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"Nine o'clock, four boats!" Wheeler shouts. The fish are swirling in a tight circle again, and so are we. On the Sandra C, Hesse climbs down from the crow's nest and makes his way onto the pulpit, a tiny platform with a waist-high railing, 20 feet beyond the tip of the bow. He grasps a harpoon with both hands and leans out over the water. The aluminum shaft of the harpoon is about a dozen feet long. The "dart" at the end is bronze, as in the days of Moby Dick. Hesse cannot yet see the fish, but he hears Wheeler's directions through the loudspeaker on the crow's nest.
"Twelve o'clock, two boats." The fish are still up.
"Ten o'clock, one boat."
Hesse raises his harpoon. Now he sees them. The boat's limit is one fish per day, so he wants the biggest. He also wants the tuna positioned directly beneath him so he can throw straight downward. Otherwise, he must guess their depth and figure the angle of refraction caused by the water. The rule of thumb: If you throw to where you see the fish, you'll throw above it. But there's a second rule: No matter how far away a fish is, if its tail stops moving, throw—the next second, the fish will be gone. If Hesse's harpoon hits, the basket containing 600 feet of line will empty in about 15 seconds as the tuna accelerates to 55 mph.
Hesse is right on top of them. It is his first shot in eight days. This one's for 10 days' worth of boat fuel, Wheeler's airplane fuel and his late payment on his new engine—not to mention rent and several sets of groceries.
Hesse throws. The line runs...and stops.
Wheeler barely winces, and he banks away to find the school once more. About 30 minutes later, the fish come up again and the process starts over. Before nightfall, Hesse will get three shots, but no fish.
The next day, word has spread that this is a good area, and 26 boats gather on the ocean surface, guided by six planes. They behave like schools offish. If one plane banks hard into a turn, as if on a fish, another plane closes in. If one boat sends a man onto the pulpit, 20 other boats change direction. Two boats working together can sometimes outsmart the pack, by sending one boat racing in the wrong direction with a man on the pulpit. But such diversions backfire as often as not. "Getting a shot in the crowd is just a matter of luck," says Hesse.
At one point Wheeler calls to the Merilyn J, asking for the radio frequency of another pilot who must have been concentrating too hard on the water. "He flew right underneath me," says Wheeler. "His rudder went between my wheels. Missed my prop by about two feet."
"You okay?" asks Ron Lien, skipper of the Merilyn J.