neither did he.
“Mike, goddamnit, grab this line,” said Captain Larry. He held a short length of manila rope, which he cradled in his arms along with a pair of cable cutters, a walkie talkie and a harpoon he had retrieved from the Commander Gail’s forward storeroom. The harpoon had a telescoping aluminum shaft and a detachable point attached to a coiled length of line.
“Here, tie a slip knot into the end of this,” he said, grabbing the manila rope from Little Mike and tossing to toward me. While I tied the knot into the end of the rope, Captain Larry uncoiled the harpoon’s line and tied its bitter end to a pad eye welded to the deck. “Just in case we need it,” he said.
“Call the platform,” said Captain Larry, nodding at Little Mike. “Tell them we’re going to need their crane.”
“But it’s 4:30 in the morning,” said Little Mike. “Nobody’ll be awake.”
“There’ll be somebody awake. There better be, goddamnit, ‘cause if I lose this fish because they’re asleep at the wheel, there’s going to be some serious hell to pay. Call ‘em.”
“Sunco three six five five, Kilo Lima Alpha Charlie, this is the motor vessel Commander Gail, Whiskey Bravo Foxtrot Golf, calling on channel one two. Over.”
Moments passed but no response.
“Try them again,” Captain Larry said.
“Sunco three six five five, Kilo Lima Alpha Charlie, this is the motor vessel Commander Gail, Whiskey Bravo Foxtrot Golf, calling on channel one two. Please respond. Over.”
A sound like the boom of a drum reverberated throughout the ship as the shark beat itself against the Commander Gail’s hull. Each impact shook the vessel. This shark is a demon, I thought.
Captain Larry grabbed the manila rope and looped it around the hand line. He ran the bitter end though the eye and dropped the noose over the shark’s head. He pulled it tight and wove the slack line around the bollard. The shark fought against his binds with a renewed frenzy of thrashing, hammering its jaws ferociously and shaking its head like it was tearing the belly out of a tuna.
And then, slowly, its life began to ebb. Its struggles subsided, and the beast gradually grew still. Its black eyes stared indifferently at us. All was still but the wind and the sea.
The tension that made my heart race faded. In its place, a growing sense of regret. This elegantly evolved animal, so perfectly adapted and so pure of purpose, must be old to have grown so large. To have survived for so long in so hostile an environment meant it was strong and healthy and cunning. That such an animal should now hang so ingloriously from the end of a makeshift noose seemed manifestly unjust.
The walkie talkie squawked to life. “Motor vessel Commander Gail, Whiskey Bravo Foxtrot Golf, this is Sunco three six five five, Kilo Lima Alpha Charlie. Read you loud and clear on channel one two. Over.”
We started our engines, cast off our bow tether, and motored toward the platform. As Captain Larry explained our situation to the platform’s crane operator, he maneuvered the Commander Gail alongside the platform and held us in place. The platform’s crane rotated around and lowered its hook. I looped the manila line onto the hook and signaled the crane operator. The noose tightened, and the shark slowly rose from the water.
Its body seemed to go on forever. Dark stripes and black spots, barely discernable against its gray hide, spanned the length of the animal’s sides and back. Paddle-like pectoral fins jutted from its sides like wings, and a broad triangular dorsal fin rode atop its broad back. Beneath its white belly, a pair of foot-long claspers, the animal’s sex organs, hung like sausages. The body narrowed near the paired anal fins, and ended finally in a long crescent-shaped tail fin. The shark hung limply above the water, its 14-foot long body twisting slowly in the breeze.
“Hey,” Captain Larry shouted down to us. “The crane
operator says it weighs 1,500 pounds!”
I walked over and stood next to Little Mike. He seemed disturbed. “This ain’t right,” he said. “We shouldn’t be killing this thing. We should let it go.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a little late for that,” I said. “Look at him. He’s already dead.”
“Yeah, well, he should never have been caught in the first place.
From the aft control station, Captain Larry maneuvered the Commander Gail beneath the shark. When he was satisfied he motioned to the crane operator to lower it onto the back deck. The shark descended, its limp body coming to rest on the boat’s wooden plank deck. The great fish lay as still as stone.
From above, a cheer broke out among the roustabouts lining the platform’s railings Captain Larry shook his fists in triumph. With dawn breaking the eastern horizon, we maneuvered away from the platform and motored toward our floating tether line With the toss of a grappling hook, we retrieved the tether and secured it to a cleat on the bow. Captain Larry ordered Little Mike to secure the engines. The rumble of the diesels quieted, and the boat fell silent.
“Lordy, Lordy!” said Captain Larry, descending the ladder from the upper deck. “Have you ever in your whole life seen a fish like this one? Good God, it’s a monster. It’s like freaking Jaws, man!”
The shark lay on its belly, the manila rope imbedded in its gill slits Even in death, the shark impressed. The sleek profile that carved the water; the sensory pits that interrogated the ocean vastness for the slightest muscle twitch, a pressure wave, a drop of blood; the eyes that even in life appeared lifeless; those terrible jaws that pulverized its prey.
