Most trips start off with dreams of a boatload of fish. But a bad forecast can make angling shift from uncomfortable to dangerous in a blink.
I looked up into the frothy-white-topped wave, which towered five feet over my head, and watched a yellowfin tuna swim by me. "Wait a minute," I thought, "tuna don't swim above your head!" Quickly, the 65-footer I was fishing on came atop the swell, and I watched the fish disappear into the seemingly infinite black trough below. The wind groaned all around the vessel. How did I get here?
It was a mid-October evening on the Atlantic Ocean 120 miles from nowhere, and to add to this adventure, a wicked chill ran through my body with every bellowing blow. I thought, "Oh, this is fun."
The two-day trip for big, late-season yellowfin tuna started off innocently enough. Our crew had bagged this adventure two times in September due to an unfavorable National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather forecast. And while we all had many years of offshore experience and knew October sea states in the Atlantic can change on the fly, the window, according to the agency, was going to be fine.
The seas were supposed to run about three to five feet on the stern on the way out, and the wind was predicted to lay down to about ten knots with two- to four-foot seas for the next 48 hours. This was our opportunity, our chance to get in on the run before hanging up the Penn Internationals for the season and to start dreaming about next year. We had a big boat under our feet, a salty crew, and dammit, we were headed to the Hudson canyon to catch dinner!
With the following sea on the five-hour ride out, it was easy for me to doze off into a blissful slumber. I entered a dreamy world where the seas were flat, bait was plentiful, and multiple hookups on 125-pound Allison tuna were coming fast and furious. Something was coming all right, but it wasn't flat seas.
The fairy-tale fall forecast turned into a black comedy of sorts. With cries of "Are you kidding me?" being echoed amongst the crew, yours truly included.
The wind was whipping, and we could see near-horizontal salt spray in the lights blowing across the foredeck. All I could think was: "Awesome. Who wants anchor duty?" After all, we were only trying to set two anchors in about 350 feet of water in a steady Force 6 (sometimes feeling more like a 7). The wind blew, the seas grew, and we were now on a puny 65-footer.
It felt like we'd entered purgatory as the anchors finally grabbed hold of the seafloor (after nearly an hour of trying). But there we were, alone in the dark and in for a long night. Since we weren't planning on motoring home into this maelstrom, we decided to fish. Why not?
Big seas can make battlewagons feel like bay boats.
In short order, we dispersed chunks of butterfish into the steepening swells. Like trained goldfish being called to the top of a home aquarium, several metric tons (literally) worth of yellowfin appeared in the lights below the boat (and then above the deck). In a heartbeat, it was multiple hookups as our anglers held onto the gunwales and reeled when they could. It was just like my dream, except for the howling wind, which was now a few knots away from getting a name. The fishing was a true bail job on these 60- to 80-pound tuna; it was an epic bite going off in some mighty miserable weather.
Within a few hours, we had limited out while bouncing around in the tempestuous seas. The action was over, and our attention turned to getting home. We waited for daybreak to get a better idea of what we were actually dealing with. (As it turned out, we should've left in the dark.)
The morning's gray light pierced the lumpy horizon. "Ouch!" I thought as I saw nearly vertical walls of water standing 12 to 15 feet in all directions. Not good.
It took more than an hour to retrieve our anchors, after which we set a course for home—which happened to be right into the teeth of these water walls. That's when the fun started. The engines eased the boat forward at eight knots, but the seas lifted her like a feather on a breeze and the two propellers were repeatedly pulled free from the sea with vigor. (In my opinion, very unnecessary vigor.) Waves began to crash over the bridge, green water poured down the deck, and we watched 500-pound-plus barrels that were holding extra anchor line bounce around the deck like superballs.
Finally, one wave came over the top and blew out a cabin window, which created our first-ever saloon pool. During the next bow rise, the water found its way out of the cabin, and the crew went about fixing the window as we idled in the troughs. (With a blown-out window, headway was not an option.) Once the window was secured as best as it could be, the boat was back underway at about five knots as the winds began to drop and the seas subsided to a downright comfy eight to ten feet.
For the next 12 hours, our routine involved trying to hold on, being awed by the angry ocean, and questioning our sanity for buying into that so-called forecast in mid-October.
Once within sight of land, the crew's spirits rose, the jokes started, and stories of being victorious against the sea began to circulate. Truth be told, we didn't win anything. The sea let us go. We managed to get through it, that's all.
After securing the boat in her slip, I stepped onto the dock with an appreciation for the bedrock feel that is land. I am usually never happier than when I'm at sea, but this time I was really happy to be home.
A few hours into butchering numerous tuna dockside, I heard someone ask "Hey, are we going back out one more time this season?" Someone replied, "Well, if we get a weather window, maybe." At once the crew said in choir-like synchronization, "I'm in."