A Day with José

Not all things in life are created equally and that certainly includes fishing trips. My most recent outing was with my good friend Steve who was visiting from Oregon. On a whim, early one morning we decided to walk out onto the beach to find one of the local fishermen willing to take us out for a few hours. After just a five minute walk down the beach, we encountered our first and as it turned out, our only and last fishing guide. His name was, not surprisingly, José and his English was even more limited than my Spanish. Nonetheless, we were able to communicate clearly enough that we wanted to go fishing and that he wanted to take us and as it turns out, take us he did. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself but only a little.

After negotiating a price for a five hour trip of one hundred and fifty dollars, down thirty dollars from the original one hundred and eighty but still more than I would normally pay, we examined, somewhat suspiciously, José’s boat which was bobbing up and down just next to us with its bow nudged gently in the sand. Although it was not much to look at, it appeared to be seaworthy which meant it had no obvious holes, did not appear to be taking on large amounts of water and had an engine that was new enough to be powered by gasoline rather than steam. It also had a small three foot wide canvas cover obviously intended to protect its occupants from the searing rays of the tropical sun. I noted at the time that the cover seemed a little small to provide much protection for more than one person but then what do I know.

Next we agreed to depart in thirty minutes which would be about 9am. As an unnecessary but seemingly polite gesture, José offered to pick us up in thirty minutes right in front of our home which is just a couple of hundred yards down the beach from where we were then standing. I quickly embraced the idea of this curbside fishing service and I even decided that future trips, God willing, should also begin just this way. I also began to think back upon some old Hemmingway stories I had read as a youngster so I could begin practicing just how to act when José picked us up. This, I thought to myself was just the way Hem, a true sportsman, would have gone fishing. Luckily for me I had an hour to prepare and practice my routine because José turned out to be thirty minutes late. In just such a circumstance Hemingway would have propped himself up against a log in the sand, popped a bottle of warm red wine and patiently contemplated his fishing guide. “He’s just a boy, not so good a boy but not so bad either. Just a boy, like any other boy, Not good but not bad. Late but not too late. I still like the boy, not so much as before though because he’s late and the sun is hot, but maybe that’s why I still like him, because he is late and the sun is not as hot as it will be and the wine is good. Maybe not good but not bad either. Maybe I’ll like the boy less if he’s much later but now I still like him. Not as much as blah, blah blah ………”. I hope you all like Ernest Hemingway. At any rate, instead of taking the Hemingway approach, I paced back and forth and determined that José was definitely a bad boy.

When José finally pulled up to the shore it became immediately apparent that there was no fishing gear on the boat. For that matter there was no gear of any type. I also noticed that José was running the boat solo instead of with the customary crew member. Thinking that perhaps we were only going to be shuttled out to a larger and more updated vessel I quickly dismissed his tardiness and began excitedly scanning the horizon for our real charter boat which must obviously lay just offshore in deeper water. My enthusiasm was brief however as after boarding in waist deep water, and I know it was waist deep because it came up to my waist, José took us directly back to where we had initially encountered him just two hundred yards up the beach nearly an hour and a half earlier. At this time, we all got back off the boat, in waist deep water, I know it was waist deep because blah, blah, blah …… and while Steve and I stood scratching our heads and mumbling to ourselves, José ran off into the bushes where he had a three wheeled bicycle cart stored. He next pulled out what appeared to be a bundle of long, narrow sticks held together by an immense glob of tangled string. Upon closer inspection, this blob of sticks and string turned out to be the fishing poles we would be using today. José then displayed a plastic tote sack which upon slightly closer inspection contained some really nasty smelling baitfish fermenting in their own juice along with six warm beers. These beers were apparently the refreshments that José had mentioned were included in the price of our excursion. I could hardly wait.

