He gave me a cold look. "To counteract a fast drift, what we need is a sea anchor. I foresaw this problem before we left London. That is why I have brought along my parachute."
What he had not foreseen in London was the difficulty of getting it into the water. "We'll stream it out over the bow," he said, as we began unwrapping the chute into a long sausage shape, the two Icelanders holding on to one end. From the wheelhouse, Konrad Juliusson looked on with fascinated awe.
"I'm going to ease it into the sea," Moncrieff said confidently. "Let it out slow and stop as soon as I give the word. Stand by," he told me, "with the big gaff. As soon as the end of the chute is in the sea, prod it down. Understand? PROD IT DOWN!"
He should have realized that by the time the crown of his ridiculous device was wet, the wind would have taken it a couple of yards from the boat. I prodded hard but couldn't reach it, and it began to billow. I was just trying to damp down the middle section when Moncrieff made his big mistake. "Leave it," he yelled. "I'll do it."
Both Snorrason and Sigurdsson speak very good English. It was the howling of the wind that must have carried away Moncrieff's last phrase. Later they strongly maintained that they heard him yell "Leave it go," ungrammatical, certainly, but excusable in the circumstances. So they let it go.
Moncrieff now showed a remarkable turn of speed for a large man. As the parachute burst forth in its full glory he grabbed the harness. For a moment it seemed likely that the last we would see of him would be as a figure bestriding the clouds, a triumphant Jove in some vast Renaissance painting. But we reached him in time, clutching the mad chute and overcoming its dying struggles on deck.
I knelt on it in the driving sleet, thinking what an absurd pass I had been brought to by this obsession with a giant flatfish, an obsession shared by the others. For them, as for me, it probably started a long time ago, as small boys dangling a handline over the end of a jetty, hooks baited with sandworms and hoping for a rattling bite from a fat flounder. You could take cod or pollack home and just get polite acknowledgment, but a stringer of flounders, brown above, pearly white beneath, frying-pan-sized, ensured a proper welcome. You could be as late as you liked with flounders.
I've always thought those adults had a coarse attitude, evaluating fish in terms of their edible qualities. I loved flounders for themselves alone, for the delicate, undulating way they swam, the heroic dives they tried to make as you hauled them up, your line rasping on the rail. Above all, it was their extraordinary and wonderful flatness. My own son produced a poem on the subject, clearly responding to their mystery as I did at his age. Little flatfish, little flatfish, it began, Where is your nest in the depths of the sea? Only a vague notion of ichthyology, you'll observe, but the right kind of wonder. He gave up poetry after this, but is still keen on flounders.
I, too, would probably have been happy with flounders for many more years but for a film deemed educational that I saw at school. It was about the commercial line fishermen who sailed out of Aberdeen on the east coast of Scotland. They went north to the White Sea and the film showed them shooting 10-mile-long lines marked by huge orange Dan buoys. There was some irrelevant scenic stuff but the real thing started when they began to haul the line. A big gaping cod came up first, then some unfamiliar Arctic species—blue-striped torsk and fanged wolffish. Then the winch began to labor. The camera was focused over the lurching rail and there in the clear cold water was a breath-stopping sight. It was a vast flounder, or so I thought, bigger than the dining table at home, a huge and mighty flounder that must have weighed 200 pounds. Amazingly, the commentator's voice did not rise to a hysterical screech. Instead, it noted calmly, 'The great halibut of northern waters fetches top prices on the Aberdeen fish market...."
It was the best afternoon I ever spent at school. I was in a dream for days, muttering, "Halibut, fetches top prices, northern waters, Aberdeen...." I would have shipped there and then as an Aberdeen deckie if I could, but other, more powerful persons had different plans. Instead, I read all I could about the species. It grew to 600 pounds or more, said the book. Known to smash the gunwales of small craft when brought on board. Immensely powerful predator, largest member of the order Heterosomata. That was the good news. Then came the bad. An occasional straggler southward to British waters. An extremely rare catch on rod and line....