300 In Full Flight
1289 lurked majestically in the depths on a clear, calm day while we stood in a circle, holding hands in prayer for safety and fishing mercies, ever thankful to God for the blessings of good health, family, friends and a chance to fish.
A beautiful but treacherous reef and the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean lay ahead. Guided by the steady hand and seasoned knowledge of local Captain Alan Card and top tier international first mate Captain Mike Latham, the Betram Sportfish Seafari and her Captain Karl Alvik were well prepared. The Davies family have been fishing together since our sons Chris and Tim were old enough to hold a rod, with Tim recently earning his Captain's license. Seafari, formerly neighbor Rick Hendrick’s “Reel Wheels”, was purchased by the family in 2007. Regularly fishing the east and west coast of Florida and the Bahamas, this was our first trip to Bermuda.
Tim Tagging 300 For Research
Released and tagged for research, 300 was still fresh in our minds having danced magnificently with us just the day before. The prized interaction marked in adoring memory as he swam off to take his place in the warming blue waters of the Atlantic, 23 miles off Bermuda.
300 Making Another Run
This interaction was the reason for being in Bermuda: like the family photographic safari vacations in Africa, up close and personal, within feet of wild lion fighting, with nothing between us.
Unlike anything, hearing and seeing a wild lion roaring in ferocious battle just a few feet away, or being splashed by the powerful tail of a Blue Marlin as it’s piercingly dangerous bill slices in front of your nose at warp speed teaches you your place in the world, and makes you acknowledge your creator. Captain Alan knows the dangers better than most. His son Ian was fishing aboard with him in 2006, bringing a feisty marlin to the boat, when it launched itself right at him. Impaling him through the chest, the marlin's momentum carried him overboard and under the bubbling water. Miraculously, he somehow surfaced a hundred feet from the boat, face down. Alan and his team saved him using first aide techniques, and he can tell the tale and serve witness to the dangers of marlin interaction.
Keen to observe the magnificent beasts of the sea in their habitat, just months earlier, in the colder, wild waters off southern Africa, the family dove inches from the ultimate predator of the seas, Great White sharks.
Great White Near Gansbaai, South Africa
Creating personal photographic memory imprints that instill sheer awe in God's creation, while inspiring full personal appreciation is the purpose of our family adventures. Upon learning that a few big fish arrive in Bermuda earlier in the season than the major schools, we knew that our chances of getting close to a blue would be slim.
Captain Mike Latham owns and operates LathamCamsInc, a company that specializes in underwater and above water videography on sportfishing boats. Typically given just seconds of interaction time with each fish, Seafari--named after the photographic safaris in Africa the family loves-- was prepared to capture top quality footage.
After son Chris Davies almost landed a speedy white marlin the day before, cousin Alex Carr landed 300, a feisty Atlantic Blue Marlin. So now it was Win's turn. Win Holt, close friend of our son Tim Davies since pre-kindergarten, is considered by us to be a Davies family member. Win sadly lost his father to ALS, commonly known as Lou Gerig’s Disease
(http://www.pinstripesals.com/), and has become part of the Davies family. He is on my "A team"! Win was next up next, and the chair was fitted for him.
Cameras were readied. Uncle Mike (Davies), my first cousin, watched from the bridge as he was a bit unsteady offshore. Several years back, he learned to walk again after overcoming all odds surviving a 60 mph collision with an 18 wheeler barreling through a red light in Alabama. A lifelong accomplished fisherman, Uncle Mike holds several family fishing records and knows the game. He keeps things light on board, often producing tears of laughter from all. Uncle Mike chatted with Captain Karl as we approached our targeted fishing area off Argus Bank, rising thousands of feet from the depths of the Atlantic.
With input from Captain Alan our local expert, Seafari Captain Karl gave the order to start fishing. My sons, Tim and Chris worked the cockpit under the supervision of Seafari first mate Mike Latham and set up a magnificent spread. As we began our troll at 8.3 knots, Captain Karl's keen eye picked up a few seemingly minor details. He called down to Mike, "Please drop the right short back about 4 or 5 feet - I need it on the right part of the 4th wave - Thanks." Minor adjustments can mean the difference between a cruise and the fishing adventure of a lifetime.
