Often I’m asked about my relationship with the Coast Guard because of my many years on the water. I have a great respect for their efforts but, fortunately, never had much need for their services. I always admired their ability to rescue so many souls from the weather, from their own foolishness or the foolhardiness of others. Now they have to deal with those trying to sneak into the country, drug interdiction and homeland security on top of removing navigation hazards and saving souls.
My good friend Captain Pearly Gates probably caused me more problems with the Coast Guard than anyone else. Born Paul Gates to a New York Italian mother, she always affectionately called him Paulie which was easily adopted by all the neighborhood kids. Paulie was a master at talking himself out of trouble so one of the wiser homeys who seemed to always be the victim of the backwash of young Mr. Gates’ silver tongue suggested a more angelic name. He said he should change his name to Pearly since he always seemed to be polishing his halo in front of heaven’s portal when trouble arose. Hence, Pearly Gates stuck.
As usual, Pearly was the centerpiece years ago of my one and only unpleasant encounter with the Coast Guard. It all started on one of our yearly trips grouper fishing out by Cay Sal. We went out together as we did every year in our respective vessels - I in the Purple Pilchard and him in the Sea Rat. We each had our regular crew member aboard and as usual after a successful couple of days staying out at Cay Sal the last night there we celebrated our good fortune with demon rum. It always seemed the devil joined the four of us as we mixed and sipped rum until we woke the next morning feeling like bait.
Our routine was to pull the hook and head straight back first thing in the morning. I and my mate, Squeaky Stern, just wanted the fresh air of the wind in our faces lubricated with a lot of cold fresh water. Pearly and his mate had a different regimen. Pearly liked to be dragged behind the boat for a while at about five knots to assist in the sobering process. He would have his mate watch carefully for any large fins following closely behind his trolled body and to insure that he didn’t inadvertently let go of the tow rope.
We cruised a few knots faster and were soon almost out of sight of the Sea Rat when the radio annoyed the peace with the voice of Pearly’s mate, Oily Ratchet, scratching the air in a panic announcing, “Pearly’s gone”. It turns out the mate fell asleep while the vessel was operating on auto pilot and when he awoke there was nothing but a naked rope leading from an aft cleat. We immediately turned around to search for Pearly while he called the Coast Guard.
It wasn’t long before we located Pearly’s head bobbing easily in the warm water but could tell from the distant garbled growling that he lacked the disposition for Miss Congeniality should commercial fishermen ever have a pageant. As we neared the snarling orb threats and expletives shot out like cartoon punctuation marks in an old comic book. Both Squeaky and I were enjoying his plight when we saw the first flashes pass between us and “Pearly the floater”. A closer look revealed bait fish taking refuge under and around our friend as blazes of dolphin contemplated forays to scatter the smaller fish.
Squeaky and I looked at each other and I silently made the decision to start trolling around our friend the floater to see what we could hook up. I moved the boat out to about 200 feet from Pearly who was now yelling at a higher pitch and we hooked up with the first dolphin of about 15 pounds. Holding the dolphin in place we attracted a crowd of half dozen more all in the same size range. Pearly was now livid and we thought his color had changed to a bright red when we saw the Coast Guard vessel approaching quickly.
The radio squawked with that official sound of authority while Squeaky was now fighting a good sized wahoo. I informed the approaching vessel of our plan to pick up the man over board as had been reported by Oily. The Coast Guard was now taking issue with the fact that we were reeling in a fish while a man struggled with the difficulty of remaining afloat just a mere 100 feet away. Minutes later the wahoo was landed and we moved toward the snarling Pearly and dragged him aboard.
The Coast Guard vessel had moved alongside and asked for permission to board. After insuring Pearly’s condition was under control they took me, as master of the Purple Pilchard, aboard the Coast Guard ship and arrested me for violating rules of the sea by not giving the rescue of a soul in danger priority over catching fish. My mate brought the boat back to port and it took me a couple of months to clear this issue up with just a letter of reprimand that would remain a part of my permanent record.
It took longer, however, to patch things up with Pearly.
The moral of this story is “never give a wahoo in the boat priority over a yahoo in the water”.
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