Steely and the Storm
We were out on the Delaware Bay for a day’s fishing, my wife and I, her parents and my father. Our young boys had stayed in Milford with my mother, who would not come. I don’t remember her ever coming out on one of my father’s charter boats, and never really knew why; she just didn’t come until we stopped inviting her. Today the Langis’s pleaded with her to join us, but she refused, saying she was happy to watch the kids who were too young to come. “You catch the fish, she said, “and I’ll cook them when you get back.”
We were aboard my father’s second boat, a 35 footer, the Dorothy C. He still had the first, the 24 foot Miss Teddy, my favorite haunt during my later childhood and high school years and even during some summers when I was in college. It had been my non-paying employment, except for tips during much of that period. I was first mate; there had been no second mate. My job was to bring aboard ice, the bait and the coolers and tackle we didn’t stow on board, as well as snacks, sodas, beer and whatever amenities a paying party could reasonably expect to find. I was expected to tie on the terminal tackle, after double checking with my father and the captain of the day to be sure we had replaced whatever had been expended on previous trips. I also baited hooks and removed fish from them for the timid and squeamish. At the end of each trip it had been my job as well to spruce up the cabin, flush out the head and scrub down the deck. In other words to leave things in at least as good condition as we had found them.
My father kept a grocery store, which demanded long hours of him six days a week, Sunday mornings as well during the winters. Even so customers would call him at other times begging him to open for just a minute so they could buy something they couldn’t do without. He was always conscientious to a fault, reluctant to say no to anyone but me. He gave credit and it often cost him.
His boats were his only known (to me as a kid) self indulgence. The other (not really known to me at the time) was his drinking. Miss Teddy was his escape hatch, his taste of freedom, his opportunity to be someone else, if only for a fleeting part of each week. There’s no question that he deserved it. We deserved more of him than we got, but that’s another matter. To solve the problem of who would take the boat, then boats, out while he was otherwise occupied was pragmatically solved. He recruited captains among his acquaintances and cronies, splitting the nets profits from each charter with the captain of the day. Steely- Ralph Steele- was one of many who had been at the wheel of Miss Teddy and I believe that when my father bought the second boat he offered him a salary. Miss Teddy was limited, large enough to take out only a party of three, four maximum, plus the captain and crew, me. The larger boat had a capacity of ten passengers, which meant family outings were possible and comfortable. Getting parties was word of mouth, never a problem. I don’t recall that my father ever advertised in the Wilmington or Philadelphia papers, which is where most of our customers came from. We also attracted some locals.
Steely was like many small town handymen- hard working men who were handy at a lot of different things. He was an improviser, a make-do man, capable of fixing most things and building some things; he was a man with a varied job history. His work with the Dorothy C began in the early spring of that year, as soon as the weather was fit for outside work. He scraped her bottom, recaulked her and applied coats of anti-fouling paint. I found out later that he had not replaced any of the wood of her hull or ribs, although he had touched up her bright work topside and made other cosmetic improvements. She was an old boat that my father had bought cheap. Although the engine was original, they had it pulled and rebuilt to a certain degree. My father never hired a professional when he could get the services of a gifted amateur at a good price. The bilge pump, however, was coughing up phlegm so he broke down and replaced it with a new one.
We had driven over from Baltimore the evening before and gotten motel rooms. My parents’ house wasn’t large enough to accommodate the four of us plus two kids. We planned to stay over tonight as well before heading home. This fishing trip wasn’t anything celebratory; the invitation had long ago been extended on the Miss Teddy and my father was now proud and pleased to show off his new boat. This was a first, for all of us to be aboard together. So far this season, with one glitch, the boat had performed well at Steely’s hand. On her maiden voyage everybody ended up fishing from one side of the boat probably because nobody was catching fish on the other. This reminded me of ferry boat capsizings I have read about where a whale is sighted and everyone aboard rushes to that side, turning the boat over. With the Catherine C. it forced that side under deeper than its caulking, where the boards hadn’t swelled enough to keep water from springing through before it was noticed. Everyone was busy catching fish before it was noticed. By this time more and more water was coming in, faster than the bilge pump could keep up with. Alarmed and playing it safe, Steely radioed the Coast Guard. The fishermen by now had leveled out the load. Gradually the pump had caught up and pumped out the water. The Coast Guard rescue was canceled before they arrived.
