Monday, January 8, 2007


Wednesday dawned quietly, cloudless and windless. I stared at blue skies with morning coffee alongside, sitting outside the house, watching others get into cars and drive off to work. For me, it would be a day at the PC, designing more artwork for upcoming projects.

Or so I thought…

About 10:00am, my best friend Steve called asking if I was available to help deliver Angel Fish, a 42 foot wood fishing boat from the boat yard to her berth at Kewalo Basin, about an hour’s trip by sea. I would need to be pier-side by noon if I agreed to go. Would I! I worked on Angel Fish for almost three weeks straight for this day and I wasn’t going to miss it. I rang off with Steve and thought over what this day meant to me.

I would be back at sea, again, almost 20 years after I hung up my sails to live ashore. Marriage had separated me from the ocean as my second wife abhorred the beach and anything having to do with water. I missed the ocean. In Hawaii, the water is warm and clear and of a deep blue that no camera or artist ever captured. The winds are generally steady, blowing from the northeast most of the year at 10-15 miles per hour. The other times of the year, like the fall and winter, winds come from any direction and any speed. Today was like that—from the south, little puffs blowing onshore. This made for warm, muggy days but with little wind and a flat calm ocean to travel over. This was going to be a pleasant and short, surely no more than an hour or so.

Back on October 13th—six weeks ago from today—Angel Fish came out of the water for repairs after spending several years working various fishing areas around Hawaii and a few more just tied up to her dock. Angel Fish required extensive work. She leaked both below and above decks. Her steering was frozen; unmovable. Her military-surplus diesel engine needed a major tune up and her tanks held water-contaminated fuel. Her decks were rotten, needing replacement. Her topsides were badly marred by black rubber from the tires used as fenders at the harbor. Her hull above the waterline was laced with holes from dry rot and occasional bumps against the pier. Her interior was moldy, oily and dirty. The lowest parts of the boat were wet and in some areas at least six inches deep in water. She would be expensive and time-consuming to fix up.

I came into this scene about three weeks into the project to prepare Angel Fish for a return to sea. Steve asked if I could help out based on my own experiences as a former boat-owner and as a favor to him and his cousin, Angel Fish’s owner. I agreed since I had some time available from my own business project and headed down to the boat yard.

For someone whose exercise consists mainly in picking up a pencil and a sketch pad or using my PC’s mouse to design for various art projects , I certainly wasn’t prepared for this kind of work. In the end, I was under the boat, inside her, on top--scraping, sanding, grinding, cleaning, pumping, caulking, lifting, carrying, cleaning and painting. I came away sore and hurting in places I didn’t know existed. Daily, I cleaned paint and dirt off me with chemicals and scrubbing pads. I threw away shirts, shorts, socks and underwear that could never be cleaned of oil and paint enough to wear in public. I woke up more tired than when I went to sleep. I lost weight. But, in spite off this, I really looked forward to the day when Angel Fish would be back in the water, motoring on her own freshly repaired and painted bottom, gleaming with new hull paint; proud again.

And now, that day arrived and I was on my way shortly after Steve and I talked. I took my camera and my cell phone along just in case I could use either or both. Turns out now, both came in handy…

Came 12noon, the appointed departure hour, and I looked down at Angel Fish, bobbing gently against her mooring lines at the temporary dock. She sparkled with new paint. She even floated higher in the water because of her repaired bottom, half of one side having had its wood replaced. Her seams were tight and not leaking. She was clean inside and out.

Bobby, her owner, came up with some supplies in one hand and a borrowed anchor in the other. He swung aboard for a moment and left in search of a diesel mechanic as for some reason, the motor wouldn’t start. While a tune-up was in order, due to the vast amount of work required just to get her afloat, this one thing didn’t happen. She had been towed into dry dock when her steering wouldn’t work and now it looked like she would have to be towed back to her pier because of a uncooperative engine.

