Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stupid Men Of The Sea

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?


  1. Great fishing tale!

    I don't know if I've ever come as close to feeling that I might die as you did in this story. I've had a rough ride or two in cars driven by my drunk and/or high friends, but I always had a little bit of chemical magic in my brain, too (otherwise, I wouldn't have gotten in the car with them) so I might have been scared here or there, but never really considered my mortality.

  2. Great story! No, I've never felt that close to the Grim Reaper. I've been bounced around in some tiny airplanes in some rough weather, found myself on the wrong side of town at the wrong time of day (night), things like that, but nothing that reduced me to writing "good bye" notes.


  3. You should write a book....jus sayin :)

  4. That's one heck of a story. I can just imagine you smacking your friend in the head for not having the other paddle.

  5. Even though I knew the story ended well since you're here to tell the tale, I was truly scared reading this. What a nightmare! Have you ever given Mrs. C the note in the bottle?

    P.S. Thanks for your kind words about my family on Shelly's blog.

  6. When you first mentioned Coronas, I thought you were talking about cigars.
    I feel quite fortunate that I have not felt so threatened... yet!

  7. "I had a sinking feeling about this" HAhahaha!!! Oh my word, what a story.

  8. Wow! I was in a car accident, and declared dead... Until I sneezed on the EMT. Does that count? Perhaps next time you should ask about life jackets, if nothing else... I am glad it was no worse than that. Again, wow!


  9. I had the "Gilligan's Island" theme song in my head the whole time I read that. Really you should put all these stories into a book. They're terrific.

  10. Well, on our honeymoon, aboard the QEII, we took the northern route across the pond that had not been taken since the Titanic went down on that route. Encountered the worst storm at sea any of the crew had seen in 20 years. They made us put on life jackets, and were concerned that we would have to get in the life boats. Still not quite as bad as your adventure, though.

  11. I can't believe you got into that tiny boat. You had a long list of questions to ask too, but you did that after you were already in the jackpot. What a story. You're one lucky guy. I really like your wife.

    Have a terrific day. :)

  12. You were certainly brave! We study the Channel Islands when we read Island of the Blue Dolphins, but your view of them is much more realistic than mine, I'm sure~

  13. Wow! Thank God for the Coast Guard!!
    I was rescued by the Coast Guard once as a kid. A couple of families (we were from Minnesota) took a couple motorboats out to some deserted islands in the Florida Keys for the day. On the way home one of the boats ran out of gas. They left all us kids and the women (and my MN dad who knew nothing about boats) in one boat and the guys took off in the other one. Dusk came. Watched a beautiful sunset. Listened to some kind of animals on the island that sounded like wild boars. Here the other boat ran out of gas, too! The Coast Guard found them and then they finally found us toward morning. Never thought I was going to die, though.

    I did think I was going to die a few other times: watching the junior high school roof blow off in sections during a tornado, sinking the eleventh time deep into the weeds in a lake with leg cramps after I fell asleep and slipped through an inner tube, when the boss rapist told me he was going to kill me...I think I may have missed another one or two. Never had my life flash before my eyes, though. Did you?

  14. You must be a saint for not sending your 'friend' overboard with the shark and his fishing pole. Absolutely terrifying tale. I was once on a sailing yacht in the evening when a violent storm started to come up and the Mediterranean Sea started to swell. Fortunately we had just left port and were able to return without difficulty. The next day there had been gale force winds and several yachts had to be rescued and a few sank. I didn't like it one little bit -- so I can imagine how terrified and relieved you must have been.

    As others have said you oughta write a book (with illustrations!)...

  15. “Of course! What kind of a fool do you take me for?”....Let me help out here...A GREAT BIG F****** fool. And you guys remained friends?????? You obviously are the forgiving type. Good for you. I might have been tempted to hit him with the one oar and call it an unfortunate accident,,,or not!!

  16. I loved this story. Very well had me scared. Glad you made it back to write about it!

  17. Yeah, I thought I was going to die on a number of occasions. If I didn't believe in protecting angels then, I sure do now.

  18. You know what they say -- bad decisions make great stories.

  19. Wow, what a story. Did I ever think I was going to die? Yes, not this Christmas but the Christmas before, I took some back pain medication and it made me so ill, I truly thought that I would die. I remember thinking, "Bummer, I'm going to die and on Christmas Day." As soon as I thought this, I stood up, promptly passed out, and fell, not on soft carpet, no, that's not my style...I fell over onto an upright space heater and BROKE the space heater. But hey, I lived to tell the tale, I hope to work it into my standup comedy routine one day!
    And I am glad you survived that trip. You must be one lucky dude!

  20. Excellent story!
    I never felt the Grimm Reaper- but I have seen him approach my husband twice. Once in a bombing and another in a botched hip replacement.
    But your boat story

  21. We've all done foolish things in our younger days (or since!) and some of us have been lucky enough to escape alive and well. It terrifies me to think that my young adult kids might do things as silly as I did and not be so lucky.

  22. You sucked us in to read to the end to find out what happened. I thank many readers would recognize themselves as having had similar experiences.

  23. oh dear. what a great story. it would have been scary indeed. glad you survived to tell it :)

  24. Great story, and despite the seriousness of the entire situation, told with humor. Me and death? No close encounters; I believe "boring" is highly underrated. :-)

  25. Your story scared me for awhile, was imagining all sort of things just like what happens in the movies. Glad you're safely back home.

  26. I've had a few incidents that scared me silly but I'm don't think I really thought I would die at the time. Your friend is an idiot for not taking precautions. You're not off the hook either. You should have had a life jacket on before that boat started moving. Then you would have known it never existed. Well told, CC.

  27. Yes I have, but I'm not to the point that I could write about it. I love the way you tell a story. You know your gut told you not to get in the boat. I once heard that humans are the only animal that will ignore their gut feeling of danger. Smarter animals run.

  28. quite a story there.
    yeah, i was snorkelling against my will at phuket.
    then someone threw a loaf of bread on me, and in that instance all the fishes in the waters of phi phi island decided to round me up. i panicked and i really thought i was gonna die. my husband panicked too.

  29. What a gripping, amazing story. So glad you made it!

  30. Super story Stephen, amusing and disturbing in equal measure. I was particularly tickled by the image of your colleague swearing in Spanish!

  31. Oh my word...I've never laughed so much in my life. You certainly have a delightful way of telling a story sir. I agree with previous have to write a book! I'll be first in line to buy a copy...good grief...I'm still laughing so much the makeup is running down my face. Smiles - Astrid

  32. I'll be in line right behind Astrid. Anytime I have two minutes to rub together I head to your blog and a guaranteed chuckle.

  33. Twice. The first time, I stumbled on a ledge overlooking a rushing Alaskan creek. My sister grabbed the collar of my jacket and kept me from plunging into the drink. My life flashed before my eyes.

    The second time, I rolled a canary yellow Chevy Chevette three times down the center of a two-lane highway. It happened in slow motion. I counted every revolution. That day was the first time I strapped on my seatbelt for the trip.

  34. what a fish tail! How you write so funny and scary at the same time is a true art!
    Did you save the note?