TUNA MAD­NESS

Otago Daily Times - - GENERAL -

It was a foul West Coast day, ev­ery­thing sub­dued by the omi­nous, fore­bod­ing, op­pres­sively close clouds glow­er­ing down. Des­per­ate, we de­cided to es­cape to the bot­tom of a cou­ple of nasty flagons of ap­ple cider.

Walk­ing to the store un­der leaden skies is a wet af­fair. Ar­riv­ing there, the del­uge abates; we clearly hear the bass rum­ble of huge surf smash­ing it­self re­lent­lessly on the break­wa­ter.

Gos­sip in­store says ‘‘the tuna fleet awaits high tide’’; due in hours en­abling them to nav­i­gate the bar, come up river and un­load their catch.

Trudg­ing out to the un­pre­ten­tious light­house on the end of a con­crete block, the flagon passes back and forth in silent gri­maces. Its warmth creeps from guts to tongue, we dis­cuss the chances an ac­quain­tance may die to­day. The river is on our left, ocean on the right, at the tip sits the light­house. Two sto­ries tall, round, with white stucco, a red rood with a small round dome for the light sit­ting cherry­like on top. Half­way up is the small walk­way en­cir­cling it.

We’re seated, backs against the door, watch­ing waves roll past to­wards the beach. Each one is seem­ingly larger as the tide creeps in to as­sault the land, try­ing to re­sist its re­lent­less sav­agery.

There’s a small crowd of loved ones gath­ered. Their fear is pal­pa­ble, the air al­ready heavy with worry. Knots of peo­ple gather and split as they con­stantly try to re­as­sure them­selves. But I see the hand­wring­ing and fear­ful, furtive glances as a par­tic­u­larly de­ter­mined wave smashes it­self on to the blocks in front of the light­house, the vi­bra­tions a deep, word­less threat.

Sud­denly, a wave lurches over the foun­da­tions and splits around the light­house. White creamy froth joins up, inches deep across the road, suck­ing greed­ily at the liv­ing as the mon­ster rolls up river. Peo­ple look long­ingly one last time to sea, hop­ing for a glance of their ves­sel.

We climb drunk­enly up to the walk­way and watch waves reach up­wards un­til they bash face first on to our small sanc­tu­ary un­til it’s an is­land.

The first of the tuna boats bobs on top of a wave, now again on the wave be­hind, lifted ef­fort­lessly twenty, thirty feet. We see it lurch for­ward, smoke whipped from its ex­haust. It looks small on the face, car­ried for­ward over the bar and now be­side us, level. The crew­men, life­jack­eted, cling­ing on dearly but ready to leap clear. It sails past; we hear faintly his yell of tri­umph and join in.

Next up is a big steel ves­sel, rid­ing low and heavy. It tries to catch a wave, its twin en­gines spew­ing ex­haust silently. It fails to gather enough speed and it’s over­taken. The wave be­hind it is mas­sive. We watch as it’s picked up, ris­ing to­wards the crest, back­wards. Slowly, it gath­ers speed back down the face, the white top chas­ing the stern hun­grily.

The vi­o­lent tur­moil of the crest starts climb­ing on to the back of the boat; the crew­man’s face a ric­tus of ter­ror as he screams at the skip­per. Re­lent­lessly, wa­ter over­whelms it. Froth­ing sea washes around the deck, the boat starts to slew side­ways, then, stern down, it be­gins to roll. The crew­man leaps out, away from the deadly en­tan­gle­ments as the bow pirou­ettes be­fore the red keel is ex­posed wrongly.

The river’s cur­rent drags it back out to sea while we stand help­less; shocked, silent wit­nesses.

Days later the boat is washed up, the skip­per lost for­ever. We will never for­get the sea’s demon­stra­tion of its mer­ci­less power that day.

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