Captain Larry inspected his prize. He walked around the corpse, stroking its sand paper hide. He poked and prodded its flesh. He traced the curvature of its dorsal fin When he rounded the animal’s head he kneeled before it and peered into its sinister picket fence of serrated teeth. He pushed heavily against the upward curvature of its snout, opening the dark maw of its mouth.
Suddenly the Tiger sprang to life. Arching its back, it swung its head sharply to the right, its conical snout striking Captain Larry mid-chest like a sledgehammer, the force of the blow sending him flailing across the deck. Its tail fin sliced the air to the left, sweeping the wood deck planks with a sandpaper scrape. Straining for contact, its jaws bit the air, the porcelain teeth clashing like knives, its anger and desperation combining in a final, futile assault. The shark shivered like an epileptic, the seizures creating a harmonic that rattled the decks beneath our feet. Its struggles continued for some moments, but inevitably its energies began to fade. Slowly its rage subsided. Its movements slowed. It laid down its head, and it died.
The suddenness with which the shark had come back to life had caught us unaware. For several moments we gathered our wits while adrenaline raced though our veins.
“Goddamn,” said Captain Larry, rubbing the abrasion on his chest. “I wish my daddy could have seen this fish. We used to haul up sharks sometimes in our nets, little black tips or a hammerhead or something, but nothing like this This thing’s bigger than my truck. Goddamn.”
“We should have let it go,” said Little Mike, returning from the engine room.
“Let it go? What in hell are you talking about, let it go. Let it go? People fish their whole lives to land a fish like this, and you say ‘let it go?’” He nodded toward me that Mike had gone crazy. “Let him go, he says.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Let it go. Catching a tuna or mahi is one thing, but this….”
“What? You got something against sharks? You think sharks are special? This one would’ve treated you real special…”
“This ain’t just some fish you fry up for dinner. This is an apex predator, and it died for no reason at all.”
“This is a what…?” Captain Larry jeered. “An predator, what? Apex? What the hell is that? Apex. You learn that in school? Ah, you’re nuts. You gone crazy in the head.”
Captain Larry walked over to his fishing gear locker and threw open the lid. He grabbed a filet knife and a pair of pliers and stomped back to the shark. “Let it go, he says.” He stabbed the knife into the shark’s throat next to the hook. He pulled its shaft though the wound, cut the hand line, and tossed the hook onto the deck. The jaws were next. As if carving a pumpkin, he plunged the knife into the tissue surrounding the mouth. The thin metal blade made a sharp scraping sound as it sliced though the rough skin around the mouth and severed the viscera surrounding the jaw cartilage. He traced around the mouth’s curvature, sawing the blade back and forth, until he held the bloody jaws in his hand.
Little Mike turned and walked toward the galley door. “You should have let him go,” he said.
“Hey, fuck off,” said Captain Larry. “Last time I looked I was still master of this vessel. You don’t like it, you can find another job.”
“Maybe I will,” said Little Mike.
That afternoon, with the sun high overhead and the temperature rising, we rolled the reeking carcass across the deck and pushed it over the side. We watched it sink into the blue water, descending through shafts of sunlight, until it disappeared from sight. No one said a word.
That night I sat on the bow beneath of canopy of stars. The boat was quiet. Captain Larry had turned in early. He had spent much of the day cleaning the flesh from his gory trophy. They hung like a totem from the bollards on the back deck. A yard wide, the jaws fit easily over my hips.
As I reflected on the day’s events, Little Mike walked up to the bow and stood next to me in the dark. We stared at the heavens for a long time. The warm wind that had blown earlier in the day had disappeared. The water was mirror smooth, and the stars cast down their reflections like stripes upon the sea.
“I used to think that people were bad,” he said finally, “but now I think they’re just stupid.”
“I always thought people were stupid,” I said, “but I thought they were getting smarter.”
“Maybe some are, but I don’t know any. You?”
“I know a few. Thank God for them, too. If it weren’t for smart people, we’d all still be living in caves.”
“…or working at sea,” he said. “But we’re all supposed to be getting smarter. I pay school taxes so that idiots like us can be educated into geniuses.”
“Schools can teach you a lot of things, but they can’t teach you wisdom You have to do that yourself. Captain Larry knew exactly how to catch that shark, but he wasn’t wise enough to know that maybe he shouldn’t have
“Yeah, well, that ain’t going to happen no more. Captain’s shark fishing days are over, least while I’m aboard.”
Little Mike held out his palm. It contained all of Captain Larry’s shark hooks, perhaps 15 in all, most of them brand new and still bearing their price tags. One by one he dropped them into the water, where they made a curt plop!
“He’s not going to be happy,” I said. A small smile formed on Little Mike’s face.
“I know,” he said. “I ain’t stupid…just bad.”
My sailing career that began on the Commander Gail continues to this day. During the last 25-years, I've worked aboard commercial fishing vessels, merchant ships, and for the last 20 years, oceanographic research vessels. I'm currently sailing aboard the research vessel Atlantis, mothership to Alvin, the manned submersible famous for its exporations of the Titanic. I recently graduated from the journalism department of the University of Florida's Graduate School of Journalism and Communications, and I hope to become a freelance science writer.
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