We settled in. We all know the patience required to hook a blue Marlin, having been on trips where we fished for weeks on end, from sun up to sun down, with no bites in other parts of the world. As any top fisherman of these behemoths will quickly acknowledge, unwavering persistence is a pre-requisite just to see big blue.
Having the right combination of people on the boat is important when confined in a small space for long periods. In our case, time passes way too quickly as laughter erupts on every tack. Uncle Todd (Carr), my brother-in-law, has often led the team on the proven marlin attracting tactic of placing one's 'head in the ice bucket' while trolling. Once missing the water, he slammed his forehead into the edge of the bucket. These kinds of wounds typically occur following a few well made Goombay Smashes - this was no exception: "So, Mr. Carr, how did this wound occur?". "Well Doctor, I was putting my head into a bucket". "Why on earth were you doing that?!". "Doc, I was trying to catch a Marlin."
Uncle Todd is no stranger to big marlin in Bermuda. The last time he was here in 2004, he landed a 900 pounder with Captain Steve Cabrel aboard the Sea Scorpion. Two trips to Bermuda, and nearly 2,500 pounds of marlin...want him on your boat?!
On Seafari, the boys, including Chris Campbell (a friend of son Chris) and cousin Kacie are quick to participate in periods of gut wrenching laughter, and we all get in a bit of occasional shoulder lean dancing in the cockpit. There are also important problem solving chats. The Kelly's (my wife and sister in law are both named Kelly) love fishing. Both, easy to be with and quick to join in the fun, are adept fisherwomen and accomplished photographers. Mike’s wife Jo, at home caring for their ailing German Shorthaired Pointer, usually rounds out the trio. On Seafari, fun times together are periodically interrupted and punctuated by seconds of pure adrenaline-induced, pulsating pandemonium! This day would be the ultimate example.
The props whirled, the engines droned, providing the familiar pleasant backdrop to the activities and festivities above. Well trained eyes incessantly surveyed the spread; lures popped and torpedoed under water and popped again. The star of the show was perusing our invitation from below. The stage was set.
At 1:30 pm, the right short, pulling a Marlin Magic Large Pear Kona Lure snapped .... zzzzZZZZzzzzZZZZzzzzZZZZ. Like never before seen by any on board, line peeled off the big Shimano 130 ... zzzzZZZZzzzzZZZZzzzzZZZZ. Before Win could get to the chair and buckle himself to the rod, one third of the line was gone... zzZZZZZzzzzzzZZZZZZzzzzzZZZ. Disappearing ever more quickly the reel seemed to be moving at an impossible pace. Then half the line was gone. Then three quarters and picking up more pace! Then from the bridge... "Holy $&@)!!! Holy $&@)!!! A greyhound bus came out of the water...did u see that?! Did you see that?! It's HUGE!!!!!" from Uncle Mike who knows his fish. Alan Card was quick to chime in "that's a monster!! Biggest I've ever seen!". Still line tore off the reel zzzzZZZzzzzzZZZZzzzzzZZZ, the reel spinning 5 times as fast as it approached the bottom of the spool.
Uncle Mike: "Gotta tighten the drag guys, she's gonna spool us". Mike Latham was quick to react, increasing drag to 42. I shouted up to the bridge: "Karl, she's gonna spool us, can we turn the boat?! It's going too fast?!!"
"No! There's no time!" exclaimed Karl.
Win, strapped to a supersonic nuclear submarine in full flight watched the reel, looked back up with massive eyes and peered hurriedly down at the reel again, knowing that a very sturdy knot had been tied off at the end of the line that could easily lift his weight. Then a quick prayer. Concerned, he turned to Mike and asked “What happens when the line goes all the way out?” Visions of this strong tackle staying intact and being hoisted over the gunnels and disappearing forever, filled his mind. He reached back in futility to hold onto the chair rail with his left hand. I grabbed onto him in an equally futile gesture.
