We got up Friday morning at Sailfish with enough time to do a couple things before our new crew arrived. The one thing we’d looked forward to for days was a tour of Michael Rybovich & Sons in Palm Beach, a builder of custom fishing yachts whose performance and craftsmanship have few rivals. Their yard is a beehive of activity, and a nexus of traditional and cutting edge methods.
Their hulls begin life like this…
You can’t fit the whole boat into the frame. I won’t take you through every detail, but this look at the engine room will give you an idea.
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Our new crew (Paul Clarke, Max Hopkins, and Alec Bailey) touched down after lunch, and we immediately pushed off to troll Palm Beach for whatever would bite. Spirits ran high as William and I fed off our new arrivals’ excitement at just being there. Cobalt blue water came nearly up to the beach–back home we might have run 70 miles and not seen better. Alec and I shot the breeze on the bridge while the boys ran the cockpit. It wasn’t long before line peeled off a reel, and we were on: a nice little mahi to get us started.
Then a double hook-up resulting in a zero boat-up. Blame was assigned to the throttle man. Couldn’t have been the anglers.
But who cared? It was time for another first-class dinner back at Sailfish, and then, in the morning, on to Elbow Cay at first light!
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We would clear customs at the harbor at West End, Grand Bahama. The 55-mile Atlantic crossing gave us a quartering sea, not overly forbidding, just a little spray now and then. In a couple hours, we were there. As we approached the dock to tie off, the distance between boat and pier closing quickly to just a few feet, William lost his footing and fell overboard. I feared the worst–did he hit his head or break a limb on the way down? Why wasn’t he calling out that he was okay?
Miraculously, he was indeed okay. Scrambling onto the swim platform, he grinned up at Alec and me on the bridge. “What?” he asked, as if to say, “haven’t you seen somebody fall overboard before?”
Shaking my head, I walked into the customs house and emerged minutes later with our entry papers. Now we could take down the yellow quarantine flag, and fly the Bahamian courtesy flag instead.
Heading east again, now on the ‘inside route’ through the islands, (rather than around them), we motored past the clear waters’ color changes, and over coral and grass like nothing any of us had ever seen. Did I mention spirits were high?
The bright hues of these protected waters were reflected against the boat’s white hull, in each other’s sunglasses, even on the bottoms of the puffy clouds overhead. We’d not thought to imagine such as that.
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Finally we reached our destination: Elbow Cay, and Sea Spray Marina, the El Dorado’s home for the next week or so. Alec and I would be at the Abaco Inn, while the boys would sleep on the boat. The view from the Inn was spectacular, even if the Atlantic might be a little rough, upon closer inspection.
We also learned that we would not be able to buy ice until 8:00 a.m. This struck us Bama boys a little funny: “Y’all don’t leave the dock at first light?,” we wondered. We loaded the fish box with ice while we had the opportunity. Neighbors from the gleaming sportfishermen in adjacent slips looked puzzled, too. They’d never seen a boat with a smoker in the cockpit where a fighting chair belonged. One by one, they stopped to express their curiosity. “Where’s Dog River, Alabama?” they’d ask. Their elegant yachts dwarfed the El Dorado. Maybe we looked to them a little like the Beverly Hillbillies, I pondered. Maybe so, but we’d show ’em we could fish, anyway!
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Sunday’s forecast called for plenty more wind, and that out of the south. No matter, we were going. There’d be no running–after all, deep blue water was within a few miles of the beach.
Well, it was rough. Rough enough to provoke a little seasickness down below, and to break the captain’s chair-back up on the bridge. And the bite was slow. We trolled from dawn til three, and were able to put only one fish in the boat: a diminutive skipjack tuna. What remnant of the fleet tried with us in the day’s sloppy conditions was largely unsuccessful, too, we learned on the radio.
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Happily, were greeted back at the dock by a fellow Alabaman, Captain Justin Lee, of the Incognito out of Orange Beach. He’d been in Elbow Cay for months and had knowledge of local hot spots and techniques. He let on he’d be fishing alone Monday. Spotting opportunity, I invited him to come with us instead. He immediately accepted. Score one for ole’ Sparky! Coming aboard, he noticed a line that needed a new Bimini. He showed us an elegant alternative–an Australian Braid. Five anglers looked on in rapt attention, as the Zen master weaved and hypnotized.
On the basis of just that knot, and a forecast of calm seas and easterly breezes, how could Monday not be our day? All were intoxicated with anticipation. Marlin Fever, as it’s known in medical literature.
