We are trolling slowly homewards at the end of Major and Mrs. Bruce Kinloch's two-day charter. It has been both a celebration of fifty years of marriage, and a quest to find a blue marlin for the Major, who - despite some forty years of service on the African coast in various civil positions - has never caught one before. With some trepidation we have earlier put the sprightly 72 year-old angler into the chair at just past 1.00 pm, firmly attached to a lively fish on 130 lb gear.
After some fancy boat work and plenty of black smoke we had the marlin alongside the boat after 35 minutes for the customary tags and measuring. The 450 lb fish had swum off into a dull afternoon and an angler's cherished dream had come true. We celebrated with an extensive lunch, and Richard and I quietly congratulated ourselves and considered a difficult job well done. It is Richard’s first season as a deckhand, and although he has yet to actually wire a marlin, he is proving himself extremely capable and efficient on the boat, a fact I remind him of often as he is both older and stronger than me!
It is now 6.15 pm, and we are 30 minutes away from home. The weather has deteriorated and the afternoon is now grey and cold. Small white waves thud against the hull as we slowly head along the last of the drop-off. I look down at the sounder, see 69.8°F, and look back into the two contented faces of the Major and his wife, huddled up against the cold. Richard is also looking forward, grinning from ear to ear. Over his shoulder I see a huge black hole where the right rigger lure should be and feel the outrigger thud slowly as if in shock. I scream 'FISH!' at the startled faces a mere two yards away from me and gun the boat. Even as Richard reels back with surprise and drops down into the cockpit - the good major and his wife following more slowly - I sense the fish is solidly hooked, and immediately put the boat into idle. I can see the dacron curving across the wake, slowly moving to the left. I yell at Richard not to panic and to bring the other rigger line in first - I can then go stern-first after the fish before it takes too much line for the poor Major. I instinctively feel that the fish is big and I am acutely aware that darkness is only 60 minutes away. As we start to chase the line astern I become aware of a fish jumping heavily out past the bow, but do not pay attention as I am making sure the two flat-lines are clear of the propellers before I, too, descend the ladder for the cockpit controls.
Amongst the confusion in the cockpit I stop and stare. The good major has decided that fifty years of marriage is repayable in kind, and he has ushered his 67 year-old wife into the chair. Richard is clipping her up to the 80 lb outfit, shaking his head as he does so. Fifty yards behind her, a huge blue marlin is sliding away from us into the gloom of the afternoon, her back and dorsal clear of the dark water. I curse and run for the VHF at the inside helm-station.
ANGUILLA is already back in harbour and within 10 seconds I have raised Jonno and explained the situation. He literally drops the VHF and goes off the air without stating his intentions. Puzzled and somewhat annoyed I return to the cockpit and make a determined effort to stay as close as possible to the fish and for twenty minutes we manage to miraculously keep her within 100 yards of the boat as MARGARITA barrels astern into a slowly increasing chop. Thankfully the marlin remains on the surface, and each time she shows herself Richard and I shout with excitement and awe, our teeth jarring in our heads from the severely cavitating propellers. Elizabeth Kinloch is winding for all she is worth, and we encourage her as much as we can. As could be expected of a woman who has sturdily born the tribulations of colonial life in Africa, she grits her teeth and manfully winds and pumps as she has seen her husband do some hours before. The fish takes line in sudden bursts, ripping it noisily off the reel, but each time it slows again, seemingly unbothered by the pressure and we continue to regain whatever line we lose.
After 45 minutes I can see a small inflatable far away in the distance, leaping from whitecap to whitecap, and I realise what Jonno has done and that help is close at hand. Suddenly the small boat stops, and for two minutes it remains motionless in the water as we back down further away from it. I start to fear that they have run out of fuel, but suddenly it is up running again. Incredibly, the sea-conditions are changing. The wind dies away within minutes, and the surface of the water takes on a slow deep-troughed appearance. We have entered the strong currents off Ponta da Cruz, and MARGARITA starts to wallow as she continues astern after the huge fish.
Jonno and his crewman Myles finally catch up with us, and Myles puts the inflatable against the bow of MARGARITA, an act unseen by everyone else aboard. Jonno climbs on board with some effort and as he steps down past me into the cockpit from the fore-deck I realise he is dripping wet. He explains quietly that a huge wave had catapulted him out of the inflatable and he goes down below to quickly change into dry clothes. Within seconds he reappears and I quickly explain the situation to him. I tell him that the fish is somewhat over 1000lbs in weight, and he grins with excitement and starts setting out tag sticks and gloves. Elizabeth is in a sweating world of her own, still steadily reeling when able, but it is only now that she notices Jonno and with a start she imperiously demands to know where he has come from! The Major is balanced precariously on the fly-bridge ladder with a camera and continues to encourage her in his soft Scottish accent.
MARGARITA continues to go astern in the waning light, Myles and the inflatable off to one side. The swell grows steadily.
At 8.15, just before the light goes, Jonno has a hand on the trace as MARGARITA pours astern at six or seven knots, the boat shuddering with the strain. The fish is parallel with the boat, her huge tall churning white water, but is there for the tagging. Jonno wraps once and heaves. The fish surges out of the water and everyone shouts with excitement, except for Jonno, who grunts with effort. He wraps once more, and the fish starts to finally recognise the extra pressure. She jumps again and in mid-flight Richard and I unbelievably each manage to put a tag in her at full stretch, almost simultaneously. The fish immediately starts to jump across the stern of the boat in slow motion, each splash of water soaking Jonno. We are still going astern in a pall of black smoke and as Jonno is dragged around the transom to the opposite corner we can see the lure and one hook hanging out of the far side of the fish's mouth. Poor Jonno reaches the corner of the cockpit and the fish accelerates away, leaving him pinned against the covering board. Almost in slow-motion the wraps leave his hand with reluctance and the fish is gone, the reel screaming as the marlin goes deep for the first time. It is at this moment that Jonno breaks a bone in his left hand, but he says nothing until much later.
