“Tell ya what,” I said munching on the grilled mackerel. “Food tastes so much better when you’ve caught it.”
“And the fish is fresher because it’s straight from the water,” threw in Paul.
“And it’s free,” added Richard.
Along with Brodie, we were sitting in the BBQ area of the Dinah Beach bar. We had just returned from an overnight sailing and fishing trip on Pauls, Clair de Lune. He had sailed us on his beautiful boat out to a secret spot he knows.
“Guaranteed you’ll catch fish,” he had said a couple of days ago when he had invited me to the trip.
We set sail on Monday morning, just beating the change of the tide. An old trawler that was moored out in front of the pontoon had listed over and was under water. It’s starboard side jutting up, just breaching the water like a beached whale.
We loaded up the dinghy and took the provisions out to the boat. While I put the stock away, Paul motored back to the wharf to collect the rest of the gang.
Wanting to get some hands on experience with sailing, I was shown how to drop the mooring lines, prepare the winch handles for winching and most importantly, getting the boat ship-shape for sail.
Meaning, everything that could fly needed to be secured.
Paul revved the engine and we chugged out of the harbour, crossing the city of Darwin to our starboard side. Once we were out in open waters, I helped Paul raise the main sail and then the smaller head sail known as the genoa. Once we were wind powered, Paul had Brodie cut the engine and all that that was heard was the wind pushing the sails and pitching the boat across the open waters of the Timor Sea, averaging about 5-7 knots (about 11-13 km/h).
I’d never been sailing before and I’ve never properly fished before either.
We skimmed the waters, listing at more than 45 degrees, almost sailing on the rails of the starboard side.
“I reckon this is about as close to surfing as I’ll get,” I said, balancing myself on the bench as though it were a surfboard.
We drank beers and smoked as the day went on. Richard was at the helm, steering the boat while Paul and I adjusted the sails. We let out a line with a deep-sea lure on it.
“This is called ‘trolling’ as apposed to ‘trawling’,” explained Paul. “‘Trolling’ is when you let out one line while ‘trawling’ is when you drag a net behind ya.”
We sailed under blue skies, the sun grinning down on us. Over the horizon of the mainland that was kept to our starboard, we could see the smoke from the controlled fires at Kakadu National Park (at least, I hope they were controlled).
The smokey haze covered the lower line of the horizon, making it look more like something you’d see in China rather than the northern part of Australia. We reached Gunn Point Reef and dropped anchor. We were only 3 K’s offshore so it was surprising that we were only in 5-7 meters of water. Clair de Lune had a larger keel than most boats so we needed enough water to anchor in so that we wouldn’t get caught out on the low tide.
We used squid and small fish for bait as we hooked the fishing rods. I threw my line in and almost instantly could feel little tugs on it.
“They’re biting,” I said as Paul instructed me to pull up on the rod when I felt a nibble. I followed his guidance and reeled in a small trevellie, a silver bodied fish with yellow dorsal, side fins and tail. It was no bigger than my hand (they can grow to over a meter).
Paul adjusted it on my hook and I threw the line back in. I could feel an increase in bites and something big took the trevellie with the hook. As Paul re-hooked my line – again – Brodie was catching some trevellies and a few brim which were too small and were thrown back in.
The sun was setting over the water. The hazy smoke from the mainland behind glowed the sky red as the moon rose up over the land. It was a night away from being full. Still, it was very bright and lit up the boat and the surrounding waters.
With the light off the moon, I fished from the bow, from the port and starboard side. I lost a bit of bait to the fish that had figured out how to avoid the hook and as evening settled in, I reeled in two decent sized snappers, one after the other.
“Dinner is served,” I proudly announced (although dinner ended up being steak sandwiches).
We continued fishing well into the night. By 22:30 I was nodding off. Paul had retired to his V-berth cabin up in the bow and Richard and Brodie were playing with the trolling line. It had attracted a hammerhead shark that was now circling the boat.
I threw my line with a small trevellie on it and that’s when I felt the sheer power of something very large in the waters below.
Whatever had taken the bait was gunning for it, churning out the line on my roll, smoke just about rising from it like a controlled fire. But let’s be honest here, I had no control and as I tried to reel in the aquatic monster from below, the line went limp.
“It took the hook!” I yelped. “The fuck was it?”
“It was definitely shark,” said Richard. “Might have been a tiger shark.”
I continued to fish off the port side when another powerful jolt had me concentrating on the line. This time, I was determined not to lose the hook. I reeled and pulled, watching the top of the rod bend over as whatever was hooked swam under the boat.
Slowly I pulled and I could feel the fish lose it’s battle. In the light of the spotlight shining down from the main mast, illuminating the entire stern, I saw what I had caught.
“Its a shark!” I said with excitement. I was staring at a 2-foot black-tip reef shark. We weren’t sure how to handle it. Its sharp teeth were not inviting. It’s skin felt like sandpaper and its eyes seemed to scream out ‘evil’. Brodie and I tried to dislodge the hook from it’s mouth to return it to the water but the shark didn’t survive it’s interaction with us. We felt bad about it and decided to call it a night.
I rearranged the cockpit so I could sleep out under the stars. The breeze was just right, feeling like a fan set on ‘3’. The water had barely a ripple as I dozed off on my first night without having to endure mosquitoes, midges and sand flies.
In the middle of the night I awoke and sat up. The light of the moon lay a creamy path across the water. But it was the sound of something releasing air that had risen me from my sleeping state. The sound was familiar, something I recalled hearing when I was out surfing in Lorne last year. A seal had surprised me by popping up right next to me, opening its nostrils, breathing in and out with huffs, staring at me with it’s huge eyes.
