The Mexican island of Cozumel that sits off the wild coast of Quintana Roo in the western Caribbean keeps getting rediscovered. To judge by legends cut in stone, Cozumel was first found by Mayan Indians, who abandoned it before Europeans showed up. Scholars believe the Mayans left Cozumel by choice, but realists who have probed the island's interior maintain the Indians were carried back to the mainland in the talons of large mosquitoes.
Reputedly, after the Mayans left (or were deported), Cozumel was discovered by Hernando Cortés, the conquistador, and later by Jean Lafitte, the French-Louisianian buccaneer. In the mid-19th century when piracy became passé, refugees from the endless wars of Mexico started farming the island. Cozumel might have become famous for tobacco and pineapples, except that the original landholders sent their children abroad to school. After they had a taste of city life in Chetumal and Valladolid, it was hard to keep the kids down on a pineapple farm. In a matter of three generations the island went back to sleep.
Cozumel was next rediscovered 15 years ago, at the start of the jet age, by Robert Marx and Don Pablo Bush Romero, two of the world's famous underwater archaeological bums. Scuba divers by the thousands followed on their flippered heels. The first heavy assault of divers had barely hit the beach before travel editors began discovering the island, dipping platitudinous pens into purple ink and extolling the unspoiled virtues of the place. The travel editors were followed by fashion photographers and New York models wearing getups that would make an ancient Mayan gag.
Today the busy island of Cozumel needs discovering about as much as the Mississippi needs another gallon of water. Nonetheless, it is once again being discovered, this time by sport fishermen led by a 44-year-old, button-nosed, Alabama-born charter skipper named Charles (Cliff) North.
Although he is a man of considerable wisdom, Cliff North is no better suited to cope with the whimsies of Cozumel than any of its earlier discoverers. North has only two eyes, two ears and one mouth. In the fish-rich waters west of Cozumel, that is barely enough. Twelve miles across the Cozumel strait, where a torrent of Caribbean water impinges on the coast of Quintana Roo, the bottom rises sharply. For most of 30 miles along Quintana Roo, the 20-fathom curve, where sailfish abound, lies less than a quarter mile offshore and barely a hundred yards inside the 100-fathom line where marlin dwell. Marlin are bigger, but offer less action, and most anglers want action. A skipper after sailfish must constantly watch his fathometer and at the same time keep his boat away from the seabirds that swirl over baitfish like paper scraps caught in a dust devil. On classic game-fish grounds the swirling birds are a happy sign, for under them usually there are bonito, tuna, or dolphin. But in the new waters of Cozumel, where there are crazy, dancing sailfish galore, it is considered a sin to waste baits on trashy fish like tuna and dolphin.
While he follows a fine line on his fathometer and avoids the telltale birds, with his other eye Cliff North tries to watch the four baits trailing behind his boat. The sailfish of Cozumel are dainty and freakish eaters. In the nutrient water pressed up along the steep coast, they are well fed but still curious. They often rise out of the blue, singly or in pairs, simply to window-shop. Sometimes they come by the dozen. While North has his eye on a lone fish cruising behind the left outrigger bait, suddenly three more fish will pop up behind the right short bait. In the next moment there may be a half dozen fish toying with all four baits, pecking away so delicately that they do not even knock the lines off the outriggers. In such instances, Cliff North is beside himself. "We're being eaten alive by sailfish," he bawls in distress, "and there's not a dad-gum thing I can do about it."
North's command of salty English is inadequate for the frenzied fishing off Cozumel. Considering that he has been some kind of seaman for the past 24 years, his repertoire should be as rich as a manure pile, but curiously it is limited. In a crisis he vents his rage with a staccato burst of "dad-gummits" punctuated by an occasional "goddam." "Left long! Left long! A sailfish, dad-gummit," he yells from the bridge to his anglers and mate in the cockpit. "He's eating it! Dad-gummit, wind in. Wind, dad-gummit! Wind! Wind! Right long! Right long! Two more fish. Another fish on right short! Free spool, dad-gummit! Free spool. He's eating it! Now, wind! Dad-gummit, wind. Wind. Get in the dad-gum teaser. Let's get these dad-gum fish." The fish do not oblige. They take two baits but not the hooks. "Four hungry, eating fish," North wails, "and we blew them all. Goddam."
When the action falls off, North becomes morose. Forty minutes after tagging a good fish, he reports dolefully on the radio to a rival skipper, "We've been wandering around Playa del Carmen for the last two hours doing nothing except pick up seaweed and get eaten alive by dolphins." Even when a sailfish is solidly hooked and dancing beautifully 200 yards out, North is seldom content. "All right," he shouts down to his mate, Tiny Brown, "let's get this fish tagged so we can start fishing again." He wheels his 44-foot Striker boat around on the troubled sea as if it were an eight-foot dink. As the dancing fish swings from the deep to the shoals, then outruns the 30-knot Striker, then reverses its field and races for the deep again, North charges ahead, then goes hard right rudder astern, then left forward and dead astern. "I'm backing, and there's a big sea coming after us," he yells down to the cockpit. "You all will get wet, but there's not a dad-gum thing I can do about it." In six-foot seas, if a 60-pound sailfish is not brought to boat on 20-pound line in three minutes, North is ashamed.
On the best of days off Cozumel, North has raised over 200 sailfish and has tagged and released more than 35. Even on a ho-hum day, when he raises only 40 fish, he keeps busy. The radio beside him is constantly crackling. While he coaches and scolds the anglers in his cockpit, out of the other side of his mouth he counsels rival skippers who are fishing Cozumel for the first time. Skipper Ronnie Hamlin of the Big Blue calls North on the radio with a special problem: some huge, huge fish with white markings on its back is horsing around the Big Blue. "What you got there, Ronnie," North replies, "is probably a whale shark. It won't take any bait you got out. Whale sharks are real friendly. Skin divers have climbed all over their backs."
The boat Sea Chaser reports to North jubilantly that they have just released a whopper of a sailfish, about 150 pounds. North moans. "All I can say is I am sorry. The biggest Atlantic sailfish ever caught is around 140 pounds. What you have just done is blow a dad-gum world record. If the weighing scales in Cozumel aren't good enough, you could have bought the fish a ticket on a plane and had it weighed in Miami."