This Was No Boating Accident

by Jim Austin

*Richard Dreyfus's remark to the coroner upon viewing the shark-ravaged remains of a swimmer in the movie "Jaws".

When I was transferred to Kavieng in New Ireland Province from the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, I had heard nothing one way or the other about its potential for sport fishing. My first trip to the waterfront market settled the question quickly and dramatically. A wizened fellow of indeterminate years was sitting behind a narrow barred Spanish mackerel of heroic proportions.

Trying to be casual I whizzed over to his stall and asked in New Guinea Pidgin "yu kisim we?" (where did you get it) "Long hap" (over there), he replied cryptically, pointing to the ocean. Armed with this piece of inside information, I repaired to the Kavieng Club, a beer joint where lager and hot air were present in vast quantities. By the bartender, I was told of a consortium of game fishing enthusiasts who were trolling for an investor to defray expenses on a new 120 HP Evinrude engine for their boat. We soon met and before the introductions were over I was readily embraced by the three piscators and deftly relieved of 2200.00 kina (about $2400).

My first sight of the "Mahseer", an 18 foot half cabin fiberglass cruiser, was disquieting. The Mahseer -- named after the hard fighting Indian freshwater fish -- was a study in salt water corrosion and fiberglass fatigue. Its pre-war trailer was a Daliesque rust sculpture. Fortunately, the boat only had to be towed across the street to be launched into Kavieng harbor. The jewel in the midst of all this squalor was a brand new 120 HP Evinrude outboard bolted to the Mahseer's grotty transom like a Rolex watch on a bag lady's wrist.

My first fishing trip on the Mahseer will live in my memory for a very long time (unless I can find a really good psychotherapist). I had three accomplices: Roland Allbrook, a secondary school inspector with just enough overhanging brow and underslung jaw to suggest prize fighting rather than classroom experience; Alan Jousiffe, a British expatriate of dubious character; and Tony Meehan, local hotelier, PNG citizen and self-professed expert on mackerel and wahoo fishing in New Ireland waters.

The shrieking of ungreased wheel bearings announced our departure from Roland's yard to our launch point. I was pleased to see a small group of the local people smiling, laughing and pointing as the rusty winch cable parted like a rifle shot and the Mahseer lurched into the green-blue water of Kavieng harbor. I chose to regard their behavior as some sort of local ritual, wishing our craft a safe journey and good fishing. The labored disregard of my associates, apart from a few barely audible curses, dispelled those naive notions.

I had just found a seat on one of many empty beer crates when the captain put the hammer down and that old tub took off like a scalded tomcat. We carved a twisting course around the harbor markers to the north, passing several travel poster tropical islands on our way to Albatross Strait and the west coast of New Ireland. Along the way we whipped by flocks of birds feasting on baitfish boiled to the surface by schools of marauding skipjack tuna.

We finally emerged from Albatross Strait into the Bismarck Sea with Djaul Island a hazy palisade of palm trees in the distance to our port side. It was then that two Penn 6/0 reels solidly salt-bonded to game rods of different lengths and make were jammed into homemade PVC rod-holders. Into the drink went two rubber squid at the end of 45 pound test line and three feet of wire trace.

My heart raced as my mind's eye observed a pack of ravenous wahoos darting towards our lures. After about an hour of trolling at various speeds, the rubber squids had gotten a good wash and the crew was on the down side of a crate of South Pacific Lager.

Until I came to Kavieng I wasn't one to drink alcohol before seven in the morning, but it was de rigeur on the Mahseer. By our third bottle each we all realized that our lack of success was all Meehan's fault. After savaging the poor innkeeper verbally for a few minutes we set about casting for the skipjack tuna which were feeding in large numbers not far from the boat. Each of us caught 3 or 4 of these feisty little 3 to 6 pound battlers until we had 12 in the fish box.

It was then that inspiration chanced upon Roland. "Lets go over to Stephan Strait and catch a shark", he boomed enthusiastically. On the way over to the strait Roland explained that a hemorrhaging tuna rigged through the eyes with a large stainless steel hook tied to 6 feet of 100 pound braided trace fomented great interest among the sinister carnivores in gray trenchcoats. This sounded like exciting stuff, fishing for whaler sharks in darkest New Guinea. Actually it was off the coast of New Guinea and it wasn't the least bit dark - but you know what I mean.

