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Beholden to the Sea / JD Clapp


Cruising at 20 knots, Peter and I bullshitted about our banner day of tuna fishing. The Coronado Islands lay seven miles ahead, shimmering in the late afternoon sun, waves crashing on their steep rock banks, blasting white spray into the air. I cracked a second Modelo tallboy for Pete.


The collision sounded like a shotgun blast. I thought rock, quickly realizing that was impossible. I felt the boat go airborne, heard the prop spinning wildly, purchasing nothing but air while the motor screamed. I watched the oversized kill bag, 500 pounds of fish and ice in all, break loose from the bow and slam into the portside hull wall of Peter’s 22’ center console. I remember thinking oh shit when she landed, the portside gunwale diving under the surface before we pitchpoled.

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I vomited sea water. Confused, I treaded water, gagging and coughing, my throat on fire. When the coughing jag stopped, I swam for the Igloo cooler, the only thing floating nearby. Clinging to the cooler, I caught my breath.


Fifty feet away, the bow bobbed just above the surface. Paralyzed by indecision, I debated swimming for it, but feared the sinking boat would drag me down with it. I used the cooler as a makeshift kickboard to retrieve a floating life jacket and water bottle from the small debris field.


“Peter! Peter!”


There was no response.

“Peter!”


I called for him long after I knew there would be no response.


Beyond being professional acquaintances and sharing a mutual love of fishing, I barely knew the man; it was the first time we had fished together.


Seconds later, the water 30 yards to my port exploded. Startled, I turned to see a gray whale violently thrash the surface, its tail repeatedly slapping, displaced water raining down on me. I watched the whale suffer in fits and starts. Brief periods of violent thrashing gave way to longer spells, the whale still, weakly blowing air through its blowhole in tortured rasps and wheezes. Eventually, with a final thrash, the whale succumbed, then peacefully floated.

           

Shortly after the whale died, still clutching the cooler, I watched the prow go under. Behind it, Peter floated face-down, bobbing amid whirlpool swirls produced by the sinking boat’s vacuum pull. When the swirls stopped, the water boiled large air bubbles escaping from the submerged hull. Eventually, all that remained was Peter’s half-submerged body shimmering in a rainbow sheen of gasoline and motor oil that stained the surface.


Watching his corpse, I went numb. Time passed unnoticed, my mind in a detached, stoned, blankness. The sun set. There was no green flash, I thought. My skin gooseflesh, I shivered. My hands and arms cramping, my fingers tinged white from my death grip, holding on to the cooler became tenuous. As the sky darkened, my fear approached panic. I shook violently.


Eventually, my mind came back to me, and I took stock of my situation. I was 22 miles south of U.S. waters. Making the islands using the cooler was untenable. Donning the life jacket draped over my shoulder would require letting go of the cooler, a move I thought too risky. I couldn’t hold the cooler much longer. My adrenaline subsiding, the sun gone, cold radiated from my skin into my bones. I feared hypothermia lurked.


Then my mind shifted to the dead whale. Its death throes had echoed out into the sea like a dinner bell, its blood in the water an invitation to the feast. Sharks would eventually come. If I don’t get out of the water, I’m dead, I thought.


Being the only viable port in my shitstorm, I headed for the dead whale. I shoved the water bottle into my shorts’ waistband, ran my arm through the life jacket, and let go of the cooler and swam for the whale. Its skin, cold, rubbery, and dotted with patches of barnacles, cut and abraded my hands and legs as I climbed up the whale’s head onto its broad back.


In the dimness, I saw the source of the whale’s demise: A prop much bigger than ours had cut a huge gash that ran from the baleen of its left jaw, across its massive head, ending just above its right eye. Probably near death when we collided, the whale had been just under the surface.


Wed to the whale now, I watched the cooler float away into the night. How long does a dead whale float? I wondered, as I pulled on the life jacket. The jacket had a whistle clipped to the zipper, a strobe light attached to a molly loop on the shoulder, and provided modest warmth, trapping the heat escaping from my core. Now almost dark, I was grateful to be out of the sea.


I took a sip of water from the half-full bottle. I would ration it.

