By Gabriel Lasala
It was a fall Sunday and Rechel had decided to go to a baby shower for her sister-in-law in Mississippi rather than fishing with me in the offshore waters of Louisiana. I had been counting on Rechel's company, but when she changed her plans. I told her I was going to work on the boat but I had already decided to fish alone and left for Venice, Louisiana very early in the morning. By 6:00 a.m. I was at Mae's bait shop in Empire, buying frozen pogies and shrimp. Then I bought eighty pounds of ice at the marina. I knew that it was dangerous to go deep-sea fishing alone, and when the marina workers saw me leaving without a crew, they told me it wasn't a good idea. At 6:45 a.m. I left the Venice Marina and headed for the gulf in my boat, the Zorba. Since I was alone, I decided to take a shortcut called Tiger Pass, which went southwest from Venice directly to the gulf, rather than risk navigating through heavy traffic on the foggy Mississippi river. From the mouth of Tiger Pass, I would be able to leave the western delta behind and continue south into open water. At times of easterly or southeasterly winds, it was advantageous to take the western route and travel south into the gulf from there, because the delta and its vegetation broke the wind.
After traveling ten miles south, I saw birds circling an abandoned metal structure that had once been the site of a small oil well. The white droppings that layered its platform and pipes showed that it still served some purpose, even if it was just to provide a haven for birds. I approached the structure slowly. Although I did not see any fish with the depth finder, the presence of birds in the air above the structure suggested that they had small fish to feed on in the immediate area. Small fish also attract larger fish, and at that time of the year there was a highly prized species at a depth of about fifty feet, the cobia.
The Zorba's engines idled about fifty feet from the structure. I picked up a light rod and attached a plastic lure resembling an eel, with two hooks dangling from its white belly. I cast the lure in the direction of the structure, waited a few minutes for it to sink, and began to reel it in slowly. Suddenly there was a tug so powerful that it almost snapped the rod. I responded by jerking the rod up and back to bury the hook in the fish's mouth. The reel drag was set at thirty-five pounds. The fish took off in the opposite direction, spinning out number 50 line from the Penn reel with a whine, and exerting so much force that I thought heavier line may have been called for. My strategy at that point was not to engage in a contest of strength but to let the fish tire itself out. This struggle had been going on for almost half an hour when I finally saw the brown skin of the cobia near the surface. My problem was that I needed Rechel to retrieve the fish with a gaffing hook. Manipulating both the rod and gaffing pole myself required a certain amount of imagination and dexterity. The fish came close to the boat on several occasions, and on one such occasion, I tugged sharply back on the rod with my left hand and managed to bury the gaffing hook with my right, capturing my prey. On deck now, the cobia thrashed around vigorously. It looked to weigh about ninety pounds. The species was known for muscles so powerful that a blow from its tail could break a man or woman's leg. Keeping my distance, I opened the fish box and carefully cut the line, leaving the hook in the fish's mouth. I then twisted the gaffing hook out of the fish's body and used the attached rod to push the fish into the fish box. Once the fish had fallen into the compartment, I poured in several pounds of ice and closed the hatch.
With this accomplishment, My trip had already been worth its while. The sun was beginning to rise higher above the horizon. I considered returning to land with my catch, but looking at my watch, I saw that it was very early to return: not even 8:00 in the morning. I decided to keep fishing, so I sped off further south.
After traveling parallel to the delta for a time, I saw the mouth of the Mississippi in the distance and turned east. The river grew more distant on the left as I moved into deeper waters. Twenty miles from the river's mouth, I approached an oil rig to catch some live bait with a sabiki line consisting of multiple small hooks and brightly colored lures. I had no luck, however. If no live bait is available for catching tuna, the usual recourse is to catch a medium-sized fish of another species in deep water, and cut it into pieces for bait that is at least fresh, if not alive. That's what I would try to do.
The Zorba was a hundred fifty feet from the yellow oil platform in 450 foot waters. It was a smaller than average structure without any permanent crew on duty. Using a rod designed for large fish, I attached a twelve ounce sinker and a number nine hook that I then pushed through the frozen body of a pogie and dropped to a depth of sixty feet. I made a ham sandwich, grabbed a bottle of mineral water, and began to eat.