After throwing all of this into the boat, literally, we reboarded in waist deep water blah, blah, blah…. and shoved off. As we slowly motored away, José informed us that we would be fishing for grouper, wahoo, amberjack, tuna, dorado, barracuda, sharks, marlin, sailfish, Nemo, Namu The Killer Whale, Moby Dick and maybe a few tiny yellow tail snappers. This pleased me greatly and my mind easily conjured up a picture of myself with a marlin or two. So as we motored along, Steve and I now began enthusiastically untangling fishing lines and poles. A bit later, with all of our gear ready, Steve who is usually totally unobservant about looming disaster, uncharacteristically noticed that the plastic 5 gallon gas tank for our boat only had about a quart of gas remaining in it. He also noticed quite observantly that there were no other containers of gas on board. I might have noticed this myself had I not been so busy looking for a lifejacket, alas, to no avail. Swimming offshore is not my forte and on this occasion, the prospect of having to do so no longer seemed out of the question. Not wanting to embarrass or agitate our skipper (who by now we noticed reeked of beer) by mentioning the apparent fuel crisis, we decided to settle back and see what developed. What developed, as we watched, was a really massive hangover. Our skipper, crew and potential savior all rolled into one was apparently coming down hard after an all nighter with Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, José Cuervo and maybe even a little action with Annie Green Springs. To calm his nerves he pulled out a bottle of the warm beer that was submerged in the fermenting fish juice. After opening the bottle with his teeth (I never saw him spit out the cap) he finished off the contents in one long draw, belched loudly and poured the small amount of remaining beer foam over our fishing reels which seemed to please him greatly as I noticed that he smiled slightly and winked at Steve.

After another twenty minutes our first line was in the water and we trolled along slowly about one mile offshore in about thirty feet of water which in the crystal clear water of the Caribbean appeared to be only about six inches deep. Actually, maybe it was only six inches deep. Looking over the side and clearly seeing the ocean bottom, it was apparent to me that there weren’t many, if any fish down there and certainly none of the big fish that José said we would be catching. I tried to politely explain this to José but he seemed at best uninterested and at most insulted. A few minutes later we had three more lines in the water all pulling the baitfish chunks which José had extracted from our beverage and snack sack. At least we were fishing. Sort of. After about half an hour of this I happened to open my eyes and noticed the tip of my rod dipping ever so slightly but regularly. By this time my mind had already begun to wander dreamily from thoughts of catching a fish to the thought of drinking one of the warm bottles of beers soaking in the fermented fish juice. Lurching from my seat, I grabbed the rod quickly from its holder and reared back to set the hook. “Fish on!” I screamed. I think. Yes, fish on, definitely, although it did not appear to be one of the larger species our skipper had mentioned but of course I could not tell for sure due to the immense size and deteriorated condition of the gear we were using. Pieces of ground metal and grains of sand began flying from the reel making the winding difficult and several small splinters of fiberglass appeared along the length of my fishing pole. As I slowly began to reel in my line I noticed there was no give and take as is normal when battling the big saltwater fish we were in search of. This seemed to be a totally one sided affair with me doing all of the taking and my undoubtedly clever quarry doing all of the giving. Nonetheless as I proudly glanced over at Steve I could not help but notice that his one partially opened eye was filled with envy even though he was trying his best to hide it from me as he rolled over on his side and pretended to continue sleeping.

Shortly thereafter, very shortly thereafter, I saw a glimmer of silver and yellow rapidly approaching the stern of the boat. The iridescence of the water and the bright colors of the scales themselves made it most difficult to determine the actual size of the finny beast looming just below us. Moments later with José standing by with the gaff hook and baseball bat ready, I hoisted aboard without assistance, a fully mature, six inch yellowtail snapper which José quickly dispatched and tossed into a small pail of water. Steve, who had risen briefly for the occasion, put at towel over his head and rolled back over on to his side, obviously miffed that I had been the first to boat a fish. He and I are quite competitive about these things and I could tell that he was not taking it well.

Only slightly disappointed, I assumed that my initial catch was going to become fresh bait for some of the larger species we were sure to catch that day but when José turned to me and said “Congratulations!” and gave me a high five, an alarm went off in my head. Something in the sound of “Congratulations” did not seem quite right let alone a high five. But never, never for a single moment, did I suspect, at least not at that time, that that fish, and three more just like it could possibly end up being the evening meal for four adults.

By now we could no longer ignore the gasoline crisis as it appeared the motor must be running on fumes. Upon mentioning this lack of fuel to José, he surprisingly appeared quite alarmed which also not so surprisingly quite alarmed me. He proceeded to tell us that we would need to go back immediately for more fuel. This was the first time all day that we all agreed on something. It was also at this point that I began to suspect that we might be José’s first victims, I mean clients.