Fear came and went in perfect relation to my thoughts. I imagined the coast guard at my front door—the horror and pain on my wife’s face, my young daughter clinging to her thigh, crying but not yet understanding. I pushed thoughts of home away.


I tried to settle. I took deep calming breaths of the cool, fresh, salt air. Eventually, my mind focused exclusively on the present: gripping with my legs and knees, looking for a ship’s navigation lights on the horizon, flexing my ankles to ward off cramps.


The stars emerged, slightly dulled by the harvest moon’s ethereal light. My leviathan raft floated gently on calm seas. 


Straddling the whale, I pushed my knees hard into its flesh to maintain balance. My legs soon ached. I shifted my weight, but it offered little respite from the pain. I feared falling off my improbable life raft more than the pain. 


Around 11:00 p.m., sharks came and fed on the fluke and pectoral flippers. Their bumps into the carcass barely noticeable, their splashes more so.

Probably small blues and makos, I reasoned thinking about the sharks I had caught in these waters over the years.


Extremely tired, fear and pain precluded my sleep. The night passed in maddening slow motion. Before dawn, two ships passed within a mile: the Dole ship headed for San Diego, and a container ship likely headed for San Pedro. I blew the whistle and turned on the strobe but went unnoticed. The ships, however, offered a seed of hope.

Someone will see me, I thought, although not fully believing it.


As dawn broke, I finished my water. The sun would soon warm me. Boat traffic would pick up. The sea remained calm. Small blue sharks came and went. The whale sat lower in the water. I cautiously awaited rescue.


Sometime before midday, thinking I would need liquid later and my thirst would override the natural aversion of drinking piss, I tried to kneel on the whale to urinate into the empty water bottle. Too weak to kneel, I almost toppled over into the sea. I carefully sat back down. Dark urine stained my shorts and ran down my thigh onto the whale.


By 1:00 p.m., five fishing boats and two sail boats had passed in the distance, the closest maybe two miles off. Again, despite strobe and whistle I went unnoticed. Certainly my wife had already called the Coast Guard, but would she know where to point them? Nobody will search for me this far into Mexican waters, I thought.


The afternoon sun warmed and dried me. My legs ached terribly. The acrid scent of decay began to waft up from my once-living perch. The day marched on.


Around 4:00 p.m. I became angry. I cursed and pounded the whale with my right first. My knuckles bled; a piece of barnacle embedded in my ring finger. My initial feeling of foolishness gave way to cathartic relief. Then imagining someone viewing the scene from above, the absurdity of a crazed man pummeling the dead whale he sat on, I laughed aloud.


I laughed until I cried. Fearing tears of self-pity would be a tacit acquiesce to death, I cried for Peter.


“Don’t come undone now,” I said aloud.


Another sunset came. Again, I noticed there was no green flash. Painfully thirsty, sunburned, my lips cracked and bled. The barnacle cuts on my legs turned rash-red, maybe infected, burning from the saltwater. My right hand swelled from the punches. My gut churned from hunger. My bone-tired leg muscles went numb. My body, shorts, and t-shirt were filthy, stained with blood from fishing, urine, and caked-in salt residue.


The sharks returned just after dark. Their bumps more notable than before, the whale felt less stable, even lower in the water. I feared once the sharks devoured the fluke or pectoral flippers, the whale’s natural spontoons, the corpse would roll and dump me into the sea. Unsure if air trapped in its lungs or blubber kept the dead whale afloat, I feared it sinking.

 

At full dark, a thin marine layer turned the glow of a full harvest moon a muted blood-orange shade. The low clouds mercifully held the remains of the day’s warmth. Two ships passed around 8:00 p.m., too far off for the whistle or strobe. 

After 9:30 p.m., the southerly swell built, mixing with the prevailing westerly swell. The whale slowly gyrated in the confused seas. Exhausted and in pain, I needed to switch positions. I needed rest.


Using the life jacket as a makeshift pillow, I laid flat on the whale, my stomach flush to its back, my arms and legs splayed akimbo to its moist sides. Sleep came suddenly.


