That was me, falling down the boat ladder. I had been trying to climb to my rod, which was secured on the flying-bridge rail, but my feet had fallen asleep in the three hours since I'd last used them. The others took no notice, however, as all eyes were focused on the huge tail fin and dorsal fin behind the boat. A marlin of tremendous size was following Kingsley's purple-and-black Konahead lure, no more than 25 yards astern. You could see the fish's bill swatting at it, trying to stun it, as it would a baitfish. Then you could see something else, something that sent goose bumps across my skin. The marlin's bill was severed. It was half the length that it should have been. "Oh Magnífica!" cried our skipper, Laurence Hornsby.
"Great god, it's her. Come on, baby!" Kingsley yelled. But the fish swerved away, its monstrous wake suddenly pausing behind the green-and-blue Konahead at the end of my line, which danced and bubbled on the surface 30 feet to the right of Kingsley's. The broken bill emerged again. I dragged my numbed feet up the ladder and stumbled to my rod. When I looked back, the fin and tail of the immense fish had vanished, and the marlin had returned to the silent depths of the Atlantic.
Hornsby turned hard on the wheel to make another pass. "Bastard!" he snarled through clenched teeth.
Yes, I thought, rubbing the blood off my feet. Well, at least we saw her. We really and truly saw her; she existed.
I had never been marlin fishing before that week, never been to the Azores; so it was all new to me. But I'll tell you one thing I knew beyond reason or doubt: That marlin, the one the locals called Oh Magnífica, wasn't meant for me. For someone on that boat, perhaps, but not for me.
I had never before felt that about a game fish. And we were not just talking about any game fish here, but a blue marlin of nearly world-record size. The greatest game fish. But it wasn't mine. Not that one. If by some miracle I should hook it...well, I wouldn't hook it. I knew that. Some things run contrary to a man's nature, and the primal enormousness of that disfigured creature ran contrary to mine. If Kingsley and Hornsby wanted to hook into its 1,500 or so pounds; ruin their health by fighting it for eight, 10, 12 hours; blister their hands beyond repair; cramp and cry and curse all night, never knowing if and when the fish might angrily turn and try to tear apart the boat as it had once before—that was their prerogative. I would mop their brows and spoon them chicken broth. But if it was me in the chair, I would cut the line.
We had heard the story of this fish five days earlier, during our very first morning on Faial, one of the nine islands that make up the Azores. Two thousand miles east of New York and 760 miles west of Portugal, these volcanic islands are isolated in the Atlantic Ocean. Settled by the Portuguese in 1431, they remain, 558 years later, administrative districts of Portugal. Columbus took haven here on his return from his first voyage to the West Indies. New Bedford whalers called these islands port. Rich in a history that, some believe, goes back as far as the Lost Continent of Atlantis legends, the Azores are a magical land unscarred by war and unspoiled by time.
We were fishing with Arménio Vander Kellen that first day. Arménio owns and operates a charter service out of the harbor town of Horta on Faial; as we sailed out of the harbor and into the deep swells of the open ocean, he talked about these islands and himself.
Arménio, 37, is a Lisboan by birth—of royal blood, in fact. His father was Dutch and his mother was Portuguese, the full sister of the exiled king, Miguel II. If the monarchy were ever to return to Portugal, Arménio's first cousin would be heir to the throne. Arménio did not brag of this. He was, in fact, embarrassed when it came out. But it helped explain his educated manner, and his highly circumspect view of the world. And, perhaps, his exquisite handlebar mustache, which made him a dead ringer for his grandfather, the chap pictured on the Portuguese 100 escudo bill.
We were trolling four lines behind the Pescatur, Arménio's 32-foot sportfisherman. Two lines on outriggers were deployed long, two flat-trolled rigs rode just beyond the boat's frothing wake. The wind had picked up, and the choppy six-foot swells made the fishing unpleasant. We were working back and forth across the strait that runs between Faial and the island of Pico, a channel that exacerbated the turbulence of the water. The odds of our raising a marlin in that sort of sea were not good. Still, around midmorning Arménio pointed in the direction of the Rabo, one of his three other fishing boats. It had stopped moving, and when we looked at it through the binoculars, we saw that one of the fishermen was fighting a marlin.