I have only been fishing two times in my life.
The first time I was ten years old and I was looking forward to it for three reasons.
1. I thought that it would be exciting.
2. I thought that it would be interesting.
3. I thought that I would really enjoy myself.
I was wrong on all three counts. When my stepfather (previously my Uncle John) woke me up it was still dark and it felt like I had only been asleep for about three seconds; my vision was blurred and I could barely stand up. He did, however, offer some constructive words of encouragement in order to get me motivated at that early hour. I was surprised by his positivity as he barked, “Get out of bed you bloody idle little bugger, and sort yourself out!” This unusual air of calmness and approachability on his part reassured me that this was going to be a day like no other.
My mother had somehow talked him into it. Fishing was his way of enjoying solace and gathering his thoughts for the week ahead and he didn’t want some snot-nosed kid, who wasn’t even his, ruining it for him. He was a difficult man to understand or even communicate with; he may have been charming when mum had met him but all that charm seemed to evaporate as soon as they were married and he transformed himself into a bully capable of sudden, violent and inexplicable bouts of rage (usually over trivial matters) that terrified me to the core.
On the flip side his generosity on birthdays and at Christmas was unquestionable. I always seemed to receive the presents that I wanted and he would always appear genuinely happy when I opened them. We always had fun on my birthday and over the Christmas period, but I suspect it was because my grandparents were there and they would have none of his bad tempers when they were around.
It was 3am. I never realised that there was such a time.
It was 3am. I never realised that there was such a time.
My stepfather had packed the fishing gear into the car the night before and there was there was a pre-prepared mid-morning snack of tongue sandwiches waiting for us in the fridge. We set off at about 3.30am and he drove the short distance to the spot on the Ribble River where he usually fished.
It rained all the way there and in fact it didn’t stop raining for the entire day; relentless, cold, driving rain that made me so miserable that I would have welcomed the end of the world – and just to make matters worse we didn’t catch a thing.
|The worst day of my life (up until then)|
I moaned and complained for the entire time we were sat drenched to the bone on that bloody awful river bank. My stepfather, to his credit, only told me to stop whinging once throughout the day. Most of his time was spent explaining to me that the weather wasn’t usually as bad as this and that in good weather fishing was very enjoyable.
It was the worst day of my life and as enjoyable as it may have been on a fine and sunny day I wouldn’t go fishing again for another twenty-four years.
I was in the Royal Air Force and stationed at RAF Belize in Central America when the next opportunity arose for to go on a fishing trip, this time with three of my friends.
In Belize you lived for the weekends in the hope that you could get some form of transport over to Ambergris Caye, where you could spend your time in San Pedro Town where there was white sandy beaches, coconut trees, beautiful women and lots and lots of bars.
|Panorama of Ambergris Caye|
Phil, Carl, Ritchie and I had managed to get a helicopter flight over there. That meant we arrived a day earlier than everyone else who had to squeeze into the one motor boat that made the trip each day on Saturdays and Sundays.
When we arrived at our accommodation on San Pedro we threw our bags into our rooms and went out to hit the bars.
The four of us worked in the Explosives Area at Ladyville, a couple of miles from Airport Camp, where RAF Belize was situated. It was a hot, sweaty and thankless job and our only release was to get over to San Pedro as quickly as possible on a Friday evening so we could spend the weekend chatting up the local women and getting hopelessly pissed. There was never any question about copping off with any of the women – the object of the exercise was to get as drunk as possible without (a) throwing up or (b) attracting the unwanted attention of the local or military police, and anyway, by 10pm the women had become understandably tired of our increasingly boisterous behaviour and had abandoned us for men who were (a) less drunk than we were or (b) had more money than we had.
It was around 10pm that we ended up in a bar full of Americans and we struck a conversation with four guys who were now living in San Pedro, after retiring from the US Special Forces. They told us they had their own boat that they had bought between them which used it to go fishing with. They were all from Texas but I can’t for the life of me remember any of their names and so for the purposes of this piece I’ll call them John, Clint, Burt and Kirk.
Kirk told us that they had all served in Vietnam together, but that was as far as he went. When we tried to get any of them to open up about their experiences over there they just changed the subject and so we just let it go. They had settled, they told us, for a quiet life on a desert island. It was Burt that suggested that we might want to go fishing with them the following day, but after my experience with my stepfather on that cold morning on the Ribble I never wanted to go fishing ever again.
“Hey, man,” said Clint, “it ain’t like that at all. When you come fishin’ with us it’s a whole new ball game.”
“Yeah,” said John, “Give it a go, man, and you’ll see how much fun it is.”
I reluctantly agreed and we were told to meet them at the jetty just behind the bar at 6am the next morning. None of us held up much of a hope that they would be there but we got up early anyway and strolled over to the jetty. In amongst all the small sail boats moored there, a huge motor boat called The Lone Star stood out and it was from this one that Clint emerged. “Hey, guys,” he called, “glad you could make it – come aboard – we’re just about to leave.”
