Life in Salt: Catching Fluke and Dodging Gales

by Owen James Burke


(Artwork by Jack Dondanville)

The sea may give you fish to eat, but even a puddle of water can sink or drown you, if it’s willing and you let it.

My father always spoke about black skies that brought with them black squalls and hail sweeping over Long Island Sound, but it wasn’t until one late summer day while fishing from his catboat that I became associated with the serious implications of a sudden gale in a small boat. 

We were on a slow drift in the deep channel with the tide. There was hardly any wind, and although there were a few clouds over Long Island that suggested they might brush us with an afternoon shower, it was a slow, hot and humid afternoon that did not allow for even the slightest care.

Catboats actually make perfect fishing boats, as far as sailboats and fishing are to be concerned. They’re built like big Victorian bathtubs with a wide, sunken deck, which gives you high freeboard for safety, but a low waterline so that the water is just within reach — this comes in handy for hauling fish inboard.

I hadn’t yet caught of a thing, and I rarely caught a fish with my father around, but I was satisfied on the simple premise that I was not in school. So I was richly surprised when my line went tight and I realized I was not hung up on the ground. I felt a bona fide head shake and then I felt as if I were trying to retrieve a giant suction cup from the bottom. I forgot about the curse that the presence of my father brought to my fishing (separately, we both usually did pretty well). I managed to pry the fish free from the mud, and pulled up the biggest fluke I’d ever seen. I turned to my father with a smile, and was met with a face full of worry. I didn’t really understand, but he was wise enough not to say a thing. I followed the gaze of his eyes to Oyster Bay, over which the sky bore a shade I had seen at night, but never in the early afternoon.

The sails went up and he told me to bring in the fishing lines. I followed orders and tossed the rest of our bait over the rail. Not even a single scrounging seagull was around to take interest. This was the first sign that brought an understanding to my mind that maybe it was not going to be a regular afternoon shower. The skies were a mauve purple, dissolving into black.

Despite the imminence of the approaching storm, there was still very little breeze, I recall. Limping along, with the fortune of the little wind we had being at our backs, I watched the clouds chase us as my father kept his attention on the harbor, scouring for the exact location of our mooring. He still didn’t say a thing. I remember being curious, but not much more. I was just proud to know that I’d be bringing fresh fluke home to my mother, in whose eyes there are few better things on earth.

We made it to the mooring field without the slightest change in weather, other than the continuously darkening lid overhead. We came up to wind, and I picked up the mooring whip as my father dropped the sail. The boat was put to bed, and the dinghy was loaded — full as always with about two inches between the rails and the waterline and ready to tip at even the most minor disturbance — and ready to make for shore at a slow and staggering glide.

I got in and my father began to row, noticeably much faster than usual, as I felt the first raindrop on my forehead. The surface began to ripple with the wind’s strokes. The masts throughout the harbor began to sway and their rigging was starting to chime.

By the time we reached the boat ramp, it was beginning to hail, and we had to cover ourselves by holding our sea bags over our heads while we loaded the car. We slid the dinghy onto the rack and by the time we had gotten into the car, the neighboring rack which was full of dinghies, kayaks and canoes, had been flipped over and sent across the parking lot with a single but formidable exhalation from the southeast.

I felt relief as my father drove home; I sensed that he did not. Now that he wouldn’t have to explain to my mother that I’d been taken out in a heavy blow, his worry was focused on his boat (never mind our house).

Despite a flooded basement, everything was fine at home and we ate fluke baked with lemon and capers for dinner. After my mother and I jokingly prodded at my father over his concern for his boat and complete disregard for our house — by which I’m sure he was not amused — I was quick to bed. I realized then that fishermen kept their eyes on the sky for reasons other than bird activity over schooling fish, and that even in the narrowest, most confined body of water the sea has to offer, boredom can quickly give way to terror.

I’m not sure that my father ever went to bed that night. He dragged me from my slumber early the next morning and we drove back to the harbor to inspect the damage. Paddling through the cove in our kayak we passed several boats that had gone under in the storm, with nothing but their masts protruding from the surface at odd angles. I hadn’t ever seen anything like this, and will probably never forget it. I could never have imagined such a calm day of fishing in such protected waters as Long Island Sound might end as it did.

There was relief when we reached our mooring where our boat was still afloat. Piles of seaweed were wrapped around the mast. The boat had ridden so low from the wind that it was partially submerged. We bailed the water out and cleared away the debris while I took note that many others — more than I can recall to count — were not so fortunate.

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