Today everything had gone faultlessly. We had pushed off from the dock at 7 am as most of the other boats were setting out. Steely headed for the Coral Beds, so-called because of a soft coral-like grassy bottom which affords good cover for small fish and the larger ones who come here to eat them. It’s probably the most dependable fishing around, both predictable and mysterious. You know you can always catch hardhead, bluefish, porgies, sea bass, spot, ling, puffers, skates, rays, white perch and usually trout here. Occasionally flounder, which prefer a sandier bottom, and Striped Bass, which tend to be more nomadic. Truth be told, you can catch just about anything here, including tropicals such as parrotfish, snappers and even, possibly, grouper. I and others have caught dogfish –sharks- and sizeable hammerheads and other varieties of shark.
Delaware Bay fishing, as I remember it, was bottom fishing, at anchor or drifting. I don’t recall much trolling; in fact I don’t recall that boats had rod holders on them for trolling. You could always hold a rod up by hand while the boat was underway, but the only artificial lures that I remember were some beat up bucktails and rusty spoons. That I remember something doesn’t mean it happened; it means only that I remember something. Or don’t. At the Coral Beds we began by drifting above about 25 feet of water. We’d pull up grass, but didn’t snag anything. Before long my father reeled in a trout. Then Mr. Langis got one. Before long everyone, including my wife, Claudette, who had thought that she maybe wouldn’t fish, was catching gray trout, known to some as weakfish, presumably because they have a very tender lip, easy to pull a hook through. She was very pleased with herself. Steely threw the anchor over. We caught some hardhead, aka croakers because of the sound they make. Occasionally, someone would pull in a double header, two fish on a top and bottom rig that were used on all lines. There was a landing net on board and a gaff, a very large barbless hook at the end of a strong pole; these were rarely used, for only the largest fish that we wouldn’t want to lose. We were catching so many small and medium fish that the occasion never arose to consider using either. So you lost a fish short of the boat from time to time; so what?
We fished like this for perhaps two hours before things slowed up a bit. Change of tide, he said. Let’s try the Can Buoy. There’s a cluster of boats out there. My father agreed. He opened the cooler to get a beer, though it was not yet noon, and offered Mr. Langis one; he nodded no, and my father thought the better of it and put it back, taking some coffee from a thermos instead. A half hour later, we came upon a loose group of ten or twelve boats around a buoy that did indeed look exactly like a big can. It had a superstructure in which hung a bell which wasn’t clanging much at the time, atop of which was a flashing light. I seem to remember that this was at the edge of the ship channel where you could drift up or down between relatively shallow and deeper water. From here, we could clearly make out Cape May, New Jersey. We could see that fishermen aboard some of the other boats were catching what appeared to be heavier fish. It does not necessary follow that because deep water, therefore larger fish, but optimism is born of such stuff. When Steely decided that we were drifting too fast and likely to approach one or more of the other boats too closely, he threw out the anchor.
It took us awhile to connect with our first fish. A larger trout, much larger than the pan sized ones we had been catching. I reeled it in very carefully; I didn’t want to rip its mouth out. It was large enough to net. Maybe we were in the right place at the right time. We’d see. Claudette caught the next one, losing her mildly disdainful attitude in the excitement of bringing it in. I asked her if she wanted me to do the job for her; it was really giving her some exercise. Large trout can do that. They’re among my most favorite saltwater fish to catch because they’re fun to engage, but also because they’re so delicious if you don’t overcook them. You can broil them steam them, fry them, poach them, sauté them and even barbecue them- all good. Soon we were all pulling them on board. Claudette and her mother were comparing fish to see who had caught the biggest.
We had snacked all the way out there, and continued to snack on and off now on peanut butter and cheese crackers, potted meat product (does that sound scary?), Vienna sausages, canned corned beef and corned beef hash and sandwiches my mother and Mrs. Langis made. Being on the water does that to appetite, increasing it while lowering its standards. Squid- the only bait we used- on our hands and fingers didn’t deter our hunger; we just wiped it off on our clothes and rags and munched on. It was hot, but there was breeze enough to keep off all but the occasional horsefly. Then some of the other boats pulled anchor and began heading in. It was too early, but others followed suit.
