Praying the Rosary
I peered around the main cabin to the front of the boat. Through the rain and wavering horizon that was our deck, the second mate, Enrique, was kneeling prostrated, aft side. He was gripping something attached to the boat, the interior railing maybe? In his left hand lay clenched, a distinct chain of beads, a rosary flipped back and forth as the boat tossed in the sea. Wiping wet hair from my eyes, I spat out a salty mixture of sea and rainwater. Squinting hard at Enrique, I was barely able to make out his face. The visual confirmation made my heart sink; Enrique was praying.
“Dios te salve, María. Llena eres de gracia: El Señor es contigo. Bendita tú eres entre todas las mujeres….”
In one sweeping wave of bleak emotion, I had the moment everyone talks about: A flash of your life. I saw kids playing, children I had yet to have, Tara standing at the beach waiting in the dark for her new husband to come back, my parents standing aside my coffin. As fast as it came, it was gone, and focus flooded back into my senses. I know nothing about engines, but I was far from praying and putting my faith up to the powers that be. Rushing toward the wheel and our Captain Pablo, he was crying. Trails of tears were flowing down his dark cheeks, I didn’t know if I should hit him or join him. I grabbed his arm and stared past his green eyes, shouted over the rain,
“NO MUERTE, NOT TODAY.”
It was September of 2000, and the wedding bells had only recently quieted when my new bride and I whisked off to Costa Rica for fourteen days of jungle, beach, and billfish. To anyone observant, I had married up, which was quite alright with me.
We fished five of fourteen days while on our honeymoon. Like an addict rationing out supply, we added angling into the itinerary every third day, guaranteeing the feed I needed.
Our first two days on the water we chased Peacock Bass in lake Arenal.
For those of you who haven’t caught Peacocks, they will pound flies readily. Their strong will to fight can be felt resonating all the way through the rod to the angler’s wrist, thumping like a heavy heartbeat. An eight weight, poppers, and stout leaders are pretty much all you need to raise Peacocks. They lay in wait, like their cousins the Large Mouth under cover, next to structure, and deep in all things bad for keeping a full fly box. The lake itself is manmade and sits at the base of a Volcano of the same name. A lone steeple poked through the lake’s surface, and is the only sign of a once thriving town since flooded over from the damming of the lake. Holler Monkeys screamed off in the distance. Their calls sounded like tortured souls yelling in constant agony. As our day drew near an end the Volcano would crack to life with a startling boom. Immediately following the shock of the noise you could see new vein of red magma open up and bleed down towards the lake. The entire experience was eerily remindful of a late 80s horror flick, but the fishing was good!
On day three of our angling, we stood ankle deep in surf and sand on the opposite side of the country. We had moved to the ocean and a resort called Playa Conchal, an all inclusive palisades on the east shore of Coast Rica. The resort had sprawling green lawns, parrots, and iguanas roaming free throughout the grounds. It was breathtaking, and I remember distinctly thinking that I could die here.
The boat picked us up, and moments later, and within the hour, both Tara and I had landed Dorado. The chase was offshore a bit, and the seas had made my new bride motion sick. She opted out of our next adventure on day four, where we had planned a further excursion out into the blue for big Billfish.
On the morning of the fourth day of my angling honeymoon, I kissed my wife’s forehead, leaving an orchid on the pillow next to her. I had arranged the night before for breakfast to be brought to the room for her around 10AM so she could sleep in while I sought out my first Sailfish on the fly. It was the least I could do. Tara insisted I still go, knowing how strong the call pulled me to the water. She still gets it today. What can I say, I’m a lucky guy.
“Grande Pescado!” Enrique commented immediately with a toothy smile as I boarded. We all laughed, energized with anticipation. It was five miles plus out before we put down teasers. This portion of the yarn is somewhat anti-climactic for those of you who haven’t bill fished before, but the gist of it is bait and switch. Live bait sewn onto teaser rigs is trolled behind the boat. A rod set up with a bright and colorful, but hook-less, attracter is at the ready. When a sword or sail is seen crashing the bait the deckhand jumps into action and immediately throws the big attractor out. As the angler, your role is to more lob than cast out a sixteen inch fly that is a close resemblance to the teaser lure into the path of the on-coming fish-hence, the bait and switch.