The end came suddenly. The big Shimano went from a gazillion revolutions per second to none in a nano second. The end of the line. Alan braced himself as we clung to Win. Mike gripped the bending Tom Greene 130 rod like never before. 800 yards of line with no 'give' connected Win like a rope to 1289. The knot tied by Mark at Tom Greene’s Custom Rod & Reel the week before was holding, but for how long?! Legs buckled, Win held on. We held Win.
Spooled!!! No line left on the reel!
"Hold on - We gotta back up hard!" shouted Karl.
Win appeared to face a certain death, being hammered by brutal walls of water erupting over the gunnels as we backed down, racing at top speed to keep the line from snapping.
Known for their power and passion for the toughest of conditions, the 67 foot Bertram's two turbo charged 2,000 horse power MTU's moved mountains of water to keep pace with the massive missile as it charged relentlessly forwards.
The cockpit flooded with water. Just the day before, I had read an article in March 2012 Marlin Magazine about the dangers of capsizing and sinking when the cockpit floods. "Filling the cockpit with thousands of gallons of seawater can lead to disaster…”, the article read. My concerns went to defcon 5 when I heard the aft bilge alarm. Seconds later, to defcon 6 when the midship bilge alarm blared. Is this really happening? Is this really happening?! I thought to myself.
The equipment, boat and fishermen were all being stretched to the max! Could we hold on?! At what cost?!
POP! More trouble. Under immense pressure, the gimble holding the rod broke. Balancing precariously on one small piece of steel at 45 degrees and held by one nut, things looked ominous. Disaster was at our doorstep. Would the rod release from the gimble and slam Win or one of us with an uppercut Mike Tyson could only dream of? Would we be able to hold on to Win if it broke? Would the rope tied to the rod hold? Where would Win be if it did? We all knew where he'd be if it didn't.
Looking at the situation and at my '3rd son' I shouted, "Mike, we gotta move the rod to the rod holder on the left side! Now!" Tim, Mike and Alan made it happen quickly, clearing ropes, rods and debris from the flood. As soon as the rod was steadied in the left gunnel rod holder, Mike straddled the gunnel, looking at me saying “We’ve got to stop the fish!”. With the drag tightened to the max, Mike applied additional pressure by holding the spool as hard as he could. Mike had realized that the fish was tail wrapped. “If we don’t stop her now, we’re going to lose her!”.
Captain Karl had to take a chance of losing the fish to avoid sinking and bumped the Seafari forwards to drain some water. Win, helped by Tim and Mike had managed to gain a little line back when we had been in full speed reverse mode.
"Back to full reverse Karl, we're losing line again!" exclaimed Mike.
"I can't" yelled Karl, we have to wait for the turbo's to engage after being in forward gear!" Still the aft and midship bilge alarms blared. "Mike, please come up here" instructed Karl. Karl gave the controls to Mike with simple instructions: "follow the fish" and headed to the engine room. I followed.
Just as we appeared to be gaining on 1289, line gained again peeled off. Win hopped up and said (heroically and with a masculine tone) "somebody else needs a turn, I need a break!". Tim jumped behind the rod straddling the gunnel.
Down below, Karl and I worked with buckets and an extra hand bilge pump as we passed buckets off to waiting hands above on deck. They kept coming. Still in full reverse again, the fight raged on above.
I did a quick status check:
1. cockpit full of water
2. fish box floor cover floating
3. coolers floating waist high
4. aft and midship bilge alarms in emergency mode
5. 800 yards of line being stretched, held only by the knot at the end of the line on the reel
6. Captain & owner bailing out water with buckets to help bilge pumps
7. broken gimble
✔ chances of landing 1289 - slim to none
✔ chances of 1289 sinking us - a daunting possibility
We watched as Mike slowly brought the downward spiraling grander to a halt. The Sufix line stopped running out and held firm. Now the rod bent and the line was vertical. The line, sounding like piano wire, creaked and twanged, threatening to break under the full weight of 1289 as she was being called to her eternal resting place 2,600 feet below. The Shimano held firm. Captain Alan asked for all to be still when he assessed the situation. Only 10% or so of the line was on the reel. The line wasn't moving. The rubber rod holder insert cracked apart as 1,289 pounds and over 750 yards of line relentlessly pulled beneath Seafari.
