Summer at Sea

How I Talked My Way Into a Dream Job - And Became a Marlin Man.

Field & Stream Online Editors

At 18 all I wanted to do was ship out on a tramp steamer and work my way around the world, seeking wild adventure in foreign ports of call. My parents shot down that idea."You're going to college in September," they insisted. Unwilling to scuttle entirely my hankering for seaborne adventure, I drove down to the docks at Brielle, New Jersey, and started looking for a summer job on a sport-fishing boat. There wouldn't be any foreign ports, but at least I'd be going to sea. Trouble was, the charter-boat captains only hired experienced men. As a kid fresh out of high school who'd never been out on blue water, I didn't have much to offer but enthusiasm. But one marina manager suggested I try the Bat. "Captain fired his mate this morning," he said.

The Bat was a handsome 52-footer with a long harpooning pulpit off the bow, a flying bridge, four fighting chairs in the cockpit, and chrome-fitted outriggers. Used for impressing and entertaining clients for the company that owned her, she was the best-looking boat in the harbor. Capt. Steve Gaskill was sitting in the stern with his feet propped on the rail, puffing on a cigar.

"Heard you might be looking for a mate," I said.

"You a mate?" he snapped.

"No, but I'd like to be."

"You know how to run a boat like this?" he growled.

"No. I want to learn how."

"What do you know about deep-sea fishing?"

"Zip. I want to learn that, too."

"You don't know how to handle a boat or fish, yet you want a job on the finest boat in the harbor?" he snarled.

"Thought I'd try," I said.

Capt. Steve's deeply tanned face broke into a smile.

"All right," he said. "I'll give you a chance. I've had it with mates telling me how to run my boat. I'm ready to hire a damn fool who admits he doesn't know anything-and teach him to do things my way. But the Boss is coming in a week, and you're going to have to be a fully trained mate by then."

He set me to work polishing chrome way out on the harpooning pulpit. Tossing waves from passing boats caused it to plunge up and down, and the little can of polish fell overboard. I glanced up and saw Capt. Steve watching. Fully clothed, I dove into the water, grabbing the can before it could reach the bottom. When I surfaced I held the can up for Capt. Steve to see.

"Good thing you got it," he growled.

For the next week Capt. Steve drilled me. Each morning I painted, scrubbed, polished, sanded, and varnished. But in the afternoon we put out to sea, and he taught me how to rig for offshore trolling and how to handle fish. He taught me to crimp wire, sew fresh baits, gaff fish in the head and not the flesh, and how to swing them up and into the fish box in one smooth motion.

"When the Boss hooks a big fish, he always screws his drag down too tight. Don't give him instructions-he'll bite your head off," Capt. Steve told me. "Just reach over and loosen the drag."

The Gulf Stream is a distinct current that swirls through the ocean like a huge river. One minute you're in regular green seawater, then you cross a wandering weedline and the water on the other side is dark blue. That's the Gulf Stream. It comes out looking like that from the Gulf of Mexico and keeps its color and tropical temperature all the way north to Cape Cod, then turns east and heads for Europe. Every kind of pelagic gamefish cruises in this warm, blue flow.

Once we crossed into the Gulf Stream with the Boss, Capt. Steve cut the 300-horse Chryslers back to trolling speed. The Boss watched me put skip baits on the outrigger lines and drop them back 150 feet. He loomed over me as I rigged feather lures on the flat lines at 100 feet and sewed baits on the snubber lines close behind the boat. After I adjusted the reels and put the rods in their holders, he yanked them out and checked my drag settings. He was a bi florid guy with a manner that said he took fishing seriously. I knew I was being measured.

I barely had the lines out when a big dorado flashed yellow behind the starboard skip bait. I yanked the rod out of its holder, jammed it into the gimbal in the Boss's fighting chair, and pushed the rod into his hands. I cleared the other lines, then I stood beside the chair, occasionally adjusting the drag. The big bull dolphin tore the sea apart.

