Summer of 1949
My Shark Story
By Carl Beal, Jr.
Shark fishing was not an occupation of anyone that I knew back in 1949. Not that there weren’t plenty of sharks for the catching out in Ipswich Bay. The seeing and catching of sharks while fishing for Bluefin tuna in these waters was not an unusual occurrence. The variety of sharks in this area ranged from the prolific sand shark or dogfish, which are the bane of all fishermen. This was especially true of tuna fishermen who rely on a chum line that can bring in huge schools of the 2 to 3 foot scavengers. The blue shark, the mako, and an occasional thresher are some other common sharks in the area. The largest of the sharks you will come across in our waters is the basking shark. The fish is the second largest shark behind the giant whale shark and can weigh between 2,500 and 3,000 pounds and grow to a length of twenty to thirty feet. This is the extraordinary story of such an encounter during the summer of 1949.
The day began like any other day as my Dad parked our truck in the wharf’s parking lot. Another exciting day of tuna fishing off of Cape Ann in Ipswich Bay was about to begin. We arrived a little later than usual and most of the boats had already left for the tuna grounds. But I was getting excited as we slammed the heavy doors of the truck, and with a coil of rope and a couple of empty bushel baskets headed for the dock. It was a beautiful sunny day in July, the kind fishing was made for.
As we walked toward the float a friend, Charlie Sutherland, came toward us. Charlie owned a 33-foot day cruiser that he hardly used, as he was always busy with business. We knew a few other boat owners like him. They would buy a nice boat, but were too busy to enjoy them, and the boats remained on their moorings day after day. My dad, seeing him, thought he must be going fishing for a change. As we approached my father spoke to him saying, “Well, don’t tell me you are finally going out to sea in that boat of yours”. His response was no surprise as he said he had some important business to attend to. Then, in a serious tone of voice, he said, “How would you like to take my boat out today? The gas tanks are full. All the tuna lines are brand new. Everything you need is on board. Take her out and get a tuna on it. I would love to have my boat catch a tuna this summer.”
My father and I looked at each other in disbelief, but I knew he wasn’t joking. I snapped out of my daze and said, “Can we do it Daddy, please?” Then my dad added that we couldn’t guarantee any tuna, but we would take his boat out for the day and ‘break it in for you’. Those words ‘break it in’ weren’t strong enough words for what would happen that day.
We departed down the ladder to the float where we kept our skiff and headed out toward a boat that made me feel like a rich kid. The cabin cruiser was a much different type of boat than what we were used to. Ours was a 38-foot open lobster type boat with a large cockpit and good size cuddy cabin, but you couldn’t stand up inside the cabin.
This boat was 33-foot long and was mostly all cabin with a small cockpit. It was a cabin cruiser, not real fancy, but it made you feel more at home than at sea. It had all the amenities of home including a small kitchen, bunk beds, and even a toilet. This was truly not a fishing boat, I thought, as I did a quick tour after we climbed aboard.
Being a much faster boat, we were down river and heading out to the tuna grounds in no time. Now I must say that being on this boat did give me the feeling of affluence. The boat was not new, but it had the look of a boat that was well kept. Since it hadn’t been used much, it certainly wasn’t abused at all. Whereas our party boat, the ‘Doris E’, a converted Beal Island lobster boat, was showing lots of wear from years of hard and steady work.
It was twelve nautical miles to the tuna fleet, so I had some time on my hands to check things out.
The first thing I did was to walk out onto the pulpit, also known as the tuna stand. This consists of a long plank off the bow of the boat with a pipe railing all around for safety. It was fun to stand out on this pulpit and ride the waves. It was more fun to imagine harpooning a tuna from this cat walk. After daydreaming of such thoughts for a few minutes, I went down to the deck to give my dad a spell at the helm. I wanted to see what it was like to drive a boat like this. I wasn’t disappointed, as it handled easily, kept a steady course, and had a good feeling cutting through the water.
When steering this boat, I had to be aware of more than just the compass heading. I was always scanning the horizon for a trawler or dragger out of Gloucester. It was from these vessels that we depended on for tuna bait. Of course, I was always keeping a sharp lookout for the presence of tuna on the surface. Besides, it was fun to steer a boat like this. Steaming along at about twenty knots made it even more enjoyable.
At last a dragger was sighted just a couple of miles from the tuna fleet. We felt lucky as the draggers are usually moving further off shore as the day goes by. We were late by our standards, as it was close to 11:00 a.m.
As we approached the trawler, I recognized her as the ‘St. Mary’ out of Gloucester. We had gotten bait from her many times before. We noticed that she was in the middle of a drag, which often has the crew under deck getting rested for the haul back. My dad took the wheel, and I climbed up on top of the cabin to be seen better. We had to move along, parallel with and at the same slow speed as the trawler, and get close enough to pass a basket or two of fish from one boat to another. As we moved in close, I tried to get the attention of anyone on deck by yelling over the loud chugging of their big diesel engine. “Hello, any tuna bait?” I yelled a couple of times. Then a little old man with a short white beard appeared from the wheel house. He was dressed in yellow rubber pants and a red checkered shirt. He knew what we were after, as he no doubt had a few of the tuna boats track him down for their bait that day. The dragger moved along slowly with cables leading over the stern connecting to a large net being dragged along the bottom of the ocean floor. I quickly ran from one end of the boat to the other putting out bumpers between the trawler and the boat to make sure our friend’s boat would not be scarred or damaged as we moved alongside.
You don’t always know what kind of bait you might get from the draggers. You hope for herring, whiting, or mackerel, all good for both chum and hook bait. Occasionally some of the draggers save only the worse kind of bait for the fishermen. We called it sculch, or what’s left over after the market fish are culled out. However, we were pleased to get the finest kind of tuna bait that day from the trawler ‘St. Mary’. We paid and thanked the old captain, as we pulled away to begin our day of tuna fishing.
As we entered the fishing fleet one thing was certain, no one knew who it was that was motoring through looking for a berth. But it wasn’t long before the word was blaring out over the boat’s CBs. After that we would take a little ribbing for coming up in the world.
It didn’t take long to get moored up and settled in. As I was pulling the tuna gear out from under the stern lockers, my dad was making a survey of who had tuna on and others that had them tied up. From what he was observing, it looked like a promising day was at hand.
Then I noticed what I thought might be a problem. I told my dad that the tuna lines on board were nothing like ours. Yes, the tuna hand lines were new and looked like they had never been in the water before. But they were no doubt made up at least five years ago and were now outdated and behind the times. The large books and heavy leader cables that I was seeing had long been updated by the local fishermen to a much lighter type of equipment. Shy gear was the latest thing, not these antiquated oversized hooks and leaders. Things had been going quite well on this trip up to this point. Now we were very disappointed with this change in our luck. We had seen the gear changes over the past few years and had kept abreast of the shy tackle advances. We also knew it made a big difference as to whether you were successful or not.
There was nothing we could do now but use what we had and hope for the best. We set out the six lines that were on board at various depths and different locations from within the boat. With the day already half over and a bait box full of fresh bait, we figured would chum extra heavy in hopes of attracting enough tuna in our chum slick to create a feeding frenzy. Perhaps then the size of the hooks and leaders might be compromised.
There were a few boats in our area that had fish on, or had one or two tied up. We knew it had been a good day for tuna fishing. Of course, there were also boats that hadn’t had a hookup as yet.
I was throwing chum at a good clip over the port side having the tide take the chum down under the boat. I wanted to get the chum to sink as fast as possible down to where our lines were at 30, 60, 90 feet. With my back to the starboard side of the boat, I heard a sharp “snap” as the cod line holding a tuna line fast to the boat parted. I knew in an instant what it was and yelled “Strike!” and turned quickly and went for the line as it peeled out from the basket. Without any warning. I found myself sprawled out on the cockpit deck. I had tripped over the low engine box cover which I was not used to having in the middle of the cockpit. When a tuna strikes, you lunge for the line if it’s near you thinking of nothing else. By the time I got up and rubbed my shines, the fish was gone. Now I was excited, and the adrenaline was flowing. My dad had begun to pull in the stern line, as part of the procedure is to get all the lines in as soon as possible to reduce the chance of having the tuna get around another line and tangle it up. A real messy situation can occur with fouled lines.
When my father realized that the fish had gotten off, he began to let the line back out. This particular line was being kept away from the boat with a float or pot buoy. All at once the buoy went down fast and we had another fish on. This time the line fetched up in my father’s hands. This was perfect for setting the hook. When there was just enough strain on the line he gave it a pull to set the hook, but the hook didn’t set and pulled out instead. We had lost another one as quickly as that.
We were beginning to realize what we had expected could be the case with this tuna gear that came with the boat. It turned out to be a very frustrating day. We had several strikes, countless touches but not one fish to show for all our work the rest of that afternoon.
All at once the tuna left or stopped feeding. There were no more hook-ups in the fleet for over an hour and many of the boats were leaving or had left for home. We decided to stay until our bait was gone. Finally, we also gave it up. We were tired and frustrated from running from line to line for nothing but disappointment. We hauled in all the antiquated rigged lines and put them away. I next hauled the anchor and were on our way home from a frustrating day.
It must have been an omen, because as we got under way I looked up at the bow and saw the only line we left out was the harpoon line, rigged and ready on the tuna stand. I started to climb up to the upper deck to retrieve the gear, but at the last minute decided to leave it there just in case we should see a tuna finning on the surface on the way in.
We were only about fifteen minutes into our course for home when my father noticed a fin at the surface about 50 yards ahead. I was a little excited, as I thought it might be a tuna. But as we closed in, it became apparent that it was a shark fin. Normally we wouldn’t be interested in harpooning a shark. However, with the kind of day we had even a shark looked good. Besides it would be a mako shark, and they were a marketable fish. I hustled up on the tuna stand and got the harpoon ready. I always enjoyed the challenge of trying to harpoon a fish. I got an adrenaline rush as I stood on the end of the pulpit with the harpoon in my hands. I pointed the pole in the direction of the shark, and my dad turned the boat in that direction. From now on, it would be all signals in communicating with my dad at the steering wheel. The windshield between us, the wind in my ears, and the engine noise eliminated any meaningful voice communications. I would now be directing the boat by pointing with the harpoon pole to the left and right and using my hand to slow down or speed up.
As we got within 50 feet, I signaled to slow the boat down. I tried to get a good look at the shark now directly in front of us. I was having a problem seeing it because we were heading right into the sun. It was very bright and reflecting off the water at such an angle as to practically blind me. I signaled to my father to take the boat out of gear, and we drifted slowly towards the fish. My muscles tightened as I raised the harpoon to get ready to throw. I knew we were getting close, but still didn’t have a clear view.
All of a sudden I looked down and there was the tail coming up under the pulpit. I gulped as I gazed out over the length of its huge body. I became nervous, my legs began to shake and my body trembled as my eyes kept looking from the tail to the head. It was the largest fish that