As we were heading out to sea I offered Burt, who was driving the boat, a cigarette, but he just gave me a strange look and laughed out loud before yelling, “No man, I only smoke dope!”
|60 second sketch of "Burt"|
John, Clint, Burt and Kirk were all – as it turned out – dope-heads, which had probably accounted for the strange smell in the bar the night before, but Carl, Phil, Ritchie and I went out to sea with them anyway because it seemed like a good idea at the time.
The Lone Star was an amazing vessel – it seemed to be fitted out with everything that the modern sailor at the time would have required – not that I knew much about modern sailing methods. The thing is though, when I said everything I meant to say everything except fishing equipment. Apart from a couple of nets on poles there seemed to be a complete absence of anything that could even be remotely regarded as fishing equipment. There was, however, a plentiful supply of beer and marijuana on board, which kind of made everything all right, I suppose.
“I thought we were going fishing,” Carl said to John.
“Yeah, we are, man.”
“But there’s no fishing gear on board.”
“There is, man,” said John, who touched his nose and whispered conspiratorially, “you just ain’t seen it yet.”
|Carl and me on The Lone Star. I'm the one in the loud shirt.|
Panic gripped me when he said that. Oh shit, I thought, we’ve set sail with four psychopaths who are going to use us as their fishing equipment.
In order to stave off our increased levels of panic and fear we drank as much beer as we could possibly drink in the time it took Burt to drive the boat into the middle of the ocean. But we needn’t have worried. John, Clint, Burt and Kirk had no intention of murdering us out at sea and using our chopped up remains to feed the fishes with. They were genuinely out to go fishing, albeit in a rather unconventional way. They were laid back dope-heads without a care in the world. They were retired and had no one to answer to except themselves and maybe the authorities should they ever be caught on board The Lone Star with a lethal combination of drugs, alcohol and explosives.
“Let’s go fishing, guys, called John from the stern of the boat. “Come and get your gear.”
We walked over to where he was unlocking a metal box. John smiled and winked at us as he lifted the lid. “Two sticks each, man. Just light ‘em up and toss ‘em in the water and watch all the little fishes float to the top.”
Dear reader, you may at this particular point in time be thinking along the lines that four guys high on marijuana and four guys half-cut from drinking too much beer in too short a time were perhaps not the ideal people to be handling explosives on a small boat a few miles off the coast of Ambergris Caye somewhere in the Caribbean and that they were (at the very least) contravening everything that was sacred to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) – and you would be right in thinking that, were it not for the fact that the HSE was approximately 7424 miles away in Liverpool, England and the eight guys on the boat in the Caribbean at that particular point in time didn’t actually give a toss about Health & Safety.
We were instructed to light each fuse and count to five before throwing our stick of dynamite in the water; less than five seconds and the water would probably put the fuse out, more than five seconds and there was a likelihood that we could blow our own hands off. As we hurled the hissing dynamite sticks into the sea we had to shout, “FIRE IN THE HOLE!” and then cover our ears. A huge pillar of water shot upwards and as the shockwave from the explosion rocked the boat from side to side we were drenched in the cold sea spray that fell all around us.
If I had to choose between my stepfather’s style of fishing and the kind that John, Clint, Burt and Kirk had shown us on that bright and sunny morning in the Caribbean I would have gone with our four new crazy Texan friends every time. It was over in a matter of minutes but it was better than the best firework display I’d ever seen. As each of our dynamite sticks detonated we leaped up and down on the deck of The Lone Star; we danced and whooped and sang like lunatics. It was easily the most fun anyone had ever had over a two minute period.
Afterwards we used the nets on poles to scoop the stunned fish up and haul them onto the boat. These were then placed in huge cool boxes where they would be later scaled and gutted and frozen.
“We live on fish,” said Clint, drawing from a freshly rolled joint. “It’s the sea’s bounty, man.”
|Phil, in repose|
The rest of the day was spent swimming in the ocean, drinking beer and chatting. As the sun was going down Burt turned the boat around and we headed back to shore. On the way back Phil was sick over the side of the boat. "Yeah!" yelled Kirk. "Lay some of that ground bait down, man!"
|This cartoon was drawn the day after the trip. I've replaced the lettering because it was starting to fade and the name I used out there was Stan Terole, which is an anagram of No Letraset.|
Later, Clint demonstrated to us how to roll a joint and how to roach it properly so you could smoke it right down to its last tiny leaf. He lit it up and offered it around as we lay on the deck looking up at the stars. Why not, I thought, and took a couple of deep drags. It was the first time I had ever smoked anything stronger than a Capstan Full Strength and it felt great. As I gazed up into the sky the stars seemed to shine just that little bit brighter.
It was the perfect end to the perfect day.
It was one helluva wild and crazy trip, man.