We had a couple players, but nothing committed enough to eat our giant flies. After a few shots and Pacificos, the fish we had been looking for broke surface and charged in on the trailers like a bull with fins. One lob later it was on; the deck hand and Capitan where yelling at me in Spanish after he ate. I didn’t get the translation but I caught the body language. They both were pantomiming out strip-set, strip-set, strip-set. So I set the hook again, it was like I had hooked into el Diablo. The sailfish went straight into the air, crashing back down into the ocean spraying thousands of tiny glass-like shards of water. Every angler that has landed a hot fish in salt knows the sound I heard next. A thirty second burst of whizzing line burned off my reel. All I could do was watch, hold the rod low, and smile. Run after run, and leap after leap we lost line.
Before I could spit out, “Backing”, our Captain had fired up the engine and was starting our pursuit further out, away from my wife five miles back sleeping in our cabana. I would love to tell you I whipped up on that fish and landed him in ten minutes, but an hour flew by before we had gotten the fish back into fly line. We were now far enough out that the curvature of coast could be seen to the naked eye like a photo taken with a severe fisheye. Caught up in landing my first Bill, none of us took note of the dark growing between us and land. Although I don’t know how long it took, I’m guessing the entire fight took an hour and a half, not a proud but an honest report. After the release is when we all noticed the seas starting to swell. Silent agreements were made without discussion, half due to the language barrier and half to the impending black, hanging low in the sky. The water had shifted tones from a deep sea blue to a muted dark purple and. A grayish froth was curling atop of every wave, leaving the appearance of a soapy film covering the water. The sky boiled with a cauldron-like-churning of grey and black clouds pouring about. It felt like the ceiling had moved in on us and we were now tall people in small room.
Minutes after we started our journey back, Enrique nudged me into the wheelhouse, pointing up and making raindrop imitations with his hand, “Agua, Agua.” Thirty seconds later, it was pouring down harder than any storm I have ever been in. Water hit the deck in sheets, hard and unnerving. As the seas grew, Pablo was forced to alternate revving the engine between troughs and peaks of big waves to keep us tracking and on course. About this time, we heard a sick coughing like sputter from the aft section of the boat. It was loud enough to break through the downpour of rain, and deep enough to signal that something was seriously not good. Watching what seemed like a plane crash waiting to happen, we all stood, anticipating the inevitable. I don’t know how long it took, but eventually the engines stopped choking and gave up, in a final asthmatic-like spasm. Bobbing in the swell like a cork, we were miles from the coast, in a serious storm, without engines. Pablo handed me a kid’s bucket for the beach and motioned for me to start hauling water. I looked over and Enrique had already started bailing with a very similar green child’s toy. In my head I thought ‘WTF! We’re going to save a 28-foot fishing vessel with a couple kid’s beach-buckets? Hell-no I’m not going out like that!” I started bucketing as fast as I could. To be completely honest, we couldn’t keep up and my confidence was fleeting. By the sound of things, Pablo had resorted to hitting something metal with a pipe fitter’s wrench in the engine compartment. Blocked from view, I could only see the wrench raised in the air from behind the raised door leading to the twin inboards. The sound of metal on metal shattered through the rain and bucketing and muddled cursing in Spanish. The constant back and forth from engine to wheel house kept my mind occupied enough that I didn’t notice Enrique’s absence, until Pablo tossed me a life jacket.
I think I almost threw him back towards the engine, handed him his wrench and motioned that I would attempt to turn over the ignition. Pablo must have understood what I was trying to pantomime a nd went back to work. I saw a thumb come up from behind the panel that was the engine compartment door. I flipped the key over: nothing. Then a sputter, then dead. I yelled as loud as I could; my voice cracked hoarse from the strain.
Thirty seconds later, Pablo’s thumb came up again, and I have no idea what he was doing down there, but when I hit the key, the sputter ended in a roar of horses pounding out over waves, water, and storm. Enrique found his way into the wheelhouse still crying, white knuckled and unable to let go of his faith. I put my hand over his clenched fist and loosened his grip, reassuring him this was not the day.
Pablo set us back on course, and ankle deep in water we road silently through the blue bouncing like a toy. We made land sometime later. My wife was standing there, drenched with fear and rain, both spilling all over her face. I had just kissed death, and before the boat had fully stopped ashore, I jumped into the surf, grabbed my new bride, and kissed life- the rest of it.