As we slowly motored back to our original departure point with the motor sputtering for lack of fuel, José produced a cell phone and began dialing away presumably trying to find someone who would bring down some gas. There are no marinas along this stretch of coastline and gas has to be hauled down to the beach in five gallon plastic containers. Unable to get anyone on the phone, José slowly motored in and out around the boats anchored just offshore searching for one that might have a container of gas onboard which he could apparently “borrow” for our use. Spotting what he thought to be a potential fuel supply on one of the boats anchored in the area, he motored alongside and stumbled aboard. Unfortunately, prior to stumbling aboard the other boat, José failed to put the motor of our boat in neutral and Steve and I, sitting in the bow, began slowly motoring away as José looked on bemusedly from onboard the other boat.

Little did José know or seem to care that this was exactly the type of situation Steve and I had dreamt about, trained for, longed for and subjected ourselves to over and over again throughout our long forty year plus friendship. Our boating exploits, mishaps and mayhem together are legendary among our small circle of friends and could fill pages and pages. Maybe even volumes. Maybe someday they will. Just not now. After briefly debating whether we should just leave with the boat or actually go back for José, we seized the rusty controls of our skipperless skiff and retrieved José from the other boat which of course had no gas on board after all. José did not seem to be even mildly impressed or grateful that we had retrieved him and I began to realize that we had made a poor decision by going back for him.

At this time I rather firmly suggested that we should return to the beach near our home and I would take my Jeep to town to get boat fuel. José thought this was an excellent suggestion and quickly produced a 200 peso note and an extra twenty pesos for two bags of ice to freshen up our beer. Good call José! As I departed, José called out “Gaso para dos tiempos” which I roughly translated to “Gas for two stroke.” which meant that oil would need to be mixed with the gas to assure proper engine operation. When I got to the gas station I purchased a quart of two stroke oil from the attendant, handed him the oil and announced “Gaso para dos tiempos”. The young attendant looked at me briefly, opened the oil and dumped it into the empty gas can. He then began filling the can with gas. I thought it a little strange that it took exactly one quart of oil to five gallons of gas to make the correct oil to fuel ratio necessary for our engine and the amount of oil seemed excessive to me. Try as I may to ask about this I could not communicate my question to the attendant. A moment later another attendant who I’m familiar with and can speak a little English came over. I told him what we were doing and asked if the fuel to oil ratio was correct. He said “No way, José!” which I actually thought was a real thigh slapper at the time. We had more than twice as much oil as was needed for five gallons of gas but by this time there was nothing I could do it since I only had one container for gas. With nothing more to be done, I proceeded to buy two bags of ice and headed back to the beach.

When I arrived, I explained what had happened to José who simply laughed and said “No problema”. We loaded ourselves and the gas back into the boat. The two bags of ice had already melted in the sweltering heat. Have I mentioned before that the water was waist deep? Moments later we were on our way again under radiant blue skies, this time heading south rather than north. José felt certain that the action would be better about five miles south of where we were last, so off we went at a leisurely speed. Steve and I kicked back, anxiously anticipating some much deserved deep sea fishing which was most certainly just a few miles ahead. After ten minutes or so I stood up to stretch and as I turned around to look behind us I was horrified to see that we were about to be enveloped by an immense rolling fog rapidly approaching just off our stern and totally obscuring everything immediately behind us. After recovering from my initial alarm I also noticed that this fog was more blue than white. I also noticed that the fog was only behind us while on the other three sides of us I could see for miles on end. It was then that I also noticed that it was not fog at all behind us but smoke coming from our over oiled outboard engine. The engine had also begun to sputter a little bit whereas before it had purred as softly and smoothly as a kitten. José, seeing my expression looked behind as well and immediately cut the engine. Now, instead of staying ahead of the blue fog, we were in it.

Unbothered, José re-baited our lines, restarted the engine and we began trolling again leaving a trail of smoke which surely must have been clearly visible from shore. I expected to see a rescue vessel at any moment but assumed it would most assuredly not approach from astern.

