In my university days in San Francisco, I had spent my days reading books on environmentalism, food production and animal rights, such as one does when living in California. Books like the Toolbox for Sustainable Living, and titles by Michael Pollan were my go to for inspiration, and I scouted out urban farms to volunteer time at, including the Hayes Valley Farm in the heart of the city, grown on the site of a demolished highway overpass. I spent my free intellectual time on thinking up ways to live with a smaller carbon footprint and fantasized about homesteading; living in a house close to nature, complete with a vegetable patch, chicken coops, maybe even a composting outhouse and beehives.
After having transitioned into a life on the water, I had my home close to nature, but lacking soil, all the other self sufficiency tactics that I had envisioned had to be rethought. The natural course that this would take was towards fishing and harvesting food from the ocean, once we were out somewhere where the water was clean enough. Both Travis and I however, had no experience in fishing. So, just like city folk, we took the most logical next step and purchased the Cruisers Guide to Fishing. We flipped thru the pages, tantalized by descriptions of all sorts of edible sea life, ending with a chapter on seafood recipes. Sashimi? Gumbo? Tom Yum? All with seafood fresher, more sustainably caught and more local than can be had at the classiest restaurants? What a good idea! Witness the 6 foot wahoo that can be caught trolling a line off your boat while passage making. Or the hermit crabs that can be lured by a pile of discarded coconut shells and then picked up by hand. And clams that can be dug out of the mud in intertidal zones by you and your children. Regular land based people pay copious amounts of money to come out on diesel powered fishing charter boats on the weekends, but you, my cruiser friends, you do it for free from your sail powered boat because you couldn’t be bothered to go grocery shopping.
On Catalina Island, we finally found crystal clear water, abundant with sea life. It was a favorite fishing destination for people from nearby Los Angeles. As luck would have it, we met a couple of fishing aficionados and future cruisers who took enough of a liking to us to gift us a box of lures and spend some time teaching us how to fish from a sailboat. Our interest was piqued and the next time we raised our sails, so too did we cast a lure off our transom. Several hours of anticipation fizzled into disappointment as we arrived at our next anchorage with zero bites. We still had a lot of learning to do. Our interest was kept alive by encounters with other, more skilled fishers who gave us some of their catch as a gesture of neighborliness. We were lucky enough to try fish that had been smoked, salted, eaten raw as ceviche, or given to us whole as specimens for filleting lessons, after which they were steamed Asian style in our own galley with soy sauce, sesame oil and ginger. In San Diego, Travis proceeded to buy a Hawaiian sling, used for spearing fish while diving.
In the San Diego cruisers anchorage, our Australian neighbors told us how they used cheese on hooks to catch their fish. On San Benito Island, our Mexican friends showed us which lures from our box we could use for different types of fish. And in Turtle Bay, we watched our Canadian neighbors hauling fish out of the water at all hours of the day. We were eager for our induction into a more purely oceanic lifestyle, but at the same time, we were dreading the actual act of killing a fish. To back up on our story a bit, while I was being an environmentalist in San Francisco, I had been living a vegetarian lifestyle for 5 years. After having met Travis, his meatier diet blended with mine as we prepared and ate our meals together, and we adopted a flexitarian diet whereby we did not cook meat at home, but were keeping an open mind to eating meat when invited as dinner guests or when sampling food from around the world. The first because we did not want to be a burden to dinner hosts, and the second because we believe that eating exactly the way locals eat is a big part of understanding and experiencing different cultures. We had started to move away from eating meat mainly because we believed that meat production puts too much of a strain on the environment, the unglamorous main contributor to global warming. That, and our tendency to anthropomorphise animals. Fishing occupies a grey moral area for us. We know that wild fish live a far more humane life than any farmed animal ever could hope for and that our small scale fishing would do no damage to fish stocks. We know that fish are the most efficient producers of animal protein, and that eating one only makes us part of the circle of life. Rather kill a fish with your own hands and be responsible for your actions, fully appreciating the sustenance it gives you, than outsourcing your killing to a butcher and then being dismissive of the food that is put in front of you. But it had been so easy filleting a fish given to us already dead. Could we stand holding down a fish and killing it, feeling it shudder and its life give out?
On another one of our passages, trailing a lure behind us, Travis started running thru the scenario of what would happen if we did catch a fish.
” I will pull on some gloves and haul the fish out into the cockpit. You grab a towel and hold the fish down. It might be big and put up a struggle, so watch out for slashing fins. Then, one of us has to kill it- you should do it- cut its throat, or hit it with a winch handle. And hit it again and again, tears coming out of our eyes as we realize we are committing murder, saying sorry over and over again, knowing we are killing one of God’s beautiful creatures, and now we are bound for hell…”
Travis’ imagination was escalating. I could tell he was nervous.
” So I’ll haul the fish out if you can be the one to kill it”, Travis continued. “Imagine being one of the fish in the school, seeing your fish friends being caught and killed. ‘No, Uncle Teddy, where are you going? Frank, come back! Suzy, don’t eat that hook! No, all my friends are dead!’ I wonder why fishes haven’t evolved to avoid hooks yet. You know, maybe we don’t need to fish today. I’m not really feeling it, are you feeling it?” I concurred that we didn’t need to fish until we were feeling very hungry. Hungry enough to commit murder.
