Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Trip

The moonless sky was full of constellations, straight from the heavens to the horizon. The air was heavy with the pleasant smell of sea mixed with nocturnal blooms of the surrounding foliage. Soft, cool sand shifted under my feet as I slogged down the beach to the waiting banca.  All these I burned in memory for recall at a later time.

Perhaps while stuck in traffic under the sweltering heat and acrid air of the city.  

The heavy load of fishing tackle I carried made me feel like a warrior geared for battle. Over-eagerness and fear of being ill-equipped overcomes even the most veteran of anglers when preparing. The urge is at its peak the night before leaving. Whatever resolve one has to pack light and stick to essentials crumbles and turns into a mad dash to cram everything into the tackle box. Still, the morning after, the aching feeling that you left something important (your flying gaff…just in case that Marlin suddenly materializes) still lingers…   

Fernando the boatman was already there moving about the banca doing the countless preparations needed before heading out to sea. This was just a front, a facade to cover his impatience. I knew the boat had been ready a full hour before. I was late – but what did you expect from a man sleepless from excitement?  I only survived the long drive by filling up on the strongest brew available at every gas stop along the way. This was another mistake I knew I’d have to recompense.  A full bladder on an ocean of water is intolerable torture, a situation sure to arise every half hour. 

Fernando trotted up and relieved me of my tackle. Rods and gaff went to the hollow at the bow; my tackle bag amidships at my feet; food, water and everything else fit in the stern behind the motor. This distribution of weight is critical in a craft as small as a banca, and the boatman makes sure that the boat is on even keel before launch. Failure in his part may mean we take a much undesired swim miles from terra firma.

The banca itself is a marvel. No sane salt-blooded sailor used to the high freeboard and apparent safety of big mono hulled crafts would venture a trip to the big blue in this matchstick. Roughly the shape of a peapod and not much bigger, its hull is made up of ¼ inch marine plywood (I’ve seen small jewelry boxes with thicker sides). The engine is usually a 2-stroke affair not far removed from the ones used to power lawnmowers. Its extreme reliability is only rivaled by the racket it makes. Running at full bore, this motor sounds like a .50cal. machinegun firing inches from your head. Why they remove the muffler is a puzzle to this day. Freeboard is so low you can touch the sea by reaching down from the gunwale without your elbow ever leaving the boat. Outriggers of bamboo spread out port and starboard bound with heavy mono to crossbeams (batangan) which are in turn lashed to thwarts fore and aft. These concessions to the otherwise streamlined shape are needed for stability especially when landlubbers like me are on board. The secret to the boat’s strength lies below the waterline. Its keel is one continuous solid piece of hand hewn hardwood. The backbone that holds everything together.

Fernando was my age but years of sun and salt had weathered his face to a much older set. Generations of seafarers lay behind him. He had three children and a wife who’d always wait for his arrival at sunset by the beach. I thought this was because of the excitement of the catch, until I found out that every year, the sea claimed at least one fisherman’s life. They stood there with a prayer in their hearts, waiting for a glimpse of their loved one’s safe return.

Fernando and I had a lot and little in common. The love of the sea and everything that swims in it, the thrill of hooking and the fight forthwith – we craved these. 

We, however, were different. I lived in the city and navigated the concrete byways. The closest I got to water was when I needed to cross a bridge. The most danger I’d ever be in was a fender bender. He, on the other hand faced life taking risks every day. Being on the ocean at the mercy of Mother Nature and the old (much older than he, according to him) Briggs and Stratton engine, life could be lost at the blink of an eye. Although quiet by nature, Fernando was always ready to answer my queries about why things were such in the sea. His wisdom about everything salt and with fins amazed me, but I was aware that to know less was an error that could take one on the fast train to meet his maker. He in turn was amazed by the gadgets I brought on board. He marvelled at the lures and reels but spoke with disdain of the GPS. He never relied on anything that ran on batteries, not when lives depended on it. For him, dead reckoning and the good ol’ magnetic compass was all he needed.  Fishing for me was a break from life, to him it was life.

We pushed off. The act of helping lift the banca off the sticky sand together was a tradition, a start of a journey of equals. The engine roared to life on the first pull, a good sign for the ever-superstitious clan of fishermen. We ran through the mirrored calm of pre morning darkness, startled flying fish ever so often fleeing our bow wave.

 We reached the first reef as the sun broke over the mountains in the east. Fernando slowed the boat as I dropped the plugs over the side. We had line out about one hundred feet long on each side, the right side longer by a few feet to prevent tangling.  When the reel’s clickers were set, Fernando raised speed to seven knots. I poured some of my drinking water over the two reels, a sort of blessing and with the practical purpose of lubricating the line.  We trolled the reef’s edge, moving seaward when the reef rose and back close again as it fell. The engine’s throb lulled me to sleep. An hour later, I was awakened by the complaining ratchet of the starboard reel. Line was zipping out spraying fine droplets of water, miniature diamonds in the early morning sun.

I struggled to pull the rod out, the heavy set drag held the butt firm in the makeshift holder. I pointed seaward, and Fernando pulled on the tiller, turning the boat. I got a moment of slack and in an instant, I had the rod out and tucked on my hip. The fish shook its head before boring for the deep. “Talakitok, Mamsa!” I shouted to Fernando. He nodded, throttling down and angling the boat out keeping an eye on the line.

The dance began. The fish would take line and I’d feel its power through my rod and the whir of the reel’s spool as its drag gave in to the force. The fish would stop, winded, and I would raise the rod and reel down to gain line. A mild morning breeze came up and hummed on the taut mono. The fish sounded again. I wasn’t worried, Fernando had steered us away from the shallow reef were the brute could have broken us off on the sharp coral heads.

Five more runs – each shorter than the last – then finally I felt the fish follow my lead. A few more pumps and I saw the familiar flash of a jack on its side. The fighter made one last run at boat side, pulling line beneath the keel.  I stuck the rod into the water to clear the keel and pumped him up again.

The fish lay there just beneath the surface exhausted from its efforts. I too paused for a while to take in a few deep breaths we gave our all and both got winded. Fernando handed me the gaff, I lifted the magnificent fish and a good part of the sea into the banka. I took my knife and cut its gill filaments – to dispatch a fish with haste is to show it respect. I thanked our creator for the blessing and the fish for the opportunity and its sacrifice.

Fernando was smiling, proud of our triumph. We would share this trophy as was our tradition and has been as such for hunter-gatherers since time immemorial

“Ayos!” I shouted with a thumb’s up wave. I motioned towards shore; this would have to do for the day. The concrete byways demanded my return. Already, I was dreaming of my next trip…

Iba, Zambales.



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