The diesel mechanic arrived, took a deep breath, removed the deck boards over the engine compartment and lowered himself down. He asked how long the new batteries had been charging and Bobby told him. Not long enough, the mechanic declared. So long as the battery charger was running, at least the starter would get enough electricity to get the motor turning. After that, the batteries would get their charge from the generator but first, the motor needed to start. Several attempts later, the motor caught and fired up. The mechanic took a sample of what fuel was still aboard and told Bobby he still had water mixed in it. She should be okay for your short run, he said, but get that water out soonest.

Bobbie sent me to the boat yard’s mini-mart to get a gallon of motor oil and there, I ran into the mechanic and struck up a conversation. He said that Angel Fish’s motor was an old military surplus one in bad need of complete overhaul or replacement, which would be the cheaper way to go. Then, he said something that would come back starkly: That motor will probably get you “from here to there” but don’t go planning any trips to Maui.

Angel Fish used to work the hottest fish spots all over the state and had a solid reputation for profitable trips. She always made money and always took her crew “there and back,” confidently rumbling along hour after hour. Now, we were having trouble getting her started and keeping her running for a one hour trip. Water in diesel fuel is deadly to a motor causing it to quit as would be expected. Yet, not only did we have water in the fuel but the mechanic found water in the lubricating oil, also highly damaging to a motor. Tell Bobby to make sure to add that gallon of oil, the mechanic said, but get that oil and water out soonest—a favorite expression of his.

At 2 o’clock, we finally pushed off and backed away from the dock. Bobby signaled to call him during the trip as we left. We waved. The engine room covers were off and oily, white smoke spewed from the motor and into the cabin. Walter, the skipper, just shrugged his shoulders and applied power as we nosed out into the harbor and headed for the channel leading to the ocean. I shrugged, too, and drew out my camera.

Angel Fish moved easily in the water, throwing spray off to either side, leaving a burbling trail behind her. We “turned the corner” at the outer buoys of the Keehi Channel and headed east towards Kewalo Basin, the commercial harbor which was her home. Higher motor revolutions, however, produced a screeching noise from the engine compartment, which both Walter and I figured was just a loose rubber belt slipping in its pulley, probably the generator. Smoke still issued from below but was quickly blown out of the cabin by the wind created by our moving over the water. The motor continued to rumble on—as well as could be expected.

I took pictures—of the coast passing by our port side, of the far west end of the island receding behind us, of ships coming by. I wasn’t at all seasick but that was partly because I was determined not to be, partly because the sea was so flat and partly because Angel Fish rode so smoothly through the water. The day was bright and clear. What clouds appeared, billowed up behind the Koolau Mountains like giant piles of un-baled cotton. What a perfect day to make this homeward bound journey.

Honolulu Harbor came up on our port side and I could see all the business buildings rising up behind it. What a shame people were working in them instead of enjoying this peaceful—but noisy—ride out on the water. Next, maybe a mile away, would be a turn into Kewalo Basin as soon as we reached the outermost green and red marker buoys.

Walter kept looking over his shoulder from his perch in the captain’s chair at the motor still smoking away as its six cylinders pounded away. He looked concerned. I wasn’t sure what he was worried about; we were moving along smartly edging ever closer to our destination, seemingly just minutes away. I popped open a beer and continued snapping pictures of Honolulu and Diamond Head.

And we were there—the outer markers. Onshore, I could see the park right next to the Kewalo Basin entrance. Waves broke against the breakwater, white foam spraying up and over its black rocks. The water below us turned green as the bottom rose up from the depths, the deep blue ocean water exchanging places with it. I could even see patches of reef below us the water was so clear. In an instant, it seemed, the calm and peace we enjoyed up to now changed. The trust we had in Angel Fish to get us to her home port evaporated as Walter motioned me to come forward from my seat in the stern.

He pointed to the throttle which was all the way forward--meaning the motor should have been operating at its highest RPM’s—and yet, the sound from the engine was the same as it was at idle; no change. He looked at me with eyes widening as he threw the throttle back and forth, slow to fast, with no response from the motor except one: it quit. It slowly backed off from any rotations and went quiet. It wouldn’t restart either, probably because the batteries didn’t have enough charge to do that. Things got very quiet aboard Angel Fish.