Turtle Bay to Santa Maria Bay was a three and a half day passage, most of it out of sight of land. Our windvane worked perfectly, affording us more leisure time to read or sit and contemplate life. I read our cruising guidebook’s notes about the area that we were transiting, and happened upon sentence after sentence about spectacular seamounts all around Santa Maria Bay, producing world class fishing grounds, and how even novices could count on catching a meal here. Days of endless sea and sky had made us ready to try out a new experience and as we sailed closer to the sea mounds, we let out our lures. Minutes later however, we had a curious sea lion chasing our lure and diving in and out around our boat. We definitely did not want to catch a sea lion, so we pulled in our lure for another try later on, and enjoyed the company of our sea mammal friend. As evening approached, we gave the lures another try. We could see other fishing vessels and crab pots in our vicinity, and the increasing presence of other animals was a good indicator that fish were nearby. We had sighted some sea turtles earlier on, and now there were birds circling the sky. As we approached the entrance to Santa Maria Bay, we were treated to the sight of a giant school of manta rays leaping out of the water all around us. What should we do? We did not want to catch a manta ray either. But we did not have much time to think before we heard the snap of our fishing bungee cord against our transom, followed by another snap as our first lure was broken off by something in the water. Followed by yet another snap as our second lure was broken off too. ” There are fish in the water! “, shouted Travis. ” Oh no, I saw one leap out of the water; it’s as big as a small dolphin! What do we do? Get another lure!” We had no idea what we would do with a human sized fish, but we were going to give it a try anyway. But the moment had passed, and we entered the anchorage yet again without any fish.
Disappointed by our apparent lack of fishing skills, we tried another tactic and dropped some lines into the water while at anchor. It was now dark, and we switched on our spreader lights, attracting schools of small fish to our boat. I was telling Travis how I didn’t think that we would catch one even then; the fish were nibbling bits off our bait without swallowing the hook, when suddenly we caught a small saltwater catfish. We then started panicking, it was go time! How do we kill a fish? While we deliberated, the fish was thrashing around on deck, slowly suffocating. We decided that the most humane way to kill it would be whichever way was fastest. Holding it down with a towel, Travis tried shoving a knife into its brain, but unluckily a catfish is probably the only type of fish that this doesn’t work with, with its wide head. So in a hurry, I grabbed a heavy winch handle and hit it on the head until it stopped moving. To be sure it was dead, we also beheaded it before we started filleting. We knew we were only doing it to learn how to feed ourselves, nevertheless we felt horrible and like we had done something wrong. There was a lot of blood on our deck, and it was discomforting having to hold down a fish and feel it alive, then watch it go limp. The catfish was very small; not big enough to provide us a whole meal, was it worth it dying just for an appetizer? And another nagging concern at the back of our minds; was it safe to eat this fish? All the other fish that we had eaten previously had been identified for us by other people, so we were told explicitly that they could be eaten. Our fishing manual only stated that a few among many species of saltwater catfish had poisonous spines, but did that mean that they were safe to eat anyway as long as we were not cut by the spines?
I decided that since we had killed the fish, we had to do it the honor of eating it. So Travis filleted it as best he could, and we ate a tiny fillet each. Mine as sashimi, and Travis’ fried with herbs. There might not have been much to eat, but we had to imagine that it was the best meal in the world; fish that could not have been any fresher, served at a Michelin start restaurant that you had to book reservations at 6 months in advance, and then paid hundreds of dollars for tiny portions artistically served on huge white plates. And the fish did taste good. 5 minute after our meal though, Travis said “Do you feel a little dizzy? A little flushed?” My eyes grew wide as I realized that yes, I was feeling that too. Had we just eaten some poisoned fish? We grabbed the VHF and started trying to call for help, to the sports fishermen anchored half a mile away, or the locals at the fish camp ashore, or passing cruisers, or the Mexican coastguard, anyone. It was late and everyone probably had their radios off, didn’t understand English, or were out of range of our VHF. How much time did we have before things took a turn for the worse? We switched on our spreader lights so our boat could easily be seen, then went below to consult our fishing and medical guides. We did not know exactly what species of fish we had just eaten, but some local fishermen had stopped by earlier and assured us that everything here was safe to eat. Were we just imagining our symptoms? It was strange that we had the same ones at the same time though, good thing it was only a small amount of fish. Our fishing guide listed bleak situations for one unlucky enough to be cut by a marina catfish barb. Respiratory distress and shock. What does the medical guide say to do in case of poisoning? Induce vomiting and dilute the poison by drinking a lot of water. Our symptoms had not become worse in the time that it took us to look all this information up, so we were starting to believe that we had made it all up. I gulped down bottles of water while Travis called his dad to discuss what they knew about catfish. Jim said that if it was poison we would have thrown up by now. Travis said to call the coastguard if we did not call back the next day to confirm that we were still alive. Jim told us not to eat garbage fish.
We have an uneasy relationship with the idea of fishing. On one hand it seems like the obligation of a full time cruiser. On the other, we lack the experience and the willpower to make it happen. Recently, we have even been becoming superstitious that fishing upsets Poseidon and brings us bad luck. Incidences of gear failure, bad weather, and getting lost have been preceded by fishing attempts, maybe by coincidence, maybe not. The bigger the lure, the worse the luck. Time will tell if we develop a knack for fishing, but for now we are glad to take a break.