Until now, Elizabeth has done everything according to IGFA rules apart from Richard putting the rod into the chair for her. Having tagged the fish though, some of her strength goes, and now Richard is forced to help her back and forth in the chair for another forty minutes. The angler cannot weigh more than 110 lbs, and has difficulty in pulling back against the weight of the fish. During that time, the fish heads south away from land in the growing darkness, seemingly content to stay at a depth of 60' or so. We fire up the generator and the two halogens on the hard-top flood the cockpit with light.
Outside in the night, we can hear Myles puttering along with us, facing a dilemma of his own. His fuel is low, and in the rush to reach us neither he nor Jonno had time to grab a light of any sort. Worried, he struggles to maintain a safe position alongside us as we continue astern at a steady pace, spray flying into the cockpit. The seas build up again in the darkness, and MARGARITA pitches and rolls steadily. Twice more, we have the trace up to Jonno's hands, but the fish is still green and each time she effortlessly slips away. Several times I turn the boat to change the angle and to try and raise the fish from ahead but this only seems to annoy her and we settle back into a stern-first chase.
By 9.30 pm, Elizabeth has been in the chair for over three hours, and this 67 year-old woman decides that she has done enough. She climbs stiffly down and Richard settles into the vacated harness and bucket. Amusingly, she is furious with Jonno at having let go of the fish, but she recovers her strength quickly and joins her husband on the fly-bridge. Jonno also decides that something is seriously wrong with his left hand and tries to take the glove off. His hand is badly bruised and very swollen and I give him the cockpit controls as I don a pair of dry and undamaged gloves and prepare to get seriously wet. Steadily the lights of the city of Funchal slip into the distance as we race backwards into the black night.
Over the next thirty minutes, Jonno manages to give me the leader three times. Each time I wrap as tight as possible and pull the fish up a few yards, her ghostly form faintly lit with phosphorescence down deep behind the transom. It is a frightening but hugely exhilarating experience to be attached to such a great glowing fish in the middle of a dark ocean, screaming backwards into a smooth but regular six-foot sea, and the marlin is impossibly heavy to lift further. Each time she simply shakes her massive head, jerking me against the covering-board, and each time I cannot hold her as she powers her way back down into the depths. We are all distraught and are desperate to release the fish before the now heavily strained reel-line gives way, trapping her with the full length of leader and the lure. The seas are growing in size, and as loose gear starts to fall inside the boat I decide we are playing a dangerous game and acknowledge that enough is enough. The fish is too strong still and the night is blacker than ever.
At 10.10pm the trace comes to hand once more, and I wrap for the last time. Jonno leaves the controls and stands behind me, the boat still trundling steadily astern. As the swivel appears over my shoulder, he cuts it off with scissors. If the fish escapes now, the lure will fall off the leader. I heave again, and wrap another yard. Behind me, Jonno chops that off. Each time I lift the fish up, Jonno cuts the leader available to him. The cockpit is littered with small lengths of heavy mono. The fish and I reach a stalemate forty seconds later. My hands are swollen grotesquely inside the gloves, and I have no feeling in them. I can feel the great fish travelling steadily along, her huge body swaying with each beat of that enormous tail, and I have no more strength left to wrap with. Richard has dropped the rod and is now by the controls. Jonno leans over and helps me lift the fish another yard with his one good hand. Snip. Once more, snip. Then we can see the fish clearly, glowing green down in the wake. Suddenly, she increases speed and heads down. As Jonno holds me, my legs buckling with effort, we look at my gloves in the overhead lights, the wraps glistening slowly as they peel off. In a sudden rush they are gone and I am left with the memory of the last final inch of line slipping through my fingers. Richard puts the boat out of gear, and in the pitching sea Jonno and I look at each other.
For me, it is one of the most elemental moments in my life, and Jonno and I suddenly grin in unison. We have left the fish with 12' of leader and a small 10/0 hook in her cheek. We feel we have done the best we could for her, and suddenly we are all cheering wildly, the Major and Elizabeth perched on the ladder, Richard at the controls. In the same instant afterwards, the night goes very quiet and in its soft silence we are aware that very close by there is a soft but awesome exhaling. Suddenly, around the boat are four huge sperm whales, one of them glistening faintly on the very far edge of the light. The boat seems very small, far from land in the black of night, and we all feel exposed. Within seconds though, they are gone in gentle surging individual wakes of phosphorescence and we then hear Myles calling out through the gloom. A minute later the inflatable roars through the darkness and nearly comes aboard over the transom as MARGARITA goes downwards in a deep trough. He climbs aboard, exhausted and cold after being alone in a small boat in a pitching sea for four hours, and tells us of his own exhilarating experience with the whales.
We slowly head home, towing the inflatable (which has a cupful of fuel left in its tank), each of us glowing softly with the cold but chattering excitedly. In the soft light of the instrument lights I can see Elizabeth explaining how she feels and I realise that this women has done something very special. As we roll slowly through the darkness, she explains in a strong voice what she feels. She apologises for not staying in the chair, but then recounts that other factors had a part to play. Amazed, we learn that this woman has had three hip operations, been run over by a car, has fought and recovered from cancer, and suffers sorely from arthritis and rheumatism. In addition she has quite likely caught the largest blue marlin ever hooked by a female angler. I am lost for words and hope that if I live to her age, then I will have the courage to do what she has done. Back in harbour, Jonno and I put the fish down in the log at 1300lbs and we celebrate gently into the early hours of the morning, all of us totally and utterly exhausted.
We all hope the fish lives.