By now my father and Mr. Langis were downing a few friendly beers with the food, taking a break from the exercise. I drank a few myself, as did Steely. Although a wine drinker, Claudette had a beer. Mrs. Langis abstained. A good time was had by all. Steely and I kept fishing after the rest had petered out. We had enough, but it’s hard for some to stop. It was such a fine day and we had had such a good day, we hardly noticed that one by one the other boats had cleared out; we were alone out there.
It looked at first like no more than a smudge on eyeglasses, a distortion on the bright clarity of the day, a faint distant grayness in the northeast, back of Cape May. Even the captain paid it no mind. Suddenly, I had a bad feeling. I said to Steely, low so the others would not hear, “Turn the radio on.” He did. Static came out, auditory fuzz, nothing else. “John, he said to my father, “the radio’s not working.” My father said, “We’d better go in,” leaving that job to Steely.
He ran to the bow and pulled up the anchor as fast as he could. His action caught attention, and there was some apprehension. I reeled in whatever lines were still overboard and stowed the rods. Then I started the engine and let it idle. It took Steely awhile; we were over deep water and there was a lot of rope out. He had his captain’s hat back on, so to speak; party was over. We had deep water all the way in, on a line of sight course over a single compass heading so we had no channels to navigate. The other boats had apparently had a radio storm warning, a head start which we did not have. There was no need to panic, but there was definitely an urgency felt by all. Subdued, everyone sat down and chatting stopped. Steely opened the throttle and we reached full speed in quick time. There’s something thrilling about traveling at speed over water. The throaty roar of the engine could be felt viscerally by every cell in the body. The body itself comes to retune itself to align with the throb of the power. It’s very satisfying to me. It can drown out, overcome a lot of the pettier emotions, including some fear. There definitely was fear aboard now; everybody was feeling it even though there were as yet no visible signs, but it could be sensed in others.
The last of the departing boats, homeward bound, could be faintly be seen in the distance. The Lighthouse could not be seen from there. It was still a picture perfect day, under full sun, with no wind, looking west. Behind us, however was a different vista. The sky was graying to black and blue. In the distance whitecaps were forming. If this was more than a temporary squall coming on, in a following sea is not the best place to be. The higher darkness overcame us before the first of the wind came. It was like the light got turned off. Ahead was still some retreating sunlight; once it glinted on the Lighthouse tower and then was gone.
The whitecaps overtook us and then the growing swells, from here on it was swells of varying intensity and lengths, with the rising wind quickly blowing the tops off the swells; whitecaps everywhere. The boat was going fast enough that it would rise up the back of one swell, to then crash over and plunge into the bottom of another leading me to wonder, and Steely and my father as well, if this boat was built to take this pounding. I’m sure everyone was having similar thoughts. But take it it did, over and over. Sometimes a wave would come over the gunnels a bit, but we were high in the water and that did not seem to be an immediate threat. If this was not a full Nor’easter and the boat held together, we might continue to make our present progress. If.
Then I noticed a big threat that scared the hell out of me. Steely had not secured the anchor. With each pound of the bow downward on the sea, the anchor, however heavy, was loose on the forward deck, the cabin roof, and was inching its way toward the edge. There was only a thin railing to restrain it, not enough to hold it back. I was surprised it wasn’t moving faster, but its rate was steady. No doubt it was headed over then side unless something was done to stop it. It looked like that something was going to have to be me. By now it was raining steadily, a deluge and we were as wet as we were going to be.
Claudette’s parents were devout Catholics. They were both at this time on their knees on the deck praying and no doubt pissing in their pants at the same time. Claudette had left the faith behind and wasn’t a devout anything, but she was on her knees beside them lending and gaining whatever comfort was available. They chose not to go inside the cabin out of the weather or, perhaps, didn’t think of it. My father just stood beside Steely doing a white knuckle flight. He saw me move forward around the walkway outside of the cabin and started to say something, but I pointed at the anchor and he took the scene in. He just dropped his head and kept on shivering. It had gotten cold in more ways than one.
