|Posted by C. Stan Asumen, Jr on March 11, 2016 at 2:40 AM|
I got initiated into the night deep-sea fishing enterprise by my father.
One day, out of nowhere, while he was preparing to go out to sea he casually asked me if I thought I could handle keeping him company for the night’s endeavors. When I assured him in the affirmative, he instructed me to pack our provisions for the night. These mainly consisted of freshly boiled cooking bananas and steamed cassava tubers moderately garnished with freshly grated coconut to preserve their delectable succulence, tidily arranged in a covered bamboo basket. This was supplemented with two bivouac-sized canteens of drinking water and a bottle of chili-spiked vinegar, for seasoning in anticipation of consuming some of the catch of the night for super.
This took place around the beginning of the period when I had to quit school for two years, after I graduated from grade school because our parents just did not have the finances to send any of us anywhere. Three of my older siblings had to quit school for three years so we were not exactly short of farm hands. My parents’ financial demise came in the wake of our eldest, Mano Sering’s, completion of college. Unschooled in the subtleties of college expenditures, my parents ended up committing every parcel of land they owned as loan collaterals to underwrite my brother’s college career. They effectively became tenants to oversee the production operation of the coconut plantations that they had given their entire beings to develop from the bowels of the wilderness. It would take them more than a couple of years to as much as partially recover.
I was not sure exactly whether father’s motivation was grooming me to inherit his craft as a fisherman or in his calculating ways he reckoned I represented a lesser drain to the pool of farm hands. On hindsight, I concluded the latter reasoning was operative and more plausible, although absolutely irrelevant. In the ultimate analysis, what mattered most was that the father-son bonding that ensued resultant to my accompanying him fishing was invaluable in more ways than I could catalogue for posterity. Most of all, the fact that up to that point no other sibling had the privilege of being with him that far away from land in isolation had the air of exclusivity I could hardly dare to fathom. It was an experience I treasured my entire life, long after it became just a distant memory.
Moreover, observing him up close apply his navigation skills to locate prospectively prolific fishing grounds made me realize just how resourceful my father was, given his rather limited schooling. There could be no more edifying experience to an eleven-year old soul than a first-hand confirmation that he had every reason in God’s creation to emulate the grit, if not to altogether worship his father. Theretofore, I only heard glowing stories on the winning ways of my father’s.
That first venture out to sea, I was awestruck at his tricks of the trade as he matter-of-factly explained how he was using the faintly visible mountain ranges, triangulating with the naked eye, to fix the direction we were heading. He further explained the relative positions of the three most prominent mountain peaks which would indicate our arrival at the spot where we intended to drop anchor for that night. He even baptized those peaks, which collectively he dubbed as the “three kings” (of biblical fame), with his own personal arbitrary labels, enabling him to explain how several other anchoring spots in that general vicinity might be located, based on the relative positions of the “three kings” with one another.
On hindsight, how father originally got wind of those fishing grounds was inexplicably amazing. To the best of my limited boyish knowledge there was no bathymetric chart of any kind to be found in our house. It was not exactly the kind of question I would be asking while being awestruck. Meanwhile we arrived at the spot where the top of the “three kings” depicted a perfect equilateral triangle. Father let loose the sail by facing the wind and I dropped the anchor which bottomed out at twenty-eight and a half fathoms. Allowing two more fathoms for tidal surge, I secured the anchor rope to the appointed latch and helped father roll up the sail around its boom and secured it to its appointed place on the boat safely out of the way of the night’s proceedings.
The order of business for the night was centered around the two air pressure fuel-injected incandescent kerosene lamps mounted on both sides at the mid-section of the boat. The incandescence attracted surface-prowling creatures which were somewhat rendered blind by the intense brightness and vulnerable to being harvested at will with hand-held fish nets. A sword-pointed machete, a harpoon-like hand spear, and a lead-plated mallet complemented the fish net as each person’s on-board arsenal.
Out of the early surface catch we used the better portion for baits and cooked some to augment our provisions for dinner. It was one of father’s cardinal rules to never fish with hook and line on an empty stomach, if you could swing it because only a starved fish would be tempted by a hungry fisherman’s bait; no self-respecting fisherman would be interested in catching only starved fish. After dinner we set out for the night’s agenda, essentially consisting of setting the bait, laying the line, and waiting for a nibble. Every operation was manually accomplished, devoid of mechanical assistance in any way, shape or form. We laid the line for three different depth zones: the bottom (hand held), the middle (tied to each knee), and three-quarters of the way up (tied to each ankle).