Upon arrival I was presented with "The Shark Rod", which appeared to be an ancient Penn 12/0 reel with about twenty miles of 80 pound test line mounted on a barge pole with 6 roller guides which hadn't rolled since World War II. The sacrificial tuna was eyeballed and lowered into the swirling water at the edge of the drop-off. It took all of 3 minutes of drifting before the elderly Penn started to grate as the sand in the works announced the arrival of my first whaler shark. Line began screaming out to sea and I was advised by my audience to screw the drag on full bore and put my back into it. This I did and the run stopped as the barge pole bent grudgingly into a boomerang shape. Feeling some slack, I cranked furiously and soon had most of the line back on the reel. The trace swivel appeared next, with my bloodthirsty man-eater lurking beneath the hull.

"Now what are you going to do with it", chortled Alan as he and the others sat back guzzling lagers. I gave the rod another heave. Up from underneath the hull came a dark blue missile with extended pectorals and a pointed face about the size of a Soviet Oscar class submarine. "Funny looking shark", I remarked in a disappointed manner. I expected more thrashing around and gnashing of teeth. Roland glanced over the side and promptly sent six ounces of beer down the wrong tube.

"Mackerel", he wheezed. Alan and Tony charged over to the edge of the Mahseer which listed at a frightening angle. This gave the mackerel slack and the hook drifted out of the ragged hole incised when I screwed the drag on full bore. The scramble that followed is still just a blur, but by the time the bite went off we had four mackerel, including two over 40 pounds and one bloody big barracuda.

By this time it was 9:00 am and Alan elected to gut our catch. He was merrily flinging mackerel entrails over the side when the final tuna bait was snarfled by yet another victim. Alan grabbed the rod and shortly had a small reef shark circling beside the boat. Roland alertly reached over the side and grabbed the little fellow by the tail and hauled him half way into the boat. Alan then leaned over the side and belted the unfortunate creature over the cartilaginous brain-box with a length of half inch galvanized plumbing pipe.

Unhappy at the sequence of events thus far, the enraged selachian catapulted itself off the side of the boat and, using Roland's grip as a fulcrum, levered itself straight into Alan's mystified face. Several things happened then. Roland dropped the shark while the rest of us broke into a spontaneous Mexican hat dance trying to avoid the evil triangular can-openers snapping like castanets at our feet. All of us danced our way to the bow where we paused to assess Alan's face which had a flap of cheek hanging to jaw level revealing a gory hole from which had issued a quart or so of Alan's vital bodily fluids. The bridge of his nose had a similar if less colorful gash.

"Is it bad?" whimpered Alan, his eyeballs bugged out like organ stops.

"No big deal", I said as I fought to suppress my gag reflex.

"Just a scratch" croaked Roland as he bashed Alan's assailant to sharkburger and heaved him over the side.

At this juncture Tony began to recall some first aid lessons he learned in reform school. He pulled a cleaning rag out of the bilge and jammed it onto Alan's cheek, thereby ensuring a future case of galloping tetanus. He then instructed us to give him space and maintain his airways. We gave him as much space as we could - given that we were in a confined area in the middle of the ocean - and proceeded to Kavieng at full throttle.

It was then that I considered asking for my $2400.00 back, but I sensed the time was not right. Alan's face was never a prize winner anyway, and I must admit the shark bite didn't improve it any. Alan has since remarked that if he hadn't bothered to get his cheek stitched he could have had his teeth fixed without opening his mouth. He has fully recovered from his ordeal and has cadged many drinks while embellishing the story of the shark attack. His wife alone remains skeptical of the tale despite our combined testimony that the injuries were honorable.

I never did get around to asking for my money back and I'm glad. Other than the occasional hangover, our subsequent adventures didn't require any more emergency medical attention. Now that I am stateside again I can begin to appreciate our eccentric brand of angling in those virgin waters. We were definitely more like the Marx Brothers than Mark Sosin, but somehow I think Mark might have enjoyed our brand of fishing. Once.