My breakfast was suddenly interrupted, however, by the whine of 100 pound monofilament rapidly spinning out of his whirling Penn reel. I put on a rod belt, quickly placed a hooked gaffing poll at my side, and adjusted the reel drag. Whatever was at the other end of the line had to be big. Even with the drag set for near-maximum resistance, the fish continued to run out yards of line. I began to struggle with what was apparently a monstrously large fish, but for every foot I gained I was losing two.
I further tightened the drag, gained a few feet and continued losing even more. The wind had risen, and with it the waves. The Zorba had been drifting as its engines idled, but the fish was now pulling it gently but steadily to the west. I was tired, my back and arms were hurting and I strongly considered cutting the line, because even if I could draw the fish in close to the boat, it would be impossible to gaff it and bring it on board. In the end, though, I couldn't resist the temptation to meet this unexpected challenge for a few minutes more. Those few minutes grew longer, however. I began to feel muscle spasms in my back. His arms trembled and the pain increased. "Just a little more," I said to myself, and continued to struggle. I knew that I would not be able to bring the fish on board, but pulling it in close to the boat would be at least a moral victory, and I was not inclined to throw in the towel without even getting a look at my opponent. A few minutes later, an enormous gray shadow appeared beneath the surface. Its color, along with two dorsal fins and a triangular tail, were typical of sharks, but it had still not shown itself clearly. Suddenly the dimensions of the monster were revealed as it appeared almost next to the boat with its dorsal fins out of the water and its open mouth revealing a fearsome set of teeth. It was a bull shark, the species responsible for most of the shark attacks on humans in Florida. It was over 10 feet long and must have weighed close to 350 pounds. I immediately cut the line. The shark swam alongside the boat for a few seconds, then moved slowly away to the west. It was now past noon and the sun burned into my face. With all the morning's activity, I had neglected to apply sun block.
I was worn out after the struggle, but proud to have pulled in the shark. I decided to head back to land. I would have liked a sandwich but I was so tired at that moment that I didn't have the energy to prepare one, and settled for a cold can of Budweiser and of bag of potato chips. I sat down for a few minutes to rest, allowing the Zorba to drift. I noticed that the boat was now far from the metal structure with its yellow legs where I had first cast the hook and pogie. I felt I had drifted well over a mile.
Once I had rested a bit, I gave the idling engines some gas and began the return trip north. The Southwest Pass was only about twenty miles distant, but because the waves had risen to more than three feet, the boat would not cover even fifteen miles in an hour. In fact, I calculated that the return trip would take about three hours.
The engines were just reaching about 2,000 RPMs when I heard the alarm designed to go off when there was a serious mechanical problem. I immediately cut off the power and went over a mental list of the most common possible problems: overheating, lack of motor oil, lack of fuel, obstructed propellers, or other more serious matters that I could not deal with. First I checked the oil level and found it to be adequate. I checked for overheating by starting the engines in order to view the control panel, where a red light would indicate an overheated engine. The port engine started first and the alarm immediately sounded, but there was no indication of overheating. I shut that engine down and started the starboard engine, which proceeded to idle normally. At that distance from the coast, returning on just one engine was a dubious prospect when the short term forecast was for rising seas and winds of twenty miles per hour. Under those conditions, it would be difficult for a single engine to haul six tons of fiberglass, two hundred gallons of fuel, all the fishing equipment, and a man. Letting the starboard engine idle at 500 rpm, I prepared to examine the port engine. The first step would be to look for visible propeller damage or the jamming of the propeller by a piece of fishing line or of rope. This could occur under various circumstances, including if a fisher was distracted and allowed his or her line to get caught in the turning propeller. To inspect the engine, however, it had to be lifted with the use of a hydraulic system that elevated its lower section, and the propeller, above the water's surface. I immediately discovered the problem. A piece of old rope was tangled in the propeller of the port side engine. In order to remove a piece of line or rope, you had to lean over, lying practically flat on the engine, and untangle whatever it was that was twisted around the propeller. I had done this before, but always with another individual holding me by the belt to insure that I did not fall into the water.