No longer particularly interested in the fishing I became interested in how hot it was or more accurately, how hot I was. Unable to coax my hand into the snack pack for one of the hot and smelly liquid refreshments and also not having brought along any water, the heat was beginning to take its toll on both my body and my mind. I looked over at José and thought I saw him smile and wink at Steve again. I also noticed that José was standing under the little canvas top which provided the only escape from the searing Caribbean sun. It was located directly midship and just above the steering and motor controls which were of course manned by José. Throughout most of the five hours that we slowly trolled and rolled along the sun drenched Caribbean coast that day, I could not help but notice just how effective the canvas cover was in protecting José from the scorching solar rays while I continually attempted, quite futilely, to pull my baseball cap down far enough to cover the tips of my now beet red ears. Steve who had not been wearing a cap and who happens to be follicly challenged as well, looked like he was wearing a bright red rubber swimmer’s cap, which he wasn’t. I decided not to mention it to him because I was interested to see what it would look like later in the evening at cocktail hour. Thirty minutes of blazing Caribbean sun later Steve had taken on the appearance of a large boiled lobster in a bright red rubber swimmer’s cap and Jose looked like an oversized dark roasted coffee bean with teeth. I dared not imagine how I might appear.

Just when I thought I could take no more, salvation appeared in the form of the devil incarnate on the eastern horizon. From seemingly out of nowhere, numerous, immense, towering black clouds some with whirling, spiraling and spinning black fingers reaching down into the sea began rapidly approaching our life jacket less but hopefully stalwart vessel. , José who had been sipping from a small flask all day and as far as I could tell could no longer see the horizon, was also finishing off the last hot, smelly beer and tossing down a couple chunks of the smelly baitfish which he was now referring to as “ceviche”. Steve who had given up on the fishing some time ago was curled up in the bow for an afternoon siesta, his now beet red head a potential search beacon should the weather continue to worsen.

I scooted over to where José was lounging under the three foot canvas cover and pointed over his shoulder toward the approaching black wall of clouds and water. He stood up, turned around, made a gasping noise and coughed up a piece of ceviche. I did not take this to mean that he did not enjoy the ceviche. Quickly securing the chin strap of his Aussie style hat and without bringing in our fishing lines he applied the throttle to the motor and turned north towards Playa about five miles away.

Within minutes the first drops of rain were upon us, there were flashes of lightning mixed in with the black clouds and the formerly gentle Caribbean breeze began to pummel us with heavy wind and rain from the east. Yet it was now frighteningly clear that our fearless skipper intended to outrun this storm and return us to Playa. Steve, who was awake again, seemed to actually be revitalized by the sudden turn in the weather and was now standing up in the bow, arms spread, head tilted back, mouth open and laughing hysterically as he attempted to suck up as much of the storms watery offering as possible. Have I mentioned that the top of his head was really sunburned? Now traveling over the water’s surface at fifteen or twenty knots I turned around and noticed our four fishing lines, weights and bait were still bouncing along thirty or forty feet behind our boat but only coming in contact with the water every two or three seconds as each time they came in contact with the sea they were flung high back into the air only to return again in a now tangled mess.

It was really raining hard by now. José was hunkered down behind the helm and under the three foot canvas while Steve and I were perched in the bow holding onto to the gunwales for dear life as we bounced over the open waves completely soaked to the bones. José’s maniacal smile and beaming white teeth clearly indicated that he was enjoying his duel with Mother Nature and he clearly intended to outrun her. But alas, this storm was coming not from behind us from the south but from alongside of us from the east. Steve and I seemed keenly aware that we would simply soon be enveloped by the tempest but Jose appeared totally oblivious to our now obvious fate and continued to look back over his shoulder and laugh at his imagined victory.

In the end of course, we made it home. Battered, wet and weary, the weather conditions were completely the opposite from when we had left that morning but the water was still waist deep blah blah blah…… not that it mattered much because by the time we got back to Playa we were already soaked from “stem to stern” as the old nautical saying goes. We waded to shore accompanied by our scurrilous skipper who not only did we pay our one hundred and fifty dollars to but we also gave him a twenty dollar tip. Just glad to be back on solid land I guess. It was still pouring down rain when we got off the boat but we demanded that José clean our catch which consisted in total of four six inch mature yellowtail snappers and deliver it personally to our house.

While we trudged down the beach and back to the house Steve and I tried to decide what we would tell our wives about our fishing excursion. Steve suggested foolishly that we just tell them the truth about our day. No way!!” I said. “Why not?” said Steve. “Well….. because they would never believe us! “Why don’t you just tell them whatever comes off the top of your head.” I said. “Speaking of the top of your head, let’s get home. It’s almost cocktail hour.”

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