Late in the afternoon of the last day of August 1976 I climbed off a Prinair flight in Charlotte Amalie and went down to the marina to see if anyone had brought in a blue marlin. The Prowess, owned by Joe Lopez of Coconut Grove, Fla. and operating out of Benner Bay, St. Thomas, had just broken the one-day record for catching blue marlin—seven.
No one, as far as I knew, had ever observed a blue marlin beneath the sea. That was my goal, and the Prowess and her crew seemed to be my best chance of realizing it. I had come to St. Thomas a week before my prospective dive to familiarize myself with the boat, the men—and the fish—on whom my life would depend.
The One Bull, out of Savannah, was already washing down at the Lagoon Fishing Center. The marlin she had fought that day lay athwart the dock, darkening in the long shadow of a hill that overlooked the marina. I stepped over its bill and stretched my arms out to estimate the length. The bill tapered to a point the size and color of a rusty railroad spike, but its overall length was not familiar. It was too long for a saber and too short for a halberd. On top it looked smooth and brown like oiled teak, but if you stroked it, it felt like fine-grit sandpaper. The lower part was gray and coarse, more like a wood rasp. At its margins it turned blood red, shading into madder pink. At the base, just over the junction with the lower jaw, was the fish's eye, as large as a mango. In the bloody bronze iris a deep blue pupil, the size and clarity of the lens on my camera, was suspended, regarding me gravely.
The marlin's head widened into shoulders as broad as a bison's, and was crested with an erect fin that cut off passage along the dock. The fish stopped at that point, terminated with one large bite clearly outlined by scalloped teeth marks. Several partial bites had trimmed off the white flesh at either side. Many sharks must have gorged on the yards of missing marlin.
As I was reconstructing this feast in my mind, the Prowess backed into her moorings. She flew no marlin flag. Instead, one raw plywood patch was at the waterline of the starboard gunwale aft, another farther forward and still others on the port side. Some of the patches had counterparts on the inside of the cockpit. Second Mate John Hewitt, a Montauk man, was pleased to show me photographs of a blue marlin making the largest hole. Its pike had rammed through the gunwale and been wedged in place by the end of a gas tank, which it had creased. A saw had been used to free the fish from the boat, and a dam had been improvised at sea to keep the water out.
I spent that night considering how to get out of the water after seeing a blue marlin...or how to get out of seeing a blue marlin in the first place.
CHASING THE BAITS
At the point where the wake churned by the twin diesels turns from white to blue, two Spanish mackerel on the outrigger lines jump through the surge. Closer to the foaming wake two ballyhoo leap with a vitality they never had in life. These baits seem to be stragglers hurrying to catch the churning mass where the boat rushes. Out of the burning sea a spear rises, glittering with points of light, striking at the baits and knocking the line out of an outrigger.
"Left outrigger," the captain screams as the bill lunges and lunges again. The two mates' bare skin glistens with spray as they pick their way over the wet deck to grab at the teaser lines. The rigger baits are pulled in toward the boat to tantalize the fish, making it strike from below and drawing it closer. Over the careful tangle of gear on the heaving deck, the angler, who on the Prowess sometimes will use line as light as 6-pound test, gets ready to slide into the fighting chair when the hookup is made.
The shadow in the water composes itself into a marlin radiating bands of cobalt blue, phosphorescent violet and fulminating yellow. Three yards from the boat's stern the blue marlin's mouth finds the bait.