Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"Another moral to my list: don't haul sharks aboard."

I'm reading the true-life high seas adventure story, Desperate Voyage, written by John Caldwell in 1946. Caldwell was stranded in Panama after the war and couldn't find a ship to take him to his wife in Australia. He tried stowing away on a freighter but was caught and arrested. He escaped from jail and bought a 29-foot sloop called Pagan and set out for Sydney with two kittens named Flotsam and Jetsam. The book is awesome.

Below is an excerpt from the book where Caldwell brings a massive shark onboard so he can cut out its jaws to show his wife. Below is the most intense fishing story I've ever heard, and I've heard a lot of them. This story is so good I re-typed the entire section from the book:

The shark which filliped Pagan's hull that morning of the twenty-third was a whopper. I couldn't help but marvel at him. He was all shark. He had the swagger of a brute bully; he was half the length of Pagan, and had teeth the size of fingers.

When I saw those staggered twisted teeth I wanted them ... to show what I had seen. I wanted Mary to see that crushing jawbone, to hold it in her hand.

I brought my heavy sport reel and pole on deck, and attached my largest shark hook. I baited it with a fat yellowjack partly gnawed at by Flotsam and Jetsam. When the shark came near I dangled it before him and dragged it away before he could look it over, a simple bit of classroom psychology which, as it whetted him, angered him. Next time he nuzzled it, and arrogantly swept it into his jagged mouth.

I heaved back with all the strength I had. The hook lodged unmistakably in his bold jaw, and with the burn of cold steel he tensed, then, slashing about with a startled suddenness roiling the water, sent a wave against the planking and made off to beamward.

Threshing in agitation with his slow main strength, he battled away from the boat, making the reel hum. When he ended his run of sixty yards he turned on the hook and flailed the surface, gleaming silvery as he twisted in foam.

I braced myself against the lashed tiller for a ringside view of the most fascinating struggle I had ever seen.

The massive thing tore at the surface of the water, bending violently, from U shape to S shape, champing viciously. Sometimes he appeared astern, then on the bow, always with a smear on the quiet sea. He turned on his back and threshed fitfully, or spun in great full circles abeam and close aboard, followed by his pilot fish.

At one time he was more than a hundred feet down straight under me --- so deep in fact I could see nothing in the limpid water. His most spectacular effort came about a half hour after he had been hooked. He had fought the line to its end, dead astern. With dorsal fin cleaving the surface he sped in fury full around the boat, threshing mightily as he went. Spray shot above him and a long wake rolled away behind him. He ended his circular run, paused a second, then sped fifty feet toward the quarter, swirled about, and raced away as though he would wrench his head off with the impending shock at the line's end. Barely before he reached the the line's end he thrust himself from the water, and twisting on his back he sent a shiver from head to tail that, had the line grown taut --- even if it were a boltrope --- would have snapped like spaghetti. After that his defiance fell completely away. He struggled only pettily as I towed him to the rail.

The teeth I saw were unbelievable. They lay in two uneven rows, each two inches long and thicker than a pencil. They jutted at rakish angles, looked unmercifully sharp, and were wielded by a jaw mammoth enough to crush bone. My envy of his power, coupled with the animal instincts of the victor, induced me to lean over the rail and punch him in the nose. I found it about as hard as Pagan's decks.

The great jaw, the jagged teeth --- they were fascinating. But how to get them? My wicked intuition that all was well prodded me. Pull him aboard; cut his head off; boil the flesh away --- it's simple.

Flotsam and Jetsam, with paws on the rail, could smell the fishy stench of the beast's breath and were fidgeting and mewing eagerly for a feast. I decided to pull him aboard.

First, I naively tried to lift him by direct pull, but only budged him scantily. He weighed hundreds of pounds. I fastened the main halyard to the gaff hook fitted in his gill and with desperate heaves dragged him an inch at a time over the transom, into the cockpit. What a monster. His head lay in the cockpit and his tail hung over the stern. He stirred faintly. I took the hatchet and buried it in his spine to end his tremors. A spurt of blood sprayed over me.

At the same moment the big body quivered violently. Flotsam and Jetsam went racing to the bow. I watched them. I heard a resounding scuffle and saw my tiller, splintered loose at the rudderpost, go flying into the sea.

All hell broke loose around me. The great shark came completely to life, threw himself in wild assault. With great sweeps of his tail and butts of his head he swept my legs from under me, almost knocking me overboard.

The great tail was pounding up and down like a sledgehammer, splintering, slamming, erasing. The gas-tank hatch disintegrated in a flash and the brazed copper tank went flat, spilling its load into the bilge. I clung to the rail, horror-stricken. The cockpit coaming rumbled, shattered, and flew at me, and if I hadn't ducked it would have gone down my throat.

In the meantime the hatchway sliding door had been popped through to the cabin floor and the rear porthole cracked. The bottom of the cockpit was giving way. Pagan was bouncing as though pounded by great fist blows.

I darted as close as I dared, grabbed up my hatchet, and chopped away at the heaving spine. Again he set to beating with sinuous motions. The partition between the engine compartment and the cockpit screamed and split away. The cockpit deck itself broke through, the gasoline drums rumbled into the engine compartment, and the shark lay head down on the motor. I jumped in and struck again, burying the blade, and burying it again.

The destruction went on.

Pagan was being blasted apart before my eyes. I hacked with the hatchet like a wild woodcutter. I opened gashes in the head, and in the back. I had chopped his dorsal fin half away. Still he mauled my boat. I was afraid he would work his way into the cabin and rip it down or endanger the mast. I struck the harder. I went after him like a madman --- blood bespattered and desperate.

He mangled the engine with side movements of his head, bending the sparkplugs down and tearing the wiring away. He fell beside the motor, threw himself around athwartships, and lying on the propeller shaft throbbed till it bent out of line. I was terrified lest he should work his way against the ribbing and smash the hull open. I lay on my side atop the engine, eased close, and notched a great hole in his stomach and lower jaw.

He jumped spasmodically. I moved after him, lost in the bloody, death-dealing strokes. I cut his eye completely out and opened a hole from his gill to his shorn dorsal fin; still he lashed like a whip.

I sidled closer, drawing my legs up so that I could fit into the confined space, and turned more on my side to apply all my strength. Aiming for his nose --- a supposed Achilles' heel --- I laid it open bone and all, as far back as his front teeth. Still he throbbed dangerously. Moving closer --- inches from him --- I hacked into his vital stomach organs.

I was so far gone I was hardly nicking him. But it suddenly didn't matter; he gaped at the mouth and lay still. I lay for a long time beside him, watching him, hoping he wouldn't move, because if he had, I would have been in his way and too tired to shift. Everything about me was either smashed or coated red. I was caked with blood.

The cockpit was a gaping hole. In the midst of it, the kittens were growling hungrily over the shark; chewing tastily with the corners of their mouths. I cut them a sizable meal and placed them with it on the fore scuttle.

After such a contest to subdue the shark, I considered his jawbone more a prize than ever. I cut his head off and later cleaned and scraped the bones and yellow teeth --- a gruesome sight.

To heave the carcass over the side I had to cut it into two pieces and tussle with it by main strength. As to the wreckage --- most of my space time for the next two weeks was spent in rebuilding the stern.

Because of the shark I added another moral to my list: don't haul sharks aboard!

This is why Hemingway usually carried a tommy gun onboard to blast them before he hauled them onto the boat.
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