Fish are funny creatures. Sixty years matching wits with them have taught me that. Sixty years, from a little tacker helping granddad unload his scruffy old prawn trawler to now, retired myself and still going out looking for the big one.
This time I should have known better, I suppose. My wife always says Im a silly old fool. The kids, when they deign to visit, certainly treat me like one. But I couldnt sleep. It was going to be a beautiful spring day and the water was calm. So instead of tossing and turning in bed I got up just before morning began to lighten the sky and set off for the beach. It wasnt far - we live just by the jetty - but I rugged up anyway, for there was still a definite nip in the air.
I filled the old stainless steel flask with coffee made with plenty of scalding milk, grabbed a bag of bait from the deep freeze, picked up my rod from the porch and left the house to walk the few metres to our old twelve-foot tinny lying just up on the sand with fishing gear in the locker. Normally, always really, I went out with my mate Alec but hed gone interstate to his first grandsons wedding. I didnt think twice about setting off alone.
Forty minutes later I was about three miles offshore with a couple of lines out. The sun was just up over the gentlest of swells, turning gold into azure and with it the promise of another fine day. I thought that it didnt get much better than this.
Having seriously considered cracking a can I decided better and opened the flask. The coffee was real good but made me visualise, almost taste, the late breakfast of fresh fish that would be my reward for this hard work. Then I leaned back, at peace with the world. There were a couple of tentative tugs on the lines, but nothing really to rouse my hopes. No worries, the sea was moving gently, it really was comfortable in the old dinghy and Id slept badly last night. I slid the Akubra forward, stretched out and started thinking philosophical thoughts...
...Wow! The boat rocked violently, exploding a beautiful dream of nubile lovelies on dazzling white sands. Or was it big fish in a blue-black sea? It was beautiful, that I do remember. One of the lines was full taut, pulling at the dinghy. This one has got to be gi-normous! Fishermans instinct wide awake, I grabbed the rod and bought myself a fight.
Twenty minutes I battled with whatever was on the other end. There were no spectacular leaps, no flurries of white water, just a steady, strong pull. Slowly I began to win and after another half-hours struggle there were just a couple of metres to go. All of a sudden, there he was. It was the biggest schnapper Id ever seen - this was going to be a record if ever I saw one. Ecstatic, I grabbed the gaff and was up for the last rites. I put my foot up on the side of the boat for the tiny bit more leverage necessary to get this monster aboard.
Then it happened. The old tinny never had much freeboard anyway and without Alecs counterbalancing weight several things occurred at the same time - the boat rocked, water poured over the side, the fish kept pulling and I pitched headfirst into the drink. The shock, the cold, was savage, but my heavy clothes billowing out kept me nicely afloat. Or so it seemed. What really happened was that I was still hanging on to the rod and now the tables were turned and my prize was dragging me away from the boat.
I let go and with an effort turned in the water to grab the dinghy. It was there all rightfifteen metres away. By now my clothes and the rubber boots I always wore for fishing were fully waterlogged and the cold was beginning to tell. With no lifejacket - Alec would have made me wear one - and weighed down by sodden garments I wasnt going to break any swimming records, thats for sure. Being over sixty-five didnt help either. I gave it my best shot but I knew I would never reach that boat. In fact, it steadily became obvious to me that I would never make it at all. In desperation I stuck my head up and looked around. Surely there would be someone else fishing nearby. But I saw no other craft - the sleepless night had made sure I had come out just that bit too early.
I realised that despite my efforts the boat was slowly but surely drifting away. Now I could feel the drag of the sea pulling me down, reversing roles and claiming me as another of its prizes. All panic subsided. A strange calm came over me and I remember thinking that this is what its like to die.
Well, twice I went right under and twice I fought my way back up. But I was getting more and more exhausted. Then my mind cut off the adrenalin and whispered to me Here comes the third time. I slipped below the surface and let my arms and legs relax, dreamily thinking that it was all a bit like going to sleep.
Suddenly one outstretched hand hit something hard under me, there was firm upward pressure and I broke surface once more, spluttering and thrashing about. Again there was a push from below, gentler this time, inquisitive. Something solid slid alongside and, too far gone to see anything, I grabbed what seemed to be a vertical fin.
I hung on to that dolphin like, well, like grim life. My mind immediately returned to terrestrial, or at least marine, considerations and I realised that I was being held afloat by a member of our local pod that often accompanied us as we checked out the coast for best fishing chances. We were accustomed to chucking most of our catch to these playful animals and we always thought they stayed around just for the fun of it. Perhaps, just perhaps, I thought wildly, hes arrived to pay his dues.
Anyway, he dragged me the whole three miles in at a rate of knots, right to the very beach from where I had set sail.
The next thing I knew my feet were dragging along the sand. Then I lost grip on the fin and was propelled up into the shallows by a hard, almost contemptuous, flick of his tail as my saviour turned about and left me on my knees, coughing and spluttering.
Amidst great shouting, strong arms lifted me and I was carried away out of the water and laid on the now-warm sand. I was done for and my eyes were slitted up by the salt but I could just make out several people, including a policeman, standing over me. They wrapped me in a crinkly silver blanket and I heard a voice saying the ambulance was on its way. For once I was content just to lie there, exhausted but alive. It took a couple of minutes for me to regather my senses and although I wasnt able to sit up yet, I could see my helpers a bit better. They were regarding me with total awe. I tried a grin and my voice was croaky, but it came out:
I guess youll all have a story to tell - its not every day you see someone saved by a dolphin...
There was a long silence during which they stared at me then at one another. Then a young man who looked like a life saver and probably was the one who carried me out of the surf said softly,
Mate, that was no dolphin. I got a good look at im. That was a Noahs Ark.
The policemen said Youre a very lucky man, sir.
My wife, who had come down to see what the commotion was all about, finished it off.
I told you. Youre a silly old fool. But I could see shed been crying.
Like I said, fish - and people - are funny creatures.
Roger Marchant 2015