Our good fortune called for cocktails, sashimi, and mahi grilled on the Egg!
But alas, Monday would not be our day. We trolled from seven to four, and though the cobalt waters were calm and promising, they did not produce. The fleet also struggled, though we did see one fish hooked on a nearby boat: a tail-dancing Blue, object of our obsession. Our unspoken envy was deafening.
We established our need for a lucky break over a humble dinner of conch, lobster, and steak at the Abaco Inn. Something had to give. We’d come too far, paid requisite dues. Tuesday’s forecast was another pretty one, but Wednesday’s was not. With resolve rivaling General George S. Patton’s, we agreed: we’d get the job done Tuesday, whatever it took.
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We blasted off at dawn, and headed due east, looking for a tide line, or ‘rip’ as we say. We found a good one eight miles out–bunched up sargassum and a change in water temperature. We put out a spread.
Not minutes later, three reels screamed. A teaser was being demolished by something–a billfish? Mayhem ensued. We got idle lines cleaned up, and two remained engaged. One turned out to be a big mahi. The other, a respectable companion.
Hours went by without a bite. The fleet reported another slow day. But the water remained promising. And then IT happened–a blue marlin exploded out of the water 200 yards behind the boat. That’s funny–one of our rods was bent over. What? Somebody’d left the clicker off! And just like that, it was on. William grabbed the rod. Paul put a belt on him. Alec and Max cleaned up idle lines. I did captain stuff. What a team. We were hooked up to the El Dorado’s first marlin! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
Bringing the fish in close, we would learn whether we really were the team we thought.
Paul grabbed the leader and pulled the fish close. Alec cut the line at the hook, as Paul grabbed the bill. We pulled the fish alongside the boat, to ensure water passed through its mouth and gills, reviving it from the exhausting fight. Releasing the imposing creature back into the deep, we saw its tail kick and then kick again–we’d done it! We’d finally landed the fish that had long eluded us! For the five of us afflicted with Marlin Fever, it was not the same world we’d woken up in that morning. Some of you understand.
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We immediately reported our success on the radio, and received congratulations from what sounded like a frustrated fleet. Making our success that much sweeter, of course. “Where’s Dog River,” they’d asked. Now they knew!
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Our desperate mission now complete, our fever miraculously subsided. We drove on to Sandy Cay, a prime snorkeling spot, and tied up to an anchor ball. What a day!
Back at the dock, our neighbors on the Desire’ lent us a flag to run up an outrigger–bragging rights–so we could signal our success to others so afflicted.
Mahi on the grill tonight, and an unceasing debrief of the moments of the afternoon.
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Wednesday the weather turned rough again. We opted for sleeping in, then to Hopetown for lunch and a tee shirt. The lighthouse provided a point of interest.
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Thursday was supposed to be departure day–the day we’d planned to cross the Atlantic to Miami, and put Alec, Max, and William on flights back to Alabama the next day. William and Max had a Sigma Nu rush party in Auburn Friday night. God forbid weather intervene! Yet it was trying to: forecasts called for 20-knot winds and 4′-6′ seas for the crossing. Discretion required that we fly those three from Marsh Harbor to Miami, while Paul and I evaluated options for getting the boat across.
We got them to Marsh Harbor, and made a plan to run in protected waters back to West End, and wait for a window to make the shorter run back to Palm Beach. As we drove west, the wind began to lay. By the time we made West End, it was ESE @ 10-15. Observed seas were 3-4 feet. A following sea for a 55-mile run. Forecast much worse for the coming days. I decided we’d try the first 5 miles. If too much, we’d tuck back into the West End harbor.
The 35 Cabo settled into a comfortable pace, 18 knots, softly laying the bow up on the back side of each successive swell. Five miles became 55, and we made Lake Worth Inlet by 6:00 p.m., in a light drizzle.
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Over the next day and a half, Paul and I would drive the El Dorado south and west, through the massive Port of Miami, Biscayne Bay, and then into Hawk Channel for our final run to Key West. Kim, Avery, Kate, and William will join me there, and Paul’s adventure will come to an end.
On the way, we stopped in Islamorada to refuel and wash up, cook a fine meal of smoked mahi, and relax after a long day of running.
Paul tried to find a fly-biter in Snake Creek.
We left Islamorada at daybreak and headed west for our last leg. Our early start would give us enough day to try and fish, or if the winds wouldn’t lay, walk Duval Street.
And so, now well past Marathon, I close this marathon post, hoping you’ve enjoyed. God knows you’ve endured.
(Ole’ Cap’n. Sparky)