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Fisherman's CallTo Awaken the Heart of Compassion
By William "Billy" Packer
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 William "Billy" Packer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWinter Storm
Shivering, shaking, vomiting and freezing, I stood on the pitching deck. My eyes were stinging from wind-driven snow and spray as my ice-encrusted boat took wave after wave. They broke broadside over the bow, the wheelhouse and the gunnels. I watched in shocked disbelief, squinting, dripping, trembling and horrified as I desperately tried to do what needed to be done. In the pitch black terror of the night, could things have been any worse?
From harbor to harbor I searched, looking for the right boat. Nova Scotia was a good place to look for reasonably priced fishing boats in the thirty to forty foot range. "Novies" are extremely seaworthy and attractive, sitting like seabirds on the water and gracefully riding the waves like seagulls. With their proud high bows and bright paints, Novies are more like puffins with their elegant wide beaks, colorful and pleasing to behold, designer-painted by the master of natural wonder.
The boat was for my son, Jeff. Interested in going tuna fishing, he asked for my help in finding a good, solid boat. Jeff was working a steady job and didn't have time to travel to the coast of Nova Scotia with me. He trusted my judgment and promised to join me when he could.
When I found the "bolted boat," I knew it was perfect; thirty-eight feet long, sixteen feet wide, trunk cabin with headroom, and wheelhouse with sliding window, six cylinder Chevy gasoline engine – the "Nova Scotia diesel" as they are sometimes called. It was a lobster fisherman's boat with a bolted stern that was strong and unusual. Unusual because the "bolted boat," as I called it, was bolted together in lots of other important places, too, so I knew it was well built. A builder put it together from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and a local fisherman later told me that boats built by this man lasted longer than other Novies. Perhaps the bolted boat saved my life. I'll never know for sure.
For weeks I waited in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia for the perfect winter weather before I headed across to the States in my "Novie." It was about a hundred and twenty miles from Yarmouth to Bar Harbor, Maine. It was open ocean and in the middle of winter the weather conditions could be really bad. So, I wasn't in any rush to get going. I wanted to wait for the best weather possible.
While I waited in Yarmouth, my son came across on the ferry to see the boat. He had three days off from work. He drove to Portland and bought a ticket to Yarmouth. It was great to see Jeff, even for just a short visit. Jeff hated to leave me to take the boat back alone, but I knew I'd be fine by myself. Jeff had memories of a storm that had come up quickly on a seemingly quiet and calm fishing trip. Things changed quickly and we almost lost everything, including our lives. That's how it is on the ocean. She is the master and very unpredictable.
When it was time to leave, Jeff felt sick about going. He stood on the high upper deck of the huge ferryboat, looking down at me, standing alone in the cockpit of the tiny lobster boat. Jeff later told me that a terrible feeling of dread swept over him as he watched me. It wasn't a premonition, he said, it was just a sick feeling that overtook and scared him. He didn't want to leave me alone, God bless him. He knew I had a long ocean crossing in a small boat. He knew how bad things could get, especially in the dead of winter. Even under the best weather conditions things could suddenly turn ferocious. He'd been there before. He'd seen it. He remembered.
* * *
One day, when Jeff was a young boy, a good friend talked me into running his charter boat as a favor. "Come on, Billy," Wilbur said, "I'm going to lose a lot of money if you don't take this fishing party out for me." For hours these thirty paying guests were waiting at the dock, but Wilbur's skipper never showed up. I didn't want to take a big group of people out on a boat I wasn't sure of. I always went to sea on strong seaworthy boats that I knew were just right. Most of my boats were new, or close to it, but Wilbur's boats were usually old and "fixed up." I didn't really trust them but I finally agreed to do him the favor and take this group out fishing for the day.
Jeff was with me and we left about eleven o'clock, three hours later than this group expected to leave. By the time we got to Jeffrey's Ledge, about twenty-six miles ESE of Newburyport, the fishing was good and everyone was catching a lot of haddock and drinking a lot of beer, just having a totally fun day. It was a flat, calm day. There wasn't as much as the slightest ripple on the water. There wasn't a breath of wind to stir the sea. It was one of those perfectly still days that I loved most of all. We stayed at Jeffrey's Ledge for an extra two hours after all of the other boats left for home. We'd had a late start and I wanted to give the group a few extra hours of fishing. What a mistake!
The haddock were still coming aboard, one after another, when I received a call from one of the fishing boats that had left two hours earlier. "Billy, you'd better get headed in. We've just run into a terrible northwest wind. We're about ten miles off the beach and it's blowing really hard. It'll reach you soon. You'd better head in."
