LIKE FISH? Go North
One of the questions nonsailors ask me most is: “Do you catch much fish when you’re sailing?”
“We tow a lure most of the time,” I hedge, knowing that their envy of our lifestyle is based in part on a mental picture of an unlimited, free seafood supply gracing the table. A picture so vivid to some of them that any mention of needing to find grocery stores or buy chicken or sausages meets with incredulity. Who could want more than the fish they imagine jumping daily onto cruisers’ plates and the coconuts that conveniently drop at their feet? And there are some cruisers we’ve met who actually do almost manage to live off the sea— they seem always to have just caught or speared something. Word spreads, and these lucky ones usually get anchored next to other cruisers who are happy to help them eat whatever surplus they might have.
Sadly, I’m not among those popular and successful fishermen. Perhaps I don’t try hard enough, but it’s a lot of work. One fellow who caught a boatload of tuna and mackerel where we caught nothing was switching out lures every five minutes to see what would work best. Others I know can jump into the water with a Hawaiian sling and come out in three minutes with a hogfish or grouper every time.
It took me nearly five hours to spear my biggest and only significant catch: a spotted snapper that barely fed three. That was years ago, and I can still remember how my hand ached for days from holding the spear’s rubber band stretched at the ready.
One of the reasons I maybe don’t try as hard as I might is that once you have a fish in hand, you have to clean it. Gutting fish ranks among my least favorite activities, and filleting smaller fish seems like a lot of work for a modicum of reward. However much I might whet it, my fillet knife never seems sharp enough, and having been designed for cleaning tiny trout and perch, is nowhere near big enough. Still, I’ve watched a cruiser fillet a 3-foot tuna in less than two minutes with a Swiss Army knife, so I know it’s more about skill than size. But knowing that doesn’t make my work any less icky or clumsy.
Don’t get me wrong—i’m always delighted to see a fish on the line, even if it means hours of messy work, blood in the scuppers and sharp hooks being thrashed around, but I must confess with some shame that I prefer having all that stuff done for me. There are people who actually enjoy all of that, and they’re the ones who usually have more fish on hand than they can eat. In fact, looking back, it seems that I’ve been given
or traded for more fish than I’ve actually caught myself. Still, all of it taken together adds up to a meager amount of seafood, considering the non-cruiser’s idea of our diet. We ate more fish and shrimp and scallops when we lived on land than ever we have when cruising.
There are few cruisers where we sailed most recently —Newfoundland is far from the mild trade-wind-fanned latitudes most sailors understandably prefer—but happily our average free seafood supply only increased when we sailed into Canadian waters. It began with two bags of live lobsters tossed onto our foredeck from a Nova Scotian boat before we even sighted land. In St. Pierre it was clams—whole and in pieces— and in a tiny fishing outpost on the northeast shore of Newfoundland we were given our first fillets of cod. That was at the beginning of cod fishing season, and before it was over, we had even eaten it three glorious meals in a row.
When cod season was over —though some still occasionally came our way—the shrimpers began unloading, and if you happened to be tied up near a commercial wharf, chances were a grinning fisherman would lug over a sack of the creatures and give you more than you could possibly eat; certainly as many as you could boil and peel in an afternoon. And as soon as shrimp season ended, mackerel came in—oh boy! Followed closely by halibut and crabs. You can say what you like about catching a yellowfin in the warm waters of the tropics —but for effortless seafood, delivered ready for cooking to your very cockpit, head north to Newfoundland.
Ben Zartman and his family are currently shoreside at home in Rhode Island, dreaming of future voyages and working down a project list on Ganymede.