Being alone this time, I had to take alternative precautions. I tied a rope from the back of my belt to one of the uprights that supported the boat's fiberglass roof. I would attempt to free the rope from the propeller with one hand and regulate the tension of my safety rope with the other. I grabbed a large knife and a pair of pliers. Stretching nearly prostrate over the engine, I reached down to cut the rope free and disentangle it with the pliers. In that position, I was not supported by the safety rope. It was slack, but I held onto it with my left hand, which I also used to grasp onto the lower part of the engine. With my right hand I made a vigorous effort to free the rope from where it had been sucked into and twisted around the rubber propeller bushing.
Suddenly a powerful wave slammed against the starboard side of the boat. I lost my balance and found myself in the water. After the safety rope tautened, slipped through my hands, and pulled free from my belt, I went under. When I tried to surface, a second wave crossed over above me and pushed me back down. Finally I was able to reach the surface for a few seconds, but saw a third huge wave coming. I managed to fill my lungs with air before it slammed directly into me. Then it took me a few seconds to regain control, clean the salt water from my eyes, and evaluate my situation. I was alarmed to see that I was now more than thirty feet from the Zorba and it was continuing to drift away from me. The wind had picked up. The boat came into and out of view among the swells, which looked a whole lot bigger from the water than they did from on board. The wind, the current, and the idling starboard engine were pushing the crewless boat away. I began to swim as fast as I could toward it, but slowed down as soon as I realized that I would exhaust myself before reaching it. Every few minutes, I paused to verify that I was swimming in the right direction or to correct my course. After several of these pauses, I realized that I was getting no closer to the boat. On the contrary, I was further from it than ever. I pulled off my sandals, and consciously trying to stay calm, I came up with a plan to try to save my life. I could not give in to panic. The plan was to swim slowly but steadily, and to try to hoard my energy and keep my body temperature stable until the wind or the current changed direction and there was a possibility of reaching the boat.
It was to be the longest and most trying swim of my life. Every stroke was a struggle. I could not keep from swallowing the water that repeatedly entered my mouth. Then I would cough and spit it up. For seconds at a time I experienced a drowning sensation, only to overcome it and realize that I was not drowning or dying. I remembered the boyhood swimming lessons I got from my father, a very good swimmer, and reproduced my father's coordinated arm movements, the position of his back, and the role of his legs and feet. Nevertheless, the boat was moving faster than I was. I endeavored mightily to concentrate on my goal, but it was hard to overcome my instinctive fear and to push out of my mind the idea that I might not survive. I remembered a book I had read about the life of Joshua Slocum, a man who sailed around the world alone in a boat the size of the Zorba in 1895. Slocum didn't know how to swim and when asked why not, answered that swimming in the open sea would only prolong the agony preceding a certain death. Slocum's response seemed very pragmatic at that moment. I remembered that New Orleans novelist John Biguenet had once had one of his characters, a fisherman in South Louisiana, express the same idea.
Memories of my father flooded my mind. I remembered one time when I was ten years old. My father and I were swimming near Mar del Plata in Argentina, about two hundred yards from the shore, when we suddenly found themselves swept into a strong current carrying us out to sea. My father told me not to struggle directly against the current to try to return to shore, but to go along with it until I could extract myself laterally from its pull. He told me to use my legs more than my arms, since they had larger muscles and would not tire so quickly. It was important to conserve the strength of my arms for the moment of opportunity when they would be needed to escape from the current.
I continued to swim toward the boat, but the idea that it would somehow move out of the current that was pulling it along did not seem very realistic. If I had to suffer the agony that Slocum referred to, I thought, then so be it. Drowning from exhaustion or drowning with strength to spare wouldn't make any difference, and it didn't make any sense to conserve my energy if death was in any case inevitable.
I thought of my children. Florencia and Julie were grown and thought themselves independent, but in fact they still depended on me a lot. What would they do without me? I could not abandon the struggle. I hadn't yet had enough time with my two younger children in Argentina. Nicholas was a little boy who had truly lost his father figure. Although we were not in touch with each other all the time, I knew that the boy still needed me a lot, just as when I was a boy I had needed my own father, the man who helped me develop the strengths and the perseverance that I had counted on throughout my life. His mother's love was very important to little Nicholas, but his father would have to help him develop the tools needed to reach adulthood, the tools, I thought, that were about to end up at the bottom of the sea. Caroline was still small; living with her mother was all she needed at that moment. That day would come, however, when the idea and reality of her father would be more important to her, and would become an important element of her own being. How much would my absence weigh on her? And again I thought of Slocum, and of my parents, and of Rechel, and again of my children.
