Sword Fishing Aboard The Bee II
A Boy’s Vignette of 1961
by Gary L. Misch
In my Navy career I saw many a large sea creature from the bridges of my various ships - sword fish, whales, sharks, and many, many dolphins. Most were just passing by, though the dolphins seemed convinced that the ship was a relative, especially when it was using its high powered sonar. They would swim along with us, sometimes for what seemed like hours. Some of those creatures were basking on the surface. In a few lucky cases a particularly large creature, most often a shark or whale, would swim right past the bridge wing, giving me a bird's eye view of a huge animal from 35 feet up. Whenever I saw one of those, especially a shark, I remembered the expression: "You're no longer at the top of the food chain once you pass the water's edge."
The first time I saw a swordfish close up I was probably about eleven years old. I'd gone fishing with my Uncle Berrick and cousin Steven. When we got aboard his boat, Uncle Berrick started chatting with someone on his marine radio. Then he gathered us up, hopped in his car, and drove us over to MacNight's Marina, which was so close that we could see my uncle's boat from there. "Let's go, boys," he said, as my uncle led us out to a huge (to us) 42 foot sport fisherman. The Bee II had every bell, whistle, and doo-dad that any off shore fisherman could want. It had a bow pulpit for harpooning swordfish, a flying bridge for controlling the boat with better visibility, a tall stainless tower for spotting fish, cabin controls for foul weather ops, big twin engines to get you off shore nice and quick, and lots of antennas for her electronics. There were dual outriggers. I was very impressed, even if I didn't quite understand everything. The part I did understand was the gear for going after swordfish. My Dad had some of the same gear.
Just to prove that the bow pulpit wasn't for show, there was a seven foot harpoon griped down in chocks on the fore deck. Two drums, neatly wound with smooth manila line, for tracking a harpooned fish, were secured in individual chocks, one to port, and one to starboard. Each drum had the Bee's name and home port neatly stenciled on one end, so that, should a fish run off with it, anyone who recovered it might presumably return it. The whole setup looked both business-like and classy. The Bee II had a tall, no nonsense gyn pole on the starboard side of the cockpit, all the way forward, and a fighting chair that looked strong enough to take on giant tuna. The Bee's owner was a man in his sixties named Howard. Howard had thinning gray hair and a weathered face. He looked a little old to be running such a big boat by himself. His wife was Bea. The Bee II was named after her. I had seen boats like this, but this was as serious a fishing boat as I had ever actually been aboard. She was painted a bright white, with a varnished cap rail. Her bright blue awning was folded back from the flying bridge so that we could enjoy today's summer sun.
Steve was a few years younger than I was, and at our ages, neither of us were expected to do any real work in getting underway. Howard fired up the two gas engines, which made a soft purring sound as they came up to temperature. As they idled, the exhausts made a glug glug sound, spitting out exhaust gases half under water. Bea and my uncle cast us off, and we heard the distinctive sound of the air operated pneumatic controls as Howard maneuvered us out of the slip. Each time he shifted one of the two engines there was a soft "phft". I'd never heard pneumatic controls before, and I found them fascinating. After a few minutes of watching the shore line go by, Steve and I went below to talk while we cruised out of Salt Pond.
Steve was a source of confusion to me. Though he was born and raised in Providence, he was a Yankees fan. That seemed like an irrational act. I supposed that he got it from his maternal grandparents, who lived in New York. Nevertheless, we got along.
When underway, we liked to hang out in the vee berths all the way up forward, where things bounced around the most, but there wasn't much motion right now, so we mostly jabbered. After we cleared the harbor of refuge, an area outside of Salt Pond that was mostly surrounded by stone breakwaters, we picked up a pretty good chop, but the Bee II was a lot bigger than Uncle Berrick's boat, and the vee berths just didn't bounce around so much. We headed topside to see what things looked like. Bea was in the cabin making sandwiches.
The Bee could really move through the water. She cut the chop, giving a pretty smooth ride. Point Judith and its harbor of refuge was fast receding astern, and Block Island's sandy bluffs were clear ahead. It was a bit too choppy for very small fishing boats, but we could see a fair number of sport fishermen close to our size. On the horizon, a medium size freighter with a green hull was heading west into Long Island Sound. We could see a gray Navy destroyer standing into Narragansett Bay off to the east. Steve headed up the chrome and wood ladder to the flying bridge, where my uncle and Howard were running the boat. I followed. It was pretty crowded up there with four people; I had to stand and hold on. Even though the Bee didn't seem to be moving all that much down on the main deck, the flying bridge was really moving around. There were all sorts of toys up there; two radios, a radar, and a depth finder. There were even more electronics down in the cabin. Steve wanted to go up in the tower, but my uncle told him to stay down on the bridge. This was just as well; Steve was fearless, and would go anywhere, but he was unlucky. By the time he was fifteen, he would have broken both arms, a leg, and a wrist. He would have both knees replaced by age fifty.
