Leaps in the Dark
Beverley Mary Ross
Commercial fishing was like running away from home and joining the circus and the circus has only men in it. Circus time is wild time and hard time and takes everything you've got although a lot of people might think it is gloriously adventurous. To do this one has be ready to go, willing to start, right there at the starting gate and don't look back.
We headed to Port M Neil after searching the south coast for a fish boat we could afford. The fishing company was willing to help finance the boat. How beautifully naive we were and so excited to go fishing after spending years log salvaging on the south coast in a twenty two foot boat called the Cosmic Janitor. Vivid memories of the boat mostly involve hours of boredom towing the logs behind the boat and watching the kerosene lamp on the end of the tow and the compass to see that we didn't deviate from our course to Lund, 30 hours away. There was no stove, no bunks and the noise was so loud and droning for hours that I hallucinated a jet plane going through the cabin. We could not sleep anyway because of the busy traffic of tug boats, freighters and other commercial boats. Amazing what love can do. We were like the brave tractor drivers in a Russian propaganda film.
Another memory is of coming back, lucky to have enough fuel to keep the big jimmy gas engine going. No radar. This is so dangerous, looking back. We were really trapped like a small animal in huge seas and no visibility. The wind came up as we were half way to Texada Island and a quarter the way home to Squitty Bay on the south end of Lasqueti Island. There were huge seas and we were being pushed by the wind and tide. Every movement seemed like it could be the last as the boat surfed down towering waves and then started to turn sideways in a deadly position that would mean broaching the wave. The boat was not responding quickly enough and surely enough and the seas were more than the boat could take except for the it was the steely resolve and good judgment of Ian . I kept quiet and sat tin the doorway in my floater coat which is about as helpful as clinging to swans down in a sinking ship. The seas were black and huge in the dark and there was no one else out there. We had no windshield wipers by the wind was sweeping the water off the windshield. The finicky engine, the light weight of the boat and lack of any safety plan seemed the least of the swirling, chaotic machine of darkness , troughs and water pouring on the boat. It was all so primitive back then.
AS we neared the opening to Squitty Bay the seas got worse, steeper with a short distance between waves. This course involved aiming for the rocks and turning with a sickening lurch and revving the gas engine up to its max to turn and surf through the small gap. The journey was short, in the perfectly black, the dark, windy rain to an unlighted dock. The powerful searchlight was hand held and scanned the rocks for the tenuous changes in texture and color that were barely visible. The arbutus tree bending over the bay, the lichen and the configuration of rocks were beacons that could only be read by someone who called this place home. Good seamen can read these signs and have supernatural powers so that they can shoot gaps in the dark like a good horseman can jump an impossible fence and then turn on a dime. This can kill a horse. The finesse and razors edge judgment of such moments is inexpressibly dramatic and freezes the blood.
We shot through the gap and shone the spot light around the small bay where we knew every tree and rock and saw the dock rising and falling like a wild squid or a bouncing highway in an earthquake. Ian yelled, “Get the rope and be ready to jump on the dock.” The boat was going crazy, unpredictable lurches and bounds and the dock was going the opposite way but I jumped anyway sort of hurling
myself in a bone breaking swan dive in the dark and landing on the dock and in some dark creature's arms. There was someone on the dock, looking black in his black rubber rain jacket and pants. He grabbed me and the boat line like a powerful, mighty dancer , just in time and pulled the careening stern of the Cosmic Janitor into the dock where all the world stopped turning and lurching. Between swells he threw the stern line and snuggled the boat up to the dock so boat and dock were bouncing in unison and making solid ground within a spinning gyro. We tied up the boat, putting our big red round fenders called scotchmen to stop the boat from being smashed . The ropes heaved and snapped taught but it was all working, the stern rope tightened when the front rope went slack, it is such a network of ropes and stresses and counter stresses that no circus tent can match the continual movement and spinning dynamics of the boat tied up at a heaving dock.
I could still hear the engine long after it was turned off and would hear it for hours and feel the ground heaving and rolling. I was so glad to be alive but too tired and too thankful to do anything but stand quietly in the face of the god awful, awesome storm. Thanks to the guy on the dock and the spirit of brotherhood on the sea that made him come to help. To even hear the sound of our boat approaching in the noise of the storm.
We checked the boat out and made sure the bilge pump was working, turned off the radios a and trudged up the dock ramp which was barely at an angle to the top and walked in the dark with a big flashlight that kept going out. The old Ford 1952 wouldn't start without rolling down the hill and I pushed it to give it more of chance. It rolled and at the last minute coughed into ignition. I took the rope that tied the door handle to the gas tank and jumped in and make it snappy or the engine will die.
|We got home and lit the kerosene lamps, opened a can of sardines and sliced some cheese. No refrigerator. It was cold and damp in the old house and the fire had not been on for days. The wind tore at the ocean outside the house and sea foam floated up around the house. We were safe and sound. The boat had made it and so we had too. So many miracles on the hellish passage where each wave felt like the last one.
Several years later I was sitting in a dockside pub in Sidney and at the table people were telling sea stories so I was to meet the man on the dock after he mentioned this terrible storm off Squitty Bay and the person he caught in the pitch black making an impossible jump off a boat. He was so amazed that when he looked up and saw it was a woman. He never forgot my face. . I never forgot he was a friend and there was a powerful moment when our eyes caught and we knew we would never forget.