I was kicking at a constant rhythm and moving my arms steadily, but without investing too much energy in each stroke. For a moment I stopped swimming, looked all around for my boat, and did not see it anywhere. A thirty-three foot boat had utterly disappeared. I waited for an approaching wave to lift me higher. Now at the crest of the swell, I quickly spun my head around and saw it. Panic took hold of me again when I realized that I had been swimming parallel to the boat's position rather than toward it. Then I thought about the gray shark that I had hooked several hours earlier. At any moment, I thought, I would feel a strong tug from below. I would be drawn down, feeling no pain, and brought back to the surface. I would see blood around me and try to find a leg, but it would be gone. The muscles of my back began to spasm, and my shoulders ached. Turning onto my back, I continued to kick, frog-like, while I rested my arms and shoulders. The shark pushed its way back into my mind. I was filled with remorse for all that I wanted to do and had not done. I was planning a skiing trip with my children and Rechel; that and many other regrets flooded my mind in a torrent and I despaired for myself and my family. The legacy that I wanted to leave my children, life's lessons, love, example; it was all to be cut short; as fragile as my small body in the ocean, overcome by the current, the wind, and my own fear, as fleeting as life itself.
Death approached. Suddenly, I was choking on water. I started to cough, I began to sink, but I sensed my arms continuing to resist. I was no longer trying to swim, just struggling to stay afloat, tossed by the waves of a sea that wanted nothing more than to swallow me. Desperate to breathe, I sucked in water and felt it enter my lungs. I had returned to the surface but was aware that my spasmodic coughing was keeping me from taking in air, when suddenly I breathed. My lungs filled with air, I coughed out water, and I inhaled again. I was breathing and afloat.
The boat looked closer. I swam with my head down, doing a frog kick and raising my head to inhale. I established a rhythm and soon saw the Zorba just a few strokes away. "Save the strength in your arms for the final push," my father had told me. This was the moment. Ignoring the pain in my shoulders, I began to swim freestyle with outstretched arms, cupping the palms of my hands, my legs extended behind me. Two strokes and breathe, two strokes and breathe, just as I had been taught as a boy. I reached the boat and grabbed a large metal ring hanging from the stern. Holding onto the ring, I lifted my legs to the surface and gathered my strength as a stabbing pain assaulted the space between my shoulder blades.
Waves pounded against the boat and shook the port engine, the rope now gone from its propeller. I would have to climb aboard, but my struggle for survival had left me without the energy to do so. I remembered the movie Titanic, where Leonardo di Caprio died holding onto a floating object occupied by the woman he loved. But he died because the waters of the North Atlantic are freezing cold, and I was not at all cold. I took short, quick breaths and the beating of my heart was a rapid pounding inside my head and behind my ears. My lips and fingers were numb and tingling; my vision was intermittently blurred. It was my respiration! Respiratory alkalosis produces precisely these effects. I had to slow down and deepen my breathing. I began to concentrate on managing it. I felt short of breath, but the symptoms improved. Looking for another way to get on board, I crossed to the right of the starboard engine, but nothing came to mind or caught my eye. The sharp steel blades of the starboard propeller were still spinning; touching them would amputate my foot in the water. Apprehensive about this eventuality, I moved over to the port side of the vessel. A wave pushed my chest sharply against the engine. For a few seconds my hands opened and I lost hold of the boat. A wave passed over my head and I tried to regain a hold on the stern, more than three feet above me, but I couldn't reach it and I was separated from the boat once more. I would have to swim those three feet before the boat moved even further away from me. I was again filled with panic, but I reached the boat in three strokes. There I stayed, hanging on for dear life. I saw nothing but the boat, the sea, and myself. My fear never left me, and it intensified when I allowed myself to think: All they would find would be an empty boat. Coast Guard helicopters would search for my body, which would have sunk, begun to decompose, and risen to the surface after three days. That would be Tuesday or Wednesday, I thought. Nothing would be left but a pallid and sodden mass of decomposing muscle and bone, which would be stuffed into a black plastic bag for cremation.