Uncle Berrick spent a lot of time on the radio, talking with other skippers who he seemed to know, trying to ascertain how the fishing was. The skippers wouldn't say straight out how they were doing, or where they were, but if you knew them well, they might talk in a kind of private code. Otherwise, they'd just say that there wasn't much happening. I was ready to go back down on deck; I was getting tired of hanging on standing up with all the ocean motion.
When I got down, Bea had some tuna sandwiches and sodas out. We ran for about ninety minutes more when the engines slowed to near idle, and the Bee started just barely easing through the water, the seas hissing by her. Uncle Berrick came down and let out two trolling rods. When the line was out where he wanted it, he clipped each line to a clothespin suspended by a length of marlin that spanned the stern of the boat. He set up two deck chairs, and called Steve and me together. "Have a seat, boys. If either line comes out of its clip, I'll come down and set the rod up for one of you to reel it in. Just reel evenly. Stop if the fish is taking too hard. I'll be there to give you a hand. Understand?" We both nodded. Uncle Berrick went back up to the flying bridge with Howard while Steve and I watched the lines.
The wind was dying down. The sea surface had gotten smooth, with just the occasional wind driven scaly look. The sky was clear, with the sun high in the southeast, dazzling off the calm waters. To starboard we could see the sandy Mohegan bluffs of the eastern end of Block Island. They towered straight up from the sea. The rumor was that they were eroding, and the island was shrinking a few inches every year. Some said that Southeast Light, high atop the bluffs, would fall into the sea in just ten years or so.
A line snapped from its clip as the reel sang out, the reel's drag buzzing wildly as line flew off. Somewhere beneath the water a fish, most likely a blue, was swimming wildly, trying to throw the hook from its mouth. Uncle Berrick flew down from the flying bridge, pulled the rod from its holder, and gently adjusted the star shaped drag. The buzzing slowed to a steady click. He handed the rod to Steve. "Here, sit!" He kept his own hands on the rod as he maneuvered Steve into the starboard chair. "Wait 'til he stops running, then start to reel. Keep your thumb off the spool. If he starts to run again, stop reeling until he stops. Thumb off the spool!" He looked over at me. "You're next, Gary."
My uncle stepped back to watch Steve fight the fish, but gave the other rod tip an occasional glance. Bluefish ran in schools, and the odds of a second hit were good. "Berrick, get the other line in ASAP!" It was Howard, calling down from the bridge. My uncle looked up at him. Howard just gestured impatiently at the other rod, then motioned with his arm for him to get back up to the bridge. Uncle Berrick took the other rod, handed it to me and showed me how he wanted the line retrieved. "Nice and even," he said. Then he scampered up he ladder to the flying bridge like an acrobat. I was busy reeling as fast as I could, carefully level winding the line with my thumb, but I stopped just long enough to glance up to the bridge for a moment. Howard and Uncle Berrick were having an animated conversation; Howard was pointing at something in the water, broad on the port bow. Without realizing it, I'd begun reeling again without paying attention. Suddenly, the rig sprung out of the water, nearly catching my ear as it flew by. Behind me, Bea ducked to miss it as well. I caught the plug as it swung back, clipped it to a rod guide, and called up to my uncle: "My line's aboard." I stuck the rod in a holder. Just then Steve called out that his fish was in sight. I saw it come out of the water, shaking, trying to lose that hook. My uncle came back down on deck, reached under the combing, and pulled out a long handled gaff. There was a soft phft, indicating that Howard had put the Bee's engines in neutral so that Steve could get the fish in faster. It was alongside in under a minute - a nice bluefish - maybe 10-12 pounds. Uncle Berrick put his hand on the rod, raising the tip to bring the fish to the surface, then with one smooth motion, brought the gaff under the fish and lifted it into the boat. I'd seen him do it hundreds of times, and he had never missed. The blue went right into the fish box, and Uncle Berrick quickly secured the rod and went back to the bridge. The bluefish made some noise flopping around for a few minutes, then went quiet.
The Bee didn't immediately get back underway. Uncle Berrick and Howard continued to talk, and look out in the same direction. Howard had his binoculars out now. Finally, Uncle Berrick put the binoculars' strap around his neck, and climbed up to the lookout tower. The sea was very calm, but as I looked up at him from way down on the cockpit deck, he seemed to move way back and forth with each little movement of the boat. Finally, He came back down and gave Howard the binoculars, then climbed back down on deck.
My uncle turned to us with a smile. "We're going after a swordfish, boys. Once we're rigged up, go up to the bridge. I'm going to iron him." My uncle didn't smile much, but this was a very special occasion. He turned, grabbed a handle on the gyn pole, pulled himself up, and walked up on to the fore deck.
There was a pneumatic phft. The Bee II's engines were in gear again. She cruised slowly ahead, coming slightly to port. Bea handed us a big brown paper bag. "Lunch," she said, "now up to the bridge with you. There's going to be some real action." She turned, walked back into the cabin, and picked up a book.
Howard was carefully conning the Bee while scanning the sea through his binoculars every few minutes. "Can you see him, boys?" He pointed to a spot about 300 yards distant, almost directly to port. "You can see his fin. He's sunning himself." I could just barely make out two little bumps, a dorsal and a tail fin on the calm surface of the sea. "Keep an eye on him, if you can." It was a lot more interesting to keep an eye on the fore deck, where Uncle Berrick was getting ready.