We were less than an hour into the fight and we now had a very different challenge on our hands. Even if we could fix the gimble so we could 'pump & wind', we could not lift the rod out of the rod holder on the gunnel. Time for consultation. We were at a stalemate. 1289 couldn't descend and we couldn't raise her.
We consulted. Innovative ideas were ever present - some humorous. Then the voice of experience spoke and it resonated with all. "Karl, we need to plain her up ever so gently. Any fast movement will snap the line. We need to bump in and out of gear, raising her slowly at an angle of 45 degrees behind the boat. Then, we need to reverse fast, and reel in some slack before she sinks again" said Alan. 1289 had died below us. Why? We didn't know. A firm resolve set in. We were not going to allow this magnificent fish to plummet to the ocean floor. She was deserving of a more fitting memorial.
The painstaking retrieval process began. Some quick calculations were made: about 750 yards of line out; we're getting 1:1 ratio on the reel; we are averaging 20 cranks each time we raise her and reverse back; each cycle runs about 5 minutes. So, we are gaining 20 feet every 5 minutes and need to retrieve 750 yards of line. At this pace we would take 37 hours to get her up! The sun was dropping as the afternoon progressed. Tape was placed over the bilge alarms.
Alan gave us hope: "she'll come up quicker as she gets higher", he said. At some point she will become more buoyant." Hopes were lifted, but uncertainty remained. Even in death 1289 was a challenge of all challenges faced by Captains and mates with combined experience of over a hundred years.
"Steer her slightly to port Captain Karl; we gotta keep her away from the bank."
Tim hopped off the gunnel and Chris took his place. This was heavy duty lifting. Chris took the brunt of the early heavy reeling. The line never went slack for one second. The forward movement and fast reverse just gave us enough relief to turn the handle on the reel. Tim, Chris, Win, Alex, Chris Campbell, Uncle Todd, Uncle Mike, the Kelly's and I all took turns earning our blisters. Then the drag locked up completely. The drag locked because line had been wound so tight onto the reel it was serving as a 'break pad', squeezing the sides of the reel. Bigger swells passed through and the line played that all too familiar warning tune...ting, ting, tang...would it hold ?! 130 pound line had been already put to the test was now called on to do it again, stretched to the max with no relief.
Time was measured in 'line on the reel', not hours and minutes. Water drained from the bowels of the boat as bilges were cleared. Alan sat with each angler, hand on the rod at all times giving pointed instructions "don't crank until the rod tip straightens". The anglers engaged in 'first time' listening. Using a 100 ton vessel with two 2,000 hp engines to raise almost 1,300 pounds with no give on 130 pound breaking strain line, Captain Karl's delicate, trusty hands brought her up, one foot at a time.
Near the surface, 1,289 gave the line its last major test as it tinged and twanged louder than ever. Captain Alan braced for the snap. The anglers moved out of the way to avoid the backlash. It would break any second...any second...any second.
"There she is!" said Capt Karl. "Wow!"
"She's enormous!!!" Communal gasps followed…
"I've never seen a fish this big" said Captain Alan.
Mike grabbed the leader confirming our suspicions as we saw the tail was indeed wrapped, and brought her along side the boat.
1289 Comes To Surface With Tail Wrapped
"Open the transom door. We're gonna have to hook her under the lip with the rope to pull her in"
The next phase of the battle was about to begin.
Fourteen people strung from the cockpit gunnel door through the cockpit, up the stairs, through the salon door, past the bar, past the kitchen to the stairs going below were on one side of the 'tug-o-war'; 1289 was on the other.
"1-2-3- PULL! 1-2-3- PULL! 1-2-3- PULL! 1-2-3- PULL!". 1289 was winning, again. With her majestic head pulled into the cockpit, she would give no more. Her enormous body weighed massively beneath us, threatening on every swell to drop uncontrollably to the dark depths.