A length of rope hung from the bow near the anchor. If only I could reach it, I thought. It was so high, though, there was no way I could get hold of it. Suddenly I noticed something large and gray above the water, in a direction perpendicular to the green troughs and peaks of the rising and falling waves. A shark! I did not see it clearly but it had to be a shark. It could not be a dolphin, a tuna, or a wahoo; only sharks were gray. If a shark was swimming around the boat it would attack me submerged legs first. I raised my feet as near the surface as I could. I had seen in a Jacques Cousteau movie that the nose of the bull shark was sensitive; that's where divers hit them with a metal bar from the safety of an underwater cage. What could I hit it with, my fist?
With all of these thoughts racing through my mind, I thought if I could get between the engines, I would have some protection. I remembered the switch that lowered the port engine, which had been up ever since I removed the rope. The engine came down as I pressed the button located on the right side of the cover. I raised my body and lifted my legs as high as I could by grabbing onto the port engine. I felt safer in that tight space. If I could hug the port engine and raise my body with the hydraulic system, perhaps I could get back on deck. My arms couldn't reach the upper part of the engine, which was above the water line. I held my breath, placed my abdomen against the rear of the engine, wrapped my right arm around it further forward, and grasped it with my legs. Now I was hugging the engine in a fetal position. I extended my right arm to push the button and then it began to rise out of the water with me on it. I maneuvered my body by placing my feet on the top of the propeller and holding myself up with my right hand on a steering bar that ran between the two units. I would need more support to get on board, though. I decided to use the starboard engine, which was running. If I raised it out of the water it would overheat and seize up within seconds, but that was a sacrifice I would have to make. I placed my right foot on the lower part of the starboard engine and pushed the button to raise it with my right hand. The sound of the running propeller lifting itself out of the water increased my terror at the idea of amputation. With both engines raised I made a final effort, lifted myself up, and fell onto the deck. I jumped up as quickly as I could and shut down the starboard engine, then fell back onto the deck. Suddenly I was chilled and began to shiver. I didn't want to move, and in any case was not able to. Looking around, I saw that night was beginning to fall, and fell asleep. When I woke up I was still cold. I knew that I was dehydrated and should drink. Lifting myself up, I found a bottle of water and drank it, then another. My clothing had dried, but the chill persisted. Gathering my strength, I went to the cabin and put on a jacket and hat. Back on deck, I looked around. The oil platform was not in sight. In fact, there was nothing visible on the horizon other than water and the reflection of the twilight on the waves. About five hours had passed since I fell into the water. I had probably been in the water for three hours and climbed back on board less than two hours before.
I sat down at the instrument panel. I lowered both engines and turned on the radar and the satellite navigation system. I started the port engine; the alarm did not sound. I started the starboard engine; not only had it not seized, but it was idling normally. I grabbed a third bottle of water and a bag of potato chips and started back, heading north toward the western mouth of the Mississippi. By the time I entered the Southwest Pass, the navigation lights were on and it was dark. Green lights on the radar screen clearly indicated both banks of the river and other vessels. In a little over an hour of traveling at full speed in calm water I would arrive at the Venice Marina. I lit a cigar, poured myself vodka on the rocks, and continued up the river.
When I arrived at the marina, I found several fishermen cleaning their catch in the area set aside for that purpose. I asked a marina employee if he would like some fish and the man said yes. I told him that there was a ninety pound cobia in the fish box and that he could have it. Then I asked if he could clean the boat, and passed him a hundred dollar bill.
"But this is a lot; you're already giving me the fish."
"As tired as I am, I'd give you more if I had it."
"OK doctor, don't worry," he answered, "I'll make it sparkle."
I gathered my few belongings and carried them to the pickup truck. I got behind the wheel, started the truck, and headed back to Mandeville.
Now on Highway 23, I was overcome by emotion. I could hardly believe that I was alive, breathing air, and driving up the highway. I thought of my children and cried intermittently for them, for myself, for the fear I had experienced, and for the blessing of life that I had been granted.