We had no radio to call for help. Earlier, during the time the mechanic was ministering to the motor, I tried to install a replacement radio but it didn’t work. All we had were cell phones to call anybody. There wasn’t time to make any calls, anyway. That breakwater with waves crashing on to it was getting closer as the onshore wind of 5-10 miles per hour had control of Angel Fish, pushing her towards it. The clear water below us was almost white as the sand on the rising bottom was also getting closer to us. We were abut 20 minutes away from grinding a perfectly good, fresh-from-dry dock, 59 year old fishing boat into splinters.

So, we sprang into action.

I went up forward with Walter to the anchor hatch and pulled it open, looking for anchor rope. It was there alright, in bunches of coils that had no end that I could see. It looked like rope used to tow water skiers—polypropylene, a kind of plastic rope, certainly not the strong, expensive nylon line I was used to. I grabbed handfuls of what was there dragging it out on to the springy deck which sagged under my weight due to its being rotten away. Walter called for me to hand him the anchor, now buried under yards of this rope. I dug it out from under the pile and at the same time, found the bitter end of the line, also giving it to him. He tossed a fast knot through the anchor’s stem, secured it, and threw the anchor into the water. I looked back at the breakwater, so close now I could see people picnicking in the park it protected. A wave of relief came over me as I knew now we would only have to call Bobby and have him send some one out to tow us in. We would be safe and secure so long as the anchor dug in and the line held.

I looked at Walter just as his eyes really went wide this time. In his hands was the parted remnants of the anchor line we had trusted just minutes ago. The anchor had cut through the knot as if it was sewing thread. We had no motor, no radio to call the coast Guard and now no anchor and now we were starting to roll as the swells moved us ever closer onshore. I reached for my cell phone and called Bobby.


I repeated myself as Bobby couldn’t understand me, perhaps because my voice was not that of an airline pilot reassuring his passengers during an emergency situation but rather that of somebody who just saw a ghost and wanted out of there. Just then I looked up to see a boat coming out of the harbor, the kind used to haul tourists around for parasailing. I hung up from Bobby and asked Walter if I should flag it down and he said no, he has customers aboard; we shouldn’t bother him. Shouldn’t bother him because he has customers aboard? There is an ancient sea tradition that sailors drop what they are doing to go to the aid of a stricken vessel. If we weren’t “stricken” right now, we surely would be in about 15 minutes amid the wreckage of a surf-tossed vessel pounded into pieces on those evil, black rocks of that breakwater. By then, it would be too late to ask for help except from those picnickers in order to get ourselves ashore in one piece.

My heart sank as I watched the parasailing tow boat glide away from us with his customers. We were out of options and running out of depth quick. We had maybe 15 feet of water beneath us and when that came down to 4 or 5, we would be aground and at the mercy of an onshore wind and crashing waves. There was not a single boat around us until…

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Coming out of the harbor was another parasailing tow boat, this time with only the operator aboard—no customers! I stood up on the rickety forward deck and flashed the international distress signal: arms straight out, alternately lifting and lowering them as I faced him. He saw me and turned his boat toward us in response. Angel Fish was rolling pretty strongly from side to side by now and I fell onto my backside on the forward cabin top as I watched him close the distance on us. When he was within earshot, I told him of our predicament and asked for a tow in. He tossed line to me, which I fixed to the forward bollard as he took up the slack and began our tow.

I needed a beer badly; several of them. We were finally headed in the right direction although silently. I looked out to the breakwater as we passed it. The waves, which had been so menacing just a few minutes before, seemed serene and beautiful: white, soft and foamy. The rocks glistened in the afternoon sun, sparkling with spray just tossed on them. In the distance, picnickers frolicked on wide swaths of deep green grass, unmindful of how close they might have come to the tragedy of a run-aground boat. A temporary pier was open before us and we tied up, thanking the saving captain as he motored off.

As luck would have it, the only spot open on the concrete pier was protected by old tires, the same tires that left so many rubber marks on Angel Fish before she went to dry dock. All that fresh, beautiful, expensive white topside paint now had long black streaks imbedded in it.

Angel Fish brought us home from dry dock, for sure, a little worse for wear, but home. May she sail on for a long time to come…