We pulled in the fishing lines, hauled the anchor and headed west for the beach, twenty-six miles away. Before we'd gone very far the northwest breeze started, rippling the sea into little six-inch waves that would soon grow into steep-sided monsters.
I knew we were in for it! Northwesters could be really bad, and the northwest wind picked up quickly and steadily. The boat began to buck, pitch and pound. I began to worry. We had a long way to go before we would reach the lee of the land. There would be no escaping the ferocious northwest wind-driven waves until we got close to the shore.
We were running the boat from the flying bridge, soaked by spray and waves coming over the bow. The seas grew quickly. Savage waves, the tops blowing off, slammed into us, one after another. Two large boxes of rods and reels were torn from the canopy roof behind us and thrown overboard. There was no turning back to retrieve them. They were gone.
I knew we were in trouble before it happened. The wind was just too strong, sixty to seventy miles an hour northwest. I kept climbing below to check the bilge for water. I kept telling the group to sit down and stop drinking. I became disgusted with their drunken humor and lack of fear for the predicament we were in. They thought it was all a big joke and I was scared for them, Jeff and myself. This was not the right boat to be in under these conditions ... not at all. It was old and tired. It had wide seams and bulging butt blocks. It was sick and worn out. It was OK in most weather, but not in this.
The boat was now a total mess. The group below had torn down the strapping that held the life jackets overhead. They were holding on to the strapping to keep their balance. Now there was strapping, with large nails sticking out, scattered all over the cockpit deck and mixed in with the life jackets. That's when I got mad, "Sit down and shut up," I screamed. "We're in trouble! This is no joke! This is serious! I'm not bullshitting you!" I knew the boat couldn't take sixty to seventy miles of northwest wind no matter how gently I tried to go.
I climbed back up to the flying bridge. The view of nasty, steep-sided, eighteen-foot seas with three twenty-footers every so often, was frightening! Poor Jeff was wide-eyed, looking out and holding on. Every once in a while he'd glance over at me for reassurance, but I was deeply troubled and he knew it. Over and over I went below to check the bilge. Then on one trip below, there it was. The forward cabin was full of water. A dozen people were sitting on side seats with their feet up on the seats so they wouldn't get their shoes wet. Two feet of water covered the floor.
We were sinking and not one of them had even told me! We were sinking and these people just sat there drinking beer! I couldn't even find a bucket to bail with, but if I had, no one would have bailed anyway. They were far beyond bailing or caring, or even knowing what was happening.
I had my hands full trying to ease the boat along, throttling back every time three big waves came. It was a long, slow and nerve-wracking trip. I never thought we'd make it to the beach. I thought we'd go down with thirty people aboard before we could get to the shore. I was running the boat hard now, just as hard as I dared to go. We were in the lee of the land and I was going to put the boat on the sandy shore to save these people, if I could make it. The wind was off the land so it would be flat calm on the beach.
We were so full of water that I was expecting the engine to quit at any moment, but we not only made it to the beach, we made it up river to the dock. To this day, I don't know how. As soon as we were tied up and the people were gone, the Coast Guard put pumps aboard to keep the boat afloat until Wilbur could haul it out. My battle with the northwest wind was over, thank God. I was still trembling, shaking, cold and wet, but I was sure relieved. Boy! Was I ever!
When Wilbur hauled the boat the trouble was obvious. Pounding waves had driven caulking through a wide seam in one of the garboard planks, right next to the keel. There was more than ten feet of seam that I could put my fingers through. How we stayed afloat I'll never know.
* * *
So Jeff knew well how bad it could get, quickly and unexpectedly. I'm sure his boyhood memories of tough times at sea had given him enough seafaring wisdom to worry about his Dad in the middle of winter. Plus, Jeff had just come across on the ferry from Portland which was a much longer trip than my crossing to Bar Harbor. Perhaps the length of his ferry ride had teamed up with his knowledge of hard weather, giving him a sick feeling of dread about my 120-mile winter crossing to Maine.
Jeff waved goodbye and was gone. I hated to see him leave as much as he hated to go, but I presumed I'd be fine by myself. So I went about preparing the boat for my trip ahead.
I bought a new radio and antenna that I installed just in case I might need it in the crossing. The boat wasn't very well equipped. It had a crude grapnel for an anchor and coils of pot warp (lobster pot line) for anchor line. The gas tank was a rusty fifty-five gallon drum strapped to the wheelhouse bulkhead. A length of copper tubing stuck out of the open cap on its top. This was the gas line. Rags were stuffed around the copper tubing to hold it in place and to keep fumes from escaping the rusty drum. Nova Scotia fishermen are sometimes crude with their rigging, but it works.