I dreamt of being on a small boat, floating among glacial ice fields. The sea was calm. The sun’s rays offset the cold air. It felt good. Brown jagged stone cliffs ended in brilliant evergreen pine forests rimming the small ice–dotted bay. From below, I felt vibrations then heard the ghostly call of an orca. The unseen orca did not elicit wariness, but oddly a feeling of connectedness. I floated peacefully in my dream, waiting for rescue without fear or want.


I woke at 4:30 a.m. to the thrumming thunder of helicopter rotors. Thank God, I thought. My hopes quickly died as the chopper sped past headlong into the night, clearly not searching for a lost man on a dead whale.


At gray light, sharks fed again. Now the carcass shook violently with each bump and tearing bite. Looking down, I watched a large mako take the last of the starboard pectoral flipper, then fade into the deep blue. Thirty feet below at the fringes of visibility, smaller sharks emerged, first appearing as small, distorted flashes, progressively morphing into sharks as they ascended. They fed heavily. The whale sat lower still; my feet barely cleared the water.


Around sunup, my legs and arms spasmed. Dehydration-fueled pains shot through my extremities. Painfully thirsty, my split lips stung, small drops of blood the only moisture in the desert of my mouth. My dry eyes burned. I struggled to hold on. When the whale rolls, it will be over, I thought.


At full light, the wind freshened to 15 knots with gusts of 25. The southern swell grew to five feet, bigger rollers mixed in. Wind gusts carved swell crests into spitting white caps. The whale rolled like a broken metronome, small, chopped swings to the port then longer, deeper dips to the starboard. I jammed my first into the open blowhole, and like a rodeo rider strapped to a saddle pommel, I prayed I would remain on the beast.


Soon birds arrived to scavenge. Little white terns came first. They dove to the surface, their beaks snatching shards of flesh torn loose by the feeding sharks. Gulls came soon after.

Below the surface, sardines drawn in by the shark-produced chum arrived and mixed in with the sharks. Before long, skipjack and mackerel joined the feeding frenzy. As I watched the symbiotic interplay of scavenger, hunter, and prey, I wondered, how many times had I raced my skiff to such a scene, rod in hand, ready to cast a lure into the fray?


My life raft diminished, jagged bite by bite. The whale would roll soon, ending it. I felt faint and dizzy. I dry heaved, the retching sending jarring shock waves of pain through me. My panic returned briefly, followed by acceptance. I am going to die soon, I thought.


Not wanting to be awake for it, I closed my eyes. I hunched forward, exhaustion took over, and I faded out. In my stupor, I disassociated again, only marginally aware of my body or situation. My sensations of touch and sound muted. My mind pulled me back to the ice–dotted bay of my dream. This is a peaceful place to die, I thought.

In my half–dream state, I heard an outboard’s throaty whine and distant voices.


Why are they here? I thought.


Then noises grew louder and more urgent before my mind acknowledged them. Dazed, still unsure I was awake, I looked up.


A young man standing on the bow of an azure blue panga yelled in Spanish:


“Mira! Mira!”


Mira allá! Mira allá!!”


The panga drew within three yards. The young Mexican fisherman tossed a bowline my way. Confused, I didn’t even reach for it. Is he real? I wondered.


I watched with a detached interest as his partner expertly worked the tiller and whipped the boat around portside, coming flush to the whale in the building seas. Displaced by the panga, the puddled baitfish crashed the surface with hundreds of little splashes sounding like buckets of nickels hitting a wood floor. Birds screamed above.


A strong hand reached over, grabbed my arm, and yanked me into the panga. I collapsed on the deck, landing in a pool of bilge water, fish blood, and spilled gasoline. I looked up blankly at the men talking to me excitedly in Spanish.


Seagulls shrieked above them. Their two-stroke outboard purred loudly, sending wafts of exhaust into the air. The VHF radio crackled with a mix of staticky squelch, men yelling emphatically in Spanish; fishermen from San Diego asking for fish reports. This is real, I thought, the haze in my mind lifting.


The fisherman pushed the panga off from the whale. The captain pointed the bow east, revved the engine, then headed toward Rosarito. Underway, the fisherman supported my head and held a bottle of water to my damaged lips.

 

Beholden to these fishermen, the dead whale, the lifecycle of the sea itself, I croaked, “Gracias.” 


First published in Stories Through the Ages: Baby Boomers Anthology 2023.

 

 


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