Time was running out and I realized I was going to die, just another amateur fisherman lost at sea. I blamed myself; I was too stupid to live.
It was the late 70s and I was employed by Mervyn’s in Oxnard, forty miles north of Los Angeles. I designed windows and dressed mannequins, often chatting with friendly Frank Diaz, the company’s youngest store manager. Frank was only a few years older than me and his passion was fishing. He’d recently purchased a boat and fished after work. He frequently gave me his catch to bring home to Mrs. Chatterbox, who didn’t relish cleaning the smelly things. Frank started pressuring me to go fishing with him after work and I finally agreed.
I met him down by the launch and was shocked by the tiny size of his boat. It was faded red and looked like a Disneyland ride. “Isn’t this a lake boat?” I asked apprehensively.
“Lake, ocean—water’s water,” Frank reassured me. “The boat doesn’t know the difference.”
I had a sinking feeling about this, but against my better judgment I climbed in. Frank started the raspy-sounding engine and off we went.
When we were only a few hundred feet from the launch I asked, “What’s wrong with this spot? Why don’t we just fish here?”
Frank rolled his eyes. “No fish here.”
“So where exactly are we going?” It was a big ocean, and it was getting bigger as we moved farther from shore.
“We’re heading towards Santa Barbara. The oil rigs over there heat up the water and attract fish. Relax, we’re gonna have fun.” He released his grip on the wheel and opened the bag of Coronas he’d brought, tossing me one. “You’ve been out on the ocean before, haven’t you?”
I nodded, even though the extent of my maritime experience centered on being packed along with a hundred other tourists for a joyride around San Francisco Bay. I sipped the Corona as we passed the Channel Islands and headed north. The wind picked up and the water turned steel gray. The swells were getting bigger when Frank turned off the motor and admitted, “It’s getting choppy. Maybe we should fish here before it gets too rough.”
It was already too rough for me, but I didn’t want to admit that my cajones were anything less than grapefruit size so I baited my line and began fishing, the Corona rising and falling in my stomach in rhythm to the swells threatening to engulf the little boat. Just as the sun was about to touch the water, something struck Frank’s hook. He struggled to reel it in. I don’t know what he was hoping for, but what he got was a shark about four feet long.
Frank struggled to net the shark and bring it into the boat, but the net was too small and ripped. He grabbed the shark by the tail, threw down his rod and reel and swung the shark into the boat. I was suddenly confronted by snapping jaws. I shrieked and kicked it as it flopped about in the bottom of the boat. I was relieved when it chomped down on the bag of Coronas and disappeared over the side, taking the beers with it. Frank’s rod and reel also went over the side, the hook still lodged in the shark’s mouth.
The shark not only took the unopened beers; it knocked over the two we’d opened. There wasn’t anything left to calm my nerves. “It’s time to go home,” I said.
Frank agreed, but when he tried to engage the engine, it wouldn’t start.
We were completely out of sight of land. The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon and the wind was pushing us further out to sea. It would soon be dark. I was terrified. I’d read newspaper articles about futile Coast Guard searches, and now the ranks of idiot amateur fishermen had grown by two. My fear intensified when Frank opened the engine covering, poked his head down into the bottom of the boat and said, “I wonder what all this water is doing down here?”
The thrashing shark had soaked us. I was shivering uncontrollably. I was also experiencing the icy grip of panic. Some of the liquid washing around the engine was probably my pee. As calmly as I could, I suggested to Frank, “It’s time to radio for help.”
His expression made my heart sink before he could muster the words. “I‘ve been meaning to get a radio, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
“What about life jackets?”
“They would have been a good idea, too.”
I nearly lost it when he started praying in Spanish. “Where are the paddles? Even if it takes years we might as well start paddling, even if the first landfall is Hawaii! You do have paddles?”
He looked indignant. “Of course! What kind of a fool do you take me for?” I started to unleash a torrent of colorful epithets, but this was as much my fault as his. Nobody put a gun to my head and made me climb into this carnival ride. If there had been a gun on board I might have blown my brains out when Frank managed to produce one paddle.
I tore it from his hand and started paddling furiously, spinning the boat in circles. As I worked up a sweat I reviewed the situation: We were heading out into a rough ocean in a boat that should never have left its pond; it was getting dark and we had no supplies, no radio and only one paddle. The engine didn’t work and the boat was picking up water. We had no way of knowing how much longer we could stay afloat, and the only thing we knew for certain was that there were sharks in the immediate area. We were screwed.
Frank stopped praying and was uncharacteristically quiet. I finally threw down the worthless paddle. In the bottom of the boat I saw one of the empty Corona bottles. At least I could leave a note for Mrs. C., a message in a bottle. With a pen from my pocket and a scrap of paper from my wallet, I quickly jotted down words of affection. I was wondering what I could use as a cork when Frank spotted salvation heading our way.
A Coast Guard cutter was heading home to nearby Port Hueneme. Our fear that it might not see us quickly became a concern that the ship might run over us. Frank finally impressed me by producing a bag of damp roadside flares, and in spite of our string of bad luck one actually ignited, making us easy to spot. The little red boat was sitting dangerously low in the water by the time we were picked up. It sank shortly after we climbed aboard the Coast Guard vessel. We received a well deserved tongue-lashing from the ship’s captain for not having a proper boat, radio, supplies, life jackets or paddles.
Frank admitted to ownership of the sunken boat and was eventually fined five hundred
dollars for various maritime infractions. When we docked, I called Mrs. C. to pick us up
at Port Hueneme. Frank cheerfully greeted Mrs. C. when she drove up, acting like nothing eventful had happened. I was tempted to leave him standing there.
Frank and I managed to remain friends although we never spoke of this incident again.
That night after dropping him off at his car near the launch, Mrs. C. asked, “Did you have a good time, honey?”
I spared her the details; no point freaking her out now. “It was exciting.”
“I don’t see any fish.”
“They weren’t biting.”
“So tell me, just how drunk did you boys get out there?”
“What do you mean?”
That was when I looked down and noticed that the Corona bottle containing my message was still tightly clasped in my hand.
Have you ever thought you were going to die?