I waited for about two weeks before a good weather forecast came. The radio was installed and working. The boat was gassed and ready to go. I had a good fifty-five gallon drum of extra fuel strapped to the stern deck combing. I didn't want to keep too much fuel in the rusty drum so it wouldn't slosh up and wet the rags around the copper tubing. I also had a length of rubber hose for siphoning gas together with a five-gallon container to transfer the siphoned fuel.
Finally the good weather forecast came, light variable winds for days. I checked with the ferryboat captain. He gave me the same forecast, calm seas for days. It was just what I'd been waiting for, so I left.
Two hours out of Yarmouth it started to spit snow and a light northeasterly wind breezed up. "Oh boy," I thought, "what's this?" An hour later it was snowing harder and the wind had increased to about ten or fifteen northeast, but that still wasn't too bad, so I kept going.
By the time it got dark I was well out to sea and it was getting pretty sloppy, but the six-cylinder Chevy purred like a kitten. The boat was taking it fine. "Too late to turn back now," I thought. "I'm too far off shore. This weather is probably just a fluke anyway. It'll stop snowing and calm down before very long," I thought. But I was wrong.
The northeast wind and snow kept up so I decided to top off the fuel drum before it got too rough and uncomfortable. I'd never siphoned fuel before in my life, but it seemed like such a simple thing. I had no idea I was going to swallow gasoline two or three times in the process. I didn't swallow a lot but it didn't take very long before I was sick and vomiting. I was miserable. The seas were picking up. The wind was picking up. Now I was throwing up. What a sickening surprise!
For hours I heaved and heaved as the wind and the snow and the seas increased. I could hardly believe what was happening. It was ridiculous. Sick and alone and far out to sea in the middle of a winter storm!
The wide and able Novie was taking it well, but waves were breaking into the cockpit since the storm increased. Ice also was beginning to form, so I had to be extra careful as I crawled around with the dry heaves cramping my empty stomach.
It didn't seem real! The wind was blowing thirty-five to forty northeast now, and the snow was blinding. After many agonizing hours I finally got close to the coast of Maine. I didn't dare to go any further. I didn't know exactly where I was and I knew better than to forge ahead onto the rocky Maine coast during a blinding snowstorm at night. Thank God I had a little common sense in my sick and weakened state.
I shut the engine down and lay to, broadside to the waves, trying to anchor the boat. I wanted to bring its bow to face into the waves so it would ride better in the nasty seas. I doubled the anchor line for strength, but I couldn't even feel the bottom with the inadequate anchor and its short anchor chain. Standing in the cockpit I let out more and more line, holding the line in my hands and feeling, with bare frozen fingers, for the anchor to be bumping along the bottom. I felt nothing. Finally I had no more line to let out, just enough left to take up to the bow and fasten to the bit, hoping that the drag of the doubled line and grapnel might help to ease the bow a little more into the wind.
I didn't know how deep it was. I didn't know how close I was to the U.S. coast. But I sure didn't dare to go any closer looking for shallow water. I didn't want to end up on a rock ledge. Then I'd be done for.
I crawled up to the bow on my hands and knees, clinging, as best I could, to the icy toe rail and trunk cabin handrail so I wouldn't slip overboard on the slick icy catwalk. With the last coil of line I went forward and secured it to the bow loop. Then I returned to the cockpit and released the anchor line from the stern cleat. But the boat stayed broadside. The pull of the doubled line and anchor didn't affect the boat in the least. My hope that it would come around a little was just wishful thinking.
All the while waves were breaking over me and the icy boat. I was soaked and freezing and heaving and alone. But I was too busy to be scared as I carefully crawled around in my vain attempt to anchor the boat.
I headed into the seas and tried for a good half hour to give the anchor line enough slack so the grapnel might settle to the bottom and latch on to something. But every time I crawled to the icy bow, I felt no bottom at all as I held onto the double pot warp with frozen fingers.
Finally I gave up trying to anchor. Even if it hit the bottom I had no faith in its ability to hook up. I was sure that even if it did grab on to something it wouldn't hold in all this wind. So I hauled in the anchor and resigned myself to lying broadside to the northeast seas. There was nothing else I could do.
Shivering, shaking, heaving and freezing, I stood on the pitching deck. My eyes were stinging from wind-driven snow and spray as my ice-encrusted boat took wave after wave. They broke broadside over the bow, the wheelhouse and the gunnels. I watched in shocked disbelief, squinting, dripping, trembling and horrified, as I desperately tried to do what needed to be done. In the pitch-black terror of the night, I wondered if things could be any worse.
Excerpted from Fisherman's Call by William "Billy" Packer Copyright © 2011 by William "Billy" Packer. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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