This is a good time to pause, and explain a bit of how one harpoons, or "irons" a swordfish. Though I was only eleven years old, I was already well acquainted with the procedure. Though my father had only a 22 1/2 foot MacKenzie Cuttyhunk bass boat, we were well equipped to do this very same deed.
In those days, a swordfish of 6-8 feet, and 400-500 pounds was common. They would often bask on the surface on a sunny day. A harpoon for a boat such as the Bee would be about 8 feet long, the first 6 feet being a wooden handle, and the last 2 feet being a bronze rod. We would slip a bronze dart onto the end of the rod. The dart would be secured to a 40 foot length of manila line. The bitter end of the line would be tied to a bridle secured to a wooden drum. When stowed, the line would be rolled around the drum. On the Bee there were two drums, ready for use, with lines and darts in place, plus one harpoon, chocked down, ready to go.
When Uncle Berrick got up on the fore deck, he removed the tie downs from the starboard barrel and the harpoon, but he didn't set the harpoon up on the bow pulpit. He turned to Howard, and pointed to a spot on the starboard side of the foredeck. "I'm gonna iron him from right here." So. He wasn't going to use the bow pulpit. "Why do you suppose he's not going to use the bow pulpit?" I asked Howard. "It'll be easier for me to drive right up on the fish," he said. All the while, Howard didn't take his eyes off the swordfish. He was steering the Bee in a lazy circle that got smaller as he closed in. I had trouble keeping the swordfish in sight. I kept losing its fins in the sun's glare, then as it came out of the glare I'd find it, but then I'd lose it again as the light flattened out. Then we weren't circling anymore. Howard hadn't lost sight of him.
Bea was out in the cockpit, working on the gyn pole. She uncleated the working end of the line and pulled the block down on deck. She went to a locker on the starboard side and pulled out a bridle with what looked like a hangman's knot on the end and a small loop on the other, along with a ball of marlin. She placed the loop over the hook on the block at the end of the gyn pole's block and tackle, then moused the hook to ensure that the loop couldn't come off. She slipped the open hangman's knot over a stern cleat, then took a gentle strain on the block and tackle so that the rig wouldn't flop around. The Bee was ready to take the swordfish aboard.
The bow of the Bee had been sighted directly on the big fish. The engine RPMs increased a bit; we were making our run. Uncle Berrick had the harpoon in hand, his right hand on the very end, his left supporting the mid section. He had his eyes on the fish, his legs flexed slightly to keep his balance. He had pressed his feet up against the starboard toe rail so that he'd know where the deck edge was. The fish was less than fifty yards out, still sunning itself, swimming lazily. As we came alongside him, he began to go under. I could see his eyes, which seemed to be looking up at us. My uncle raised his right arm as high as he could, and thrust the harpoon straight down, deep into the fish. His right hand, at the very end of the harpoon, thrust the harpoon as far down as he could without falling overboard before he let go, then he stood back up. It seemed to me that I could hear the dart thud as it went in, though I can't imagine that to have been true. Then we were past each other, the boat and the fish. My uncle tossed the drum over - it hit the water with a splash (we could hear it clearly, even over the engines). I heard the engines shift into neutral again. The fish was sounding, going deep with that dart in him, leaving the harpoon itself behind. The white wooden handle floated almost strait up and down about fifty yards astern. The tracking drum was rolling and bobbing on the surface of the sea as the line payed out. We waited for it to start moving as the big fish swam away. Then, the Bee would be back in gear, following. Suddenly all the line was gone, and the white drum floated free, bobbing high in the water, clean of all line. There was no bridle holding the bitter end. The end of the drum seemed to mock us with the neatly stenciled name of the boat "Bee II," which was no longer revolving. All the line was gone - the swordfish was gone with it. Who had failed to make fast the line to the drum? Where was the bridle? My uncle was standing on the foredeck, looking up at Howard on the bridge with an indescribable look. Howard was looking back at him, shaking his head. Finally, Howard spoke, in a not too steady voice. "The yard put the thing together when they put her in the water." There was really nothing he could say. The likelihood of the fish and line reappearing was remote, though I didn't know it at the time.
Howard easily brought us alongside the harpoon, which I helped Bea snatch from the water. It was heavier than I thought it would be - we both had to put both of our hands on it to get it aboard. We passed it to Uncle Berrick, who brought it forward, and gripped it down in its chocks. The drum wasn't so easy. It kept drifting away. Eventually, we picked it up. We found no bridle for attaching a line on it. The yard had just rolled a decorative line around it. They'd done the same with the port barrel, which was still onboard.
We spent another half hour searching for signs of the fish. We finally spotted it (we thought), but only for a moment, until it sounded again, still impaled by the dart, and trailing the manila line. Finally, we turned our bow toward home, as Howard and Uncle Berrick discussed the event over bottles of Narragansett. Steve and I didn't listen. Bea went back to her book.
Copyright 2014-2015 by Gary L. Misch
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