"OK, tie the rope off on a cleat", I suggested. "we need to huddle up".
The Tug-O-War Battle Begins
Captain Karl, Mike Latham and Alan came up with the idea to use the anchor winch from the bow, attached to a rope to lift her tail. First, we had to 'lasso' her tail. Easier said than done. 20 minutes later, we had it done, without taking anyone up on the several offers to jump in the water to do it. Given the reports of Great White shark sightings in the past few days, that was not an option and we constantly wondered if we would see another one up close and personal, lashing out ferociously at 1289.
The winch cranked, the tail lifted. But it pulled the tail to the starboard side. The rope tightened dramatically as huge amounts of pressure exerted by the 4000 pound winch system pulled against the side of Seafari's gunnel door frame. Bertram's were never designed to have a winch pull against the side of an open gunnel. 1289 wouldn't budge; the winch tightened threatening the structural integrity of the entire boat! What if it cracked?? What if the side of the boat ripped off?! We are two hours from land. Would Seafari hold together?! The winch tightened more.
"Whoa! This isn't working." I yelled. "We gotta huddle up again."
Alan connected with a few boats fishing for tuna 15 miles away. "Lads, we need some help. We've caught a fish and all 14 of us can't get her on board. If we tow her to you, will you help out?"
Captain Steve Cabrel and his crew and a few others jumped at the opportunity to see this once in a lifetime fish. With 19 people and a winch, 1289 reluctantly gave up a few feet. Just enough to raise her out of the water, for the last time.
After thanking the fellow fisherman and providing a few well earned 'beverages', Seafari headed for Hamilton where social media had already resulted in a crowd drawn to the dock to see something very special. Something so rare that in the history of fishing, only 3 others have been pulled from the Atlantic Ocean and weighed in as larger fish. Something so rare that no other bigger had been caught in the world since the third largest was caught 10 years ago. Something so rare that the fishing world would know about it before the sun rose again.
For perspective, 1289 was bigger than any blue marlin caught and weighed in the Bahamas, Cape Verde Islands (1241 in ‘06), North Carolina (1228 in ‘08), St. Thomas/Virgin Islands (record was 1282), Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Tahiti, Venezuela, Mexico, and all of the United States.
In full reverence, we witnessed her rising from the deck of Seafari, high into the Bermuda sunset back at the Hamilton dock. A local Bermudan broke the suspense-filled silence..."one thousand, two hundred and eighty nine pounds!" Families took photos, children gathered, friends embraced her, all marveled. Social media ballooned her image around the world. A star was born. 1289.
Waiting For Weight Announcement
Seafari and her Captain Karl are members of the Billfish Foundation (http://billfish.org/), dedicated to preserving and learning more about these amazing beasts. 1289's ovaries were donated to the Bermuda Wildlife & Fishery Commission for research. Intentions are important and it is never the intention of any true game fishermen to see fish die. Seafari has tagged and successfully released every billfish caught to date. 1289 is the only exception. It is very sad to see such a magnificent predator's time come to an end. Accidents do happen and her tail being wrapped was a fatal one for her. Are we remorseful that she no longer swims the oceans? Yes, without a doubt. These feelings, however, are mitigated somewhat by the fact that responsible fishermen around the world are huge contributors to research. Without dedicated fishermen that voluntarily tag and release fish we would know very little if anything about their behavior, migratory patterns etc. Marine biologists rarely have the opportunity to gain specific data and perform important analysis on a fish of this magnitude.
A Family, A Fish, A Bond Forever
For 1289, we can be thankful for having witnessed her presence, and we can share this with all who care to learn of her species.
1289 is deserving of better than an unknown, ocean floor, eternal resting place.
1289 has been memorialized in the annals of history, her magnificence preserved in HD forever. Generations will hear of her power, her brilliance, her will.
1289 will serve her species well. This is our commitment. A family. A fish. A bond forever.
To God be the glory.
“Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and all that move in them” - Psalm 69:34