When the swivel finally came up to the rod tip, I motioned to the Boss to stop reeling. With gloves on, I handlined the fish up to the boat, then smacked the gaff into its gills and heaved-too hard. The dolphin came flying over the transom, sailed over my shoulder, and smacked the Boss full in the chest. He swore heroically and shoved the flopping dolphin back at me. I met the heavy fish halfway, tackling it with both hands as it slithered across the deck. I got my fingers into its gills and hugged it to me as I lunged toward the open fish box, then fell headfirst into the box with the fish.

When I emerged, spattered with blood and slime, the Boss was staring at me. He whipped a Colt Woodsman from the holster on his hip, took aim at a dead Portuguese man-of-war that was floating past, and popped it. I knew he was pretending it was me.

"I covered for you," Capt. Steve said after the Boss had gone home. "I told him you were a marlin man, hadn't done much with dolphin."

A marlin man? The only marlin I'd ever seen were hanging on walls.

The next week we carried company clients every day. They were easy to please, and I got lots of practice on big bluefish, dolphin, and tuna. By the end of the week I could run the lines, land the fish, dress the catch, and have the boat washed down by the time we reached the inlet. When the Boss came down again, I was ready.

We were out on the Gulf Stream, trolling skip baits over the white-topped swells, when I spotted a narrow black fin that curved at the top, and the tip of a tail fin following. Capt. Steve had told me about these.

"Marlin!" I shouted. "Starboard side."

"Cut in front of him," the Boss yelled. "I want that fish!"

When the baits dragged into its view, the big fish sounded.

"Get ready!" Capt. Steve called. "When he comes up, he'll strike!"

We saw the marlin rise behind the bait. Reflecting rainbow colors, it crashed on the bait with a splash like a horse falling off a bridge. I grabbed the rod, free-spooled the line as the fish ran, then levered the reel into gear, hammered the hook home, and jammed the rod butt into the Boss's chair. I had left the drag on a light setting so the fish could run while I cleared the other lines. But the Boss hated to see line going out, so he cranked down on the drag. I dove for the reel, but I was too late. There was a crack like a rifle shot when the line broke.

"Dammit," the Boss snapped, "that was a big fish."

I saw Capt. Steve up on the bridge with his finger to his lips, cautioning me not to criticize the Boss's drag setting.

"Fish that big, you can't stop him," I said anyway. "Better to let him run 'til he begins to tire." The Boss just stared at me.

Half an hour later, I saw another marlin sunning itself and sang out.

Capt. Steve swung the boat so the baits dragged in front of the fish. A moment later the Boss was hooked up to an enormous marlin that was greyhounding over the crests, heading for Spain. This time I stayed beside the fighting chair. Whenever the Boss cranked down on the drag, I backed it off. As the fish finally tired, Capt. Steve turned the boat and ran with the marlin so the Boss could gain line.

We got close, backing down on the marlin while the Boss pumped and reeled. The fish was huge. When it turned, it lit up the sea with flashes of blue, pink, lavender, and silver.

I had no idea what to do next.

Rolling in the wash behind our stern, the marlin opened its mouth and shook its spear back and forth. We watched the hook pull out. The fish began to sink, then turned and swam away. The Boss swore, throwing down his rod and eyeing me as his face turned dark red.

"Hook pulled out. Nobody's fault," Capt. Steve called out. Then he beckoned me up to the bridge.

"Lucky you didn't have to handle that fish," he said. "That thing's like a bucking horse with a spear on its head. If you spot another, shut up. You don't want to handle billfish before I show you how."

few days later Capt. Steve got a phone call from the Boss.

"He's entered us in the Maryland Marlin Tournament next week," he told me. "Says since we have a marlin man on board, we better put you to work."

For the next five days we hunted for marlin, so Capt. Steve could teach me how to handle them. Our clients loaded the boat with yellowfin tuna, albacore, dolphin, and big blues, but we couldn't buy a marlin.