But what I heard was bigger. I scrambled to the deck and looked around. I couldn’t see anything and after a few minutes I returned to my sleeping bag.
I woke up twice more due to the same sounds of what I would later learn was a dugong.
I slept soundly, as I always do when I sleep outdoors, and cracked an eye open to watch the red glow of the sun rise over the horizon at the early stages of the morning. I watched the awesome sky go from it’s veiling black night to its brightening morning light.
Paul brewed some coffee and after de-bedding the cockpit, we were all up and fishing. My first catch of the day was a whaler shark. It was about the same size as the black-tip reef shark I had pulled up the night before. I watched as Paul grabbed it behind it’s head and pulled out the hook, returning it safely to the water.
He cooked up some bacon and eggs. Not really one to eat bacon I was surprised to discover that it was actually pretty good. With renewed energy, I returned to fishing as Paul strummed on the guitar.
I reeled in another shark. Another black-tip reef and this time I was determined to release it without it dying. The hook was well embedded in its jaw bone and after a bit of a struggle, I managed to get it out and return the shark to the water, watching it swim off.
“I’m going to the toilet,” announced Richard as he went below deck.
As I released another line I saw a cloud of a yellow coloured substance. “Is that blood from a fish that just got eaten below?” I asked Paul who was standing on the platform above it.
He looked down. “Nah, mate,” he grinned at me. “That’s Richard’s poo.”
As soon as he said it something took my bait. I assumed it was another shark but when I managed to bring it in and saw that it was a fish, I was beaming.
“Mackerel,” informed Paul. “Get it over here quick cause their skin isn’t very strong and that hook might rip out. And watch out for it’s teeth.”
I looked at it’s snapping jaw and saw teeth that were bigger than the ones the sharks were sporting.
“Sheesh,” I said, as I swung the line over to the stern area where Paul released it from the hook.
I had barely returned the line to the water when I hooked another mackerel. Both fish were about 60 cms in length. Before long, I had hooked 4 mackerels.
“Mackerel King,” grinned Paul.
“It’s Richard’s poo that’s bringing them out,” I said.
I was re-baiting my hook when something big took Paul’s bait. He was standing on the platform just behind the stern, over the shark-infested waters. The line whirred out at blinding speed. Paul fought for control but whatever had taken the bait was determined not to be brought to the surface.
We watched for anything, ready to jump to any assistance Paul might need. I followed the line out to the open waters when something dark breached the water about a hundred meters off the port side of the boat.
“D’ya see that?” asked Richard.
“Yup,” I said, squinting against the bright sun. “What was it?”
“Tiger shark. Might just be what Paul’s fighting there.”
After a 2-minute battle in which Paul almost lost his footing, whatever had been hooked snapped the line, leaving us all to wonder what it was.
“Definitely shark,” said Paul. “Probably tiger.”
Hammerheads, black-tip reefs, whalers and one of the most dangerous sharks in the water, the Tiger shark.
Do Not Fall Over Board.
I had thrown my line back in after reeling in mackerel number 4. I felt a few tugs and nibbles on the hook below and snapped the rod up.
“He’s on,” said Paul as he watched the tip of the rod bend almost all the way down. I pulled on it, reeling in whatever was caught.
“It’s a real fighter,” I braced myself. The line was going under the boat.
“Come round to the stern so the line doesn’t get snagged,” suggested Paul.
I rushed around and clambered over to the platform behind the stern. That’s when I watched my iPhone get pushed up and out of my pocket before it landed with a quiet splash in the Timor Sea.
“That did not just happen!” I groaned.
“What?” asked Paul.
“My phone just fell in.” I began to see the outline of what I had hooked. “This fucker better be big,” I said.
“It’s another mackerel,” said Paul as I pulled it up and over. It was the same size as the others.
“Ah well,” I said. “Maybe it was meant to be. I actually feel free without it now.”
Paul filleted the fish while we prepared the boat for departure. We had her ship-shaped and read to go within the hour. I looked over the starboard side and saw something large and round in the water. Brodie was standing in front of me and I pointed her towards the, “Sea turtle.”
Paul revved the engine and raised the anchor. Brodie decided to take an extended nap while Richard was at the helm. Once we were out in deeper water, I helped Paul raise the main sail and then the genoa. Something yellow was sticking out in the green coloured water. As we came up alongside it I recognised the,
“Leopard shark!” I pointed at it. It had leopard spots and was just swimming about near the surface.
With the down wind we were flying across the water, averaging 6-8 knots. Paul turned the engine off and the natural silence of nature greeted us.
“You wanna try steering, mate?” he asked me.
“What? Really?” I sat up. “Fuck yeah!”
I clambered over and stood behind the wheel as Paul showed me what to watch out for.
“You want the red line to be about there,” he showed on the iPad screen that was tracking our navigation. “Keep us out of the green patches cause that’s too shallow for the boat. And try to keep us just on the white-light blue area. Keep the point of the land in between those staunches,” he pointed at the space he was indicating to the port side.
I took hold of the wheel and was surprised to discover that to steer a sailing boat, you really need to fight the wheel. I was spinning it left, waiting for it to react, then spinning it right, mistiming the reaction on it.
After a bit of lefting and righting I had control and was at the helm, steering a 47-foot mono hull doing 7 knots an hour.
Paul had made some ham and cheese rolls for us. Richard took over the wheel to allow me to eat as we flew by the Darwin waterfront, people lined up and watched us sail by. Paul took over the wheel and brought us into the mooring up the creek.
At the bar, we fired up the BBQ and cooked up all the mackerel. We invited John, the bar manager and Poppy, the new bartender for a feed and said goodbye to Gemma who was going back to the cold of Tasmania.
“Thanks for the trip, Paul,” I said to the skipper.
“Thanks for the fish,” he grinned.