Merwin: An Ugly Way To Die

According to an Associated Press report this morning, the Coast Guard has called off its search for three fishermen, including two N.F.L. players, missing in the Gulf of Mexico since last Saturday. Much of the tragedy has been rightly blamed on the boaters' combination of cockiness and stupidity in being in the wrong part of the ocean at the wrong time with insufficient gear. But there's another horrifying element to this as well. The three lost men had an ugly way to die.

Picture yourself suspended by a life vest and bouncing in wind-tossed waves. You are cold and gradually losing strength. There is nothing on the horizon in any direction but water and sky. You are totally alone. You are helpless. You know you're going to die, and you know that death will be a long time coming. I can't think of a worse way to go.

I have faced what I thought was near-death only twice in a lifetime of fishing. Both times this involved getting slammed by a rogue wave while surfcasting. In each case I was pushing the edge of my luck, trying for a longer cast or a bigger fish. I think everyone who fishes hard eventually pushes that limit a bit harder than they should. The best outcome might be more or larger fish. Is it worth it?