At the sign of a nibble, you gave the line a sharp vertical jerky tag, strong enough to cover the distance between the sinker and the hook to give a swift upward motion to the hook, hopefully catching the feeding offender by the upper lip. When that happened, the fish would pull the line and the contest boiled down to a tag of war between the fish and you. The trick was to keep the line sufficiently taut to prevent the fish from unhooking itself. If you got lucky and felt simultaneous nibbles, you snatched back at each line and hauled the one with the strongest tag back, as it usually meant the bigger fish.
On hauling the fish close enough alongside the boat, you scoped it with the fish net and loaded it on board. Depending on the size of the fish, you might need to disable it with the mallet or spear it with the harpoon before loading it on board. If the fish was too big for the net you latched on to it with the harpoon and killed it the most expeditious way you could, preferably with the mallet since the less blood you spilt, the tidier the proceedings would be. Besides, blood in the water usually attracted sharks which would invariably drive away all the other species they habitually fed on, which practically included all the kinds of fish we were in the hunt for. My prized catch for that first night was a red coral grouper, big enough to need disabling it with the mallet to the head. It was the biggest fish we caught for that night.
I passed the first night’s ordeal with better than passing grades. Primarily, and most importantly, I did not get seasick. Secondly, I hauled in the most prized fish for the night’s catch. Thus my fishing apprenticeship with my father was launched. It lasted for about six weeks. It was interrupted when father suffered an acute episode of gout which lasted for about a week. The six weeks were essentially an uneventful break-even period. A night with moderate catch brought in enough provisions to our kitchen for about three days. Anything less was considered a poor outing. A bountiful haul would require preserving some for long-term reserves either as salted, smoked and/or dried. When we had to sell some to the local fish mongers, it was considered an extra bountiful haul.
In retrospect, that stationary hook-and-line fishing was basically an arduous waiting game, requiring the collective patience of a legion of saints, had its corollary benefits. The privacy imposed by the vast open sea in the deafening tranquility of the night seduced father to wax lively loquacious on his reminiscences of my grandfather. Thus my brief apprenticeship with him in night deep sea fishing assumed the added dimension of being a rite of passage into adulthood that I felt uniquely privileged to have been given the exclusive chance, unbeknownst to and unshared with my other siblings.
By the beginning of my out of school sojourn it was determined that our finances had moderately recovered. My three older siblings were slated to be sent back to school the following year while I would by myself remain on furlough to somehow soften the impact on the family coffers. Father had to transition back to being a farmer more than being a fisherman. The occasional escapades to sea did take place as desperate measures to put victuals on the table without further taxing the family coffers, especially when hired farm hands were expected to cover for the absence of my older siblings. Meanwhile I was deemed neither a dependable farm hand nor a fisherman expected to conquer, in all dimensions, the unfathomable vastness of the sea and the known vagaries of the vocation.
The Partnership Asymmetry
As a countermeasure to that imminent dilemma, father recruited the services of my first cousin, Hermogenis (Ingko Mening to us, for short), with a proposition he really was hardly in a position to turn down. Father offered him the use of all the equipment, with operating expenses on condition that he partnered with me on the fishing enterprise. The proceeds were to be equally shared three ways: a share each for the operating partners and a third for the equipment.
Ingko Mening was sixteen years my senior, four years older than Mano Sering, my oldest brother. My parents raised him as their own son up to and including the cumbersome process of getting himself a bride with all the orthodoxy that tradition required. I sensed that he resented the equal partnership proposition, for reasons that he was a seasoned hand at night deep sea fishing, and I was just a tiny little boy. But the arrangement offered him somewhat of a viable alternative to the waning fortunes from his farming endeavors. Thus my fishing career flourished further under his tutelage, replete with all sorts and flavors of exhilarating thrills and unsettling misadventures.
One such episode which left an indelible impact on my psyche was the sudden summer storm which found the family spellbound in a solemn novena for the safety of our flesh and the salvation of our souls, when we got home, pulled through by the grace of God, shielding the instinctive seasoned seamanship mustered under duress by my cousin. We set sail mid- to late-afternoon riding a moderately strong but soothingly pleasant steady breeze to our appointed fishing ground for the previous three successive nights, hoping our lucky streak would hold on for one night more. The promise of another dreamily intoxicating night under the stars, punctuated by the coveted tagging at the baited lines by the fish routinely feeding underneath, coming in monotonic intervals, permeated the ambiance of that late summer afternoon.