Steering south toward Maryland, we stopped at the Atlantic City Tuna Club. Capt. Steve went ashore, and when he came back down the dock he was smiling and waving a telegram over his head.

"¿¿¿Business problems. Trip canceled. Bring boat home,'" he whooped. "Mister Marlin Man, you are one lucky boy."

For the rest of that summer we worked out of Brielle. I relished the work and puffed up with pride when we came through the inlet each evening with the boat sparkling clean, fish flags flying from the outriggers. In August, when a hurricane was approaching, we took the Bat up the Manasquan River and moored her in a protected creek. Two other sport-fishing boats and a Nantucket swordfish harpooner moored near us. That night, the other crews came aboard the Bat. Capt. Steve cooked up a lobster chowder, which we ate with hardtack biscuits and black coffee. The men talked about boats and fish, seaports, storms, and women, and I felt proud to be one of them, all brothers of the sea.

Too soon, September came and with it, the end of my job on the Bat.

"We're taking the boat to the Bahamas for the winter," Capt. Steve said as I left. "Boss says bring you along, if you want to go."

I almost wished he hadn't told me. I wanted to more than anything but knew I couldn't. "My parents are set on me going to college."

"The Boss is a college man," he said. "Very successful. Owns the company. And this boat. But he pays us to take her fishing every day. He only goes a couple days a month. I wouldn't swap my life for his."

We said our good-byes. From the parking lot I took a long last look at the Bat.

She shined. idea what to do next.

Rolling in the wash behind our stern, the marlin opened its mouth and shook its spear back and forth. We watched the hook pull out. The fish began to sink, then turned and swam away. The Boss swore, throwing down his rod and eyeing me as his face turned dark red.

"Hook pulled out. Nobody's fault," Capt. Steve called out. Then he beckoned me up to the bridge.

"Lucky you didn't have to handle that fish," he said. "That thing's like a bucking horse with a spear on its head. If you spot another, shut up. You don't want to handle billfish before I show you how."

few days later Capt. Steve got a phone call from the Boss.

"He's entered us in the Maryland Marlin Tournament next week," he told me. "Says since we have a marlin man on board, we better put you to work."

For the next five days we hunted for marlin, so Capt. Steve could teach me how to handle them. Our clients loaded the boat with yellowfin tuna, albacore, dolphin, and big blues, but we couldn't buy a marlin.

Steering south toward Maryland, we stopped at the Atlantic City Tuna Club. Capt. Steve went ashore, and when he came back down the dock he was smiling and waving a telegram over his head.

"¿¿¿Business problems. Trip canceled. Bring boat home,'" he whooped. "Mister Marlin Man, you are one lucky boy."

For the rest of that summer we worked out of Brielle. I relished the work and puffed up with pride when we came through the inlet each evening with the boat sparkling clean, fish flags flying from the outriggers. In August, when a hurricane was approaching, we took the Bat up the Manasquan River and moored her in a protected creek. Two other sport-fishing boats and a Nantucket swordfish harpooner moored near us. That night, the other crews came aboard the Bat. Capt. Steve cooked up a lobster chowder, which we ate with hardtack biscuits and black coffee. The men talked about boats and fish, seaports, storms, and women, and I felt proud to be one of them, all brothers of the sea.

Too soon, September came and with it, the end of my job on the Bat.

"We're taking the boat to the Bahamas for the winter," Capt. Steve said as I left. "Boss says bring you along, if you want to go."

I almost wished he hadn't told me. I wanted to more than anything but knew I couldn't. "My parents are set on me going to college."

"The Boss is a college man," he said. "Very successful. Owns the company. And this boat. But he pays us to take her fishing every day. He only goes a couple days a month. I wouldn't swap my life for his."

We said our good-byes. From the parking lot I took a long last look at the Bat.

She shined.