There were some handholds and I was very careful to have the next one securely in my grip before letting go of the last. Waves were crashing over me, water rushing past, but I felt secure enough. I felt that the situation at hand was within my control unless part of the boat broke off in my hand. I would have nightmares about this later, to be sure, but I was not in a panic mode; that is not my way. When I reached the anchor it was very close to the fore edge of the bow on the right side. Port? Starboard? I could never get those straight. I got a firm grip on it and dragged it back slowly toward the windshield. I had no rope with which to tie it off to a cleat and I had no knife to cut the rope. The windshields were not secure and were banging open and closed heavily; I was surprised that the glass was holding up. I held up the one my father was behind and passed the anchor through to him. It was heavy for me to do and it was heavy for him, but we managed. I fed all of the rope through to him as well. There was a forward hatch that I could have passed it down through, but the seas were too heavy for me to even consider opening it. I made my back around the side and onto the deck. I was shivering, too.
I checked the bilge; the pump was running steadily and we were holding our own. But there was another problem that had to be dealt with promptly. The hooks intended to hold the windshields shut had pulled out of the woodwork on both sides. This meant that every time the boat nosed down into a trough and then rose up abruptly, each windshield rose as well and the windows came open enough for the rush of water coming through to blind the captain, and my father, who was vainly trying to hold the captain’s window as closed as he could. Although on a steady compass heading, the captain had no line of sight visibility. He could not see out, and he could do nothing about it as he had his hands fully busy with the wheel.
A snelled hook is a fishing hook to which is tied a leader of between 6 and 12 inches, a heavy line, at the other end of which is a strong loop. If you thread the hook of one through the loop of the other, bring it back through its own loop and draw it tight you have a cord with a hook at each end. I made several of these. Then I reached through Steely’s window at bottom and sunk the hook into the wood; I sank the other hook as hard as I could pull it into the wooden dashboard in front of him. And that kept the windshield firmly closed; no need to add a second. After cutting the anchor rope and drawing it inside, I did the same for my father’s side. It is questionable how much that improved visibility, but at least Steely wasn’t constantly getting water in his face. Nor was my father, who was being very quiet.
Then I did what should have been done as soon as the storm struck. I put life vests on Claudette and her parents and did manage to coax them inside the cabin. They obeyed meekly. The storm had in no way abated, but we had been in its teeth for quite awhile now and I think they had possibly come around to believing that since they hadn’t drowned yet, there might be some hope. I offered Steely a life preserver, which he declined. I held one out to my father which he waved away, but I put it on. I crawled topside and untied the life raft, calling out watch out below. I let it flop on the deck, which sound probably scared the rest of the hell out of everyone. I checked on the people in the cabin. They were ghostly white, almost comatose and absolutely silent. I asked if there was anything I could get them, a token gesture; everything they had taken in they had early in the storm thrown up. They were still praying and just waiting it out.
Finally the jetty was in sight and the worst of the weather, although still fierce, was slowly abating. It was going to be tricky threading that needle. It’s about a mile long, but it’s very narrow. The wind and sea was still behind us as it had been without let up all the way in. The compass was of no use here. Getting into the jetty and avoiding getting banged into one side or the other was by eye. I asked Steely what I could do to help him. The rain was still too heavy for the windshield to be of much use, but he could hang out and in, out and in the opening on his side of the cockpit. The right side was his blind spot. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon so it wasn’t midnight out there.
“Watch me on the right side, “he said. I said OK.
Once we made it inside the jetty, the trickiest part was over. Although the wind and sea were still almost straight on our tail, the high sides of the jetty much decreased the turbulence and subdued the water. It was a smooth ride yet , we were almost home, as I now liked to think of our dock as being.
When Steely motored close to the pilings I jumped to the dock and tied us off fore and aft. (I do know those nautical terms.) It was actually still too rough for disembarking to be anything less than perilous for those in the cabin. (Thank god we didn’t bring the kids. That gave me a surge of adrenalin.) We were in no hurry to do anything but let the stress and fear leak out of us. We had plenty of time. I opened a beer.
Steely said gravely, “You saved us, Jack. If that anchor had gone overboard . . .”
“I would have cut the rope.”
My father said nothing.
®Copyright 2014 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.