As the outer rim of the sun deigned to caress with a kiss the majestic top of the purple headed mountains receding in the horizon behind, as if at a flip of a toggle switch, a foreboding calm enveloped the entire Creation, reminiscent of the Rhyme sang by the Ancient Mariner of Coleridgean fame. We had to deploy oar and paddle to reach our destination. No sooner had we dropped anchor, than materialized a rapidly thickening ominous dark clouds, threateningly pregnant with mischief, imbued with the purplish hue of dark molasses by the lingering relics of the setting sun, to engulf the seaward eastern hemisphere with the unbridled fatalism of the Omar Khayyam quatrain:
And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die,
Lift not your hands to It for help—for It
As impotently moves as you or I.
When the retiring Helios completed its surrender to the bowels of night, the sea which theretofore was as smooth as a cold vat of oil in a frigid Siberian kitchen began to stir with increasing hints of bubbles bursting out to the surface. It seemed the bowels of the sea were threatening to froth away to an impending boil. Forthwith, total darkness reigned supreme. The only remaining source of light came from the silver sheen ever fleetingly flashed by the persistently and boldly growing sneer of the awakening depths. The not too gentle breeze soon brought with it a wolfish howl heralding the gloom of oncoming doom.
To fully appreciate the gravity of the situation a brief description of our boat’s construction would be instructive. The boat was designed to safely accommodate two adults sailing as far out to sea as desired, short of the inter-island trans-oceanic shipping lanes. The hull was crafted out of solid log with wedge-shaped prow and a roundish paraboloidal rare end, akin to the ends of a chicken egg. The transverse cross-section of the hull was a cross between a wedged “U” and a roundish “V” resulting from the personal proclivities of the designer. It was outfitted with a main sail and a forward sail, both supported by a shared mast, the single vertical pole located roughly between two-fifths to three-tenths of the length of the boat from the prow.
It had a vertical amakan extension to its side walls built of pliable thick strips of bamboo skins intricately woven and sealed water-tight with the resinous balao glue locally made from the sap of the balao tree which thrived in most neighboring forests. These bamboo wall extensions, roughly two to three times the depth of the hull in width, were supported by wooden studs anchored to the side edge of the hull reinforced on top with a wooden frame which circumscribed the working area of the boat. A pair of ballasts made of solid bamboo poles were attached to the body, on each side, with wooden and bamboo rafters about a third of the length of the boat distant from the side walls.
The design concept was intended to functionally achieve the happy compromise between strength attendant to bulk on the one hand, and agility implied by lightness on the other. Under normal conditions, the boat could withstand the rough and tumble imposed by the seascape but could be delicately vulnerable to wreckage under the extremities inherent to a storm.
Promptly my cousin tied a double loop mariner’s knot closed with a fisherman’s bend to both our waists and securely fastened us to the plank supporting the base of the sail pole with enough give for mobility on board. We pulled anchor and set sail for shore. Fortunately our onshore destination was squarely leeward of the storm. We only needed to directly ride the wind, avoiding a nosedive by judiciously modulating the wind intake to the main sail. The most hazardous hurdles were presented by a group of intricately dispersed shallow lying breaker reefs guarding the shoreline where my parents’ property was located. They were a challenge to navigate through in broad delight. They became veritable death traps in the darkness and roughness of the storm.
My cousin’s skilled seamanship proved more than equal to the challenge. Because of the storm-swollen tide we landed ashore under the coconut trees, much further inland of the shoreline, without losing a single item of property on board. Except for everything being thoroughly drenched the only casualty was the relatively short piece of rope we used to harness ourselves to the boat and to each other. This piece was pruned off a longer rope used to secure the boat at a moorage. We arrived home to the genuine grateful jubilation of both families when they were just concluding the novena on our behalf.
Another noteworthy episode pertained to the night we were literally overrun by a school of thirty- to fifty-inch long blue-backed tuna, with some even bigger appearing to be chaperon or parents or guardians to the smaller ones. It was one of those nights when the earlier part was practically uneventful. Roughly two hours before daybreak all our lines were jumbled and there was a sharp jolt on the boat from the bottom. A large school of tuna swarmed about, as if some of them were attacking our kerosene lamps.
I was acutely apprehensive that they would shortly turn the boat upside down with the momentum of their collective upward assault. Seeing that many big fish that close was the most terrifying event I had ever experienced at sea. It felt like we were at the biblical altar of reckoning brought face to face with our sordid intentions and evil deeds. We frantically had to disable them with our mallets and literally manually picked them off the water one after another by their tails, at a pace of singular frenzy.
Within thirty minutes or so our boat was overloaded with the catch. We had to head for shore before the rest of the school left the area. That was the only occasion when we had to tell the fish we have had enough of them. Unfortunately there was no way either to tell them to hang about because we would come back for the rest of them the following day or rendezvous with them for yet another day.
A few weeks later we were subjected through the agonizing ordeal of the counter bonanza. We typically laid out six baited lines each, as a matter of routine. For that entire night not a single hint at a nibble took place. Even from the surface dwelling creatures which used to be attracted by the incandescence of our kerosene lamps, not even a hint of a shadow of any one of them showed up that night. We were so unceremoniously snubbed by our quarries we had to solicit for a couple of mackerels from a boat anchored some forty yards nearby, that is, a comfortable shout away from us, so we did not go hungry for the night.
Those were the three most remarkable episodes of my fishing career. The other days were characterized by a humdrum monotony but by no means dull. It simply was conducive to letting my imagination go wild with introspective ruminations. For instance, I always found it fascinating to picture how my baited hook would appear to a fish routinely prowling about, minding its own business of survival. How the topography of the bottom where we were anchored at, differed from the features of the coral reefs in shallow waters was the constant subject of my imaginary explorations.
We ventured out to sea five to six nights during the week depending on the cumulative catch for that week. If we had three bountiful outings out of five, we usually skipped the sixth. If we only had two of five, we ventured out on the sixth looking for a third bountiful night. This much I could say without fear of having exaggerated my worth: during my fishing career, our kitchen was never bereft of a dish of fish for victuals. Also, I dared claim to have managed to contribute to the family cash flow, in no negligible measure. I was convinced that I earned some measure of success and accomplishment and it boosted my sense of worth and self-esteem, although I never discussed it with anybody until this writing.
The Partnership’s Undoing
My cousin was an accomplished fisherman on almost all counts. The one skill I sensed he was not equal to my father was in using triangulation, neither with the stars nor with the landscape, to find obscure potentially prolific fishing grounds. I sensed that he tended to join the crowd and dropped anchor in the vicinity where other boats were already anchored or were obviously speculating in doing so. I also confirmed that he did resent the asymmetry in our equal partnership because of the depth and breadth of experience he brought into the mix, which I willingly conceded were far superior to mine.
Unfortunately for him the events which made the confirmation possible ushered in the dissolution of our partnership. Everybody knew that I was heading for high school the coming school year, which was already loudly knocking at the gates. My fishing career was destined to come to an end unless I matriculated at the local high school which would have allowed me to venture out to sea some Friday and Saturday nights. The repercussions on me were far less severe than on my cousin. He had a family of four to support with nothing but farming and/or fishing skills to pull him through.
There were a couple of non-contiguous weeks when we were blessed with an exceptionally bountiful catch. On a few random days in those weeks, my cousin decided on our way home to take a detour to a rendezvous point where the town fish mongers, as opposed to the ones serving our locality, congregated to procure their trading supplies for the day. We sold them a portion of our catch. He proposed to keep the sale a secret from my parents with an even split of the proceeds between us, as my incentive to stay mute on the matter. It was amazing how even the conniving innocence of youth was vulnerable to the friendly persuasion and promise of monetary gains.
I dutifully kept my end of the bargain. But in a small community where practically everybody knew everybody who was anybody, the illicit trade eventually reached the ears of my parents. The family protocol on accountability demanded that the oldest party in any conspiracy had to answer for all the ramifications of the sordid affair. I did not even get interrogated by my parents to confirm the breach of trust, let alone being admonished for it. My father did not exactly disown my cousin for it. But I suspected he never trusted my cousin on anything ever again thereafter.
Before the entire sordid affair sorted itself out to a relatively harmonious quietude, I was already engrossed on a disagreement with my father concerning the high school I should enroll into. My father’s choice was the town high school slated to start its inaugural school year. I was intent on matriculating at the high school in the adjacent province of Agusan, where two of my older brothers were enrolled. Although he did not explicitly say so, I was absolutely certain that had I studied locally, I could for sure occasionally be deployed to the farm when the work load was at its peak, a prospect that I promised myself to avoid at all cost.
Moreover, at the conclusion of Mano Fito’s freshman year, he was sent to Manila to represent the school at a national students’ conference and my parents were vocally very proud of his feat. For reasons I really could not explain, I was equally certain that if I went to that same school I could replicate if not surpass the glory imputed to his achievement. I demurred from vocalizing these sentiments in such explicit terms. But without giving any reasons, I claimed open defiance as a badge of honor and went against my father’s decision to the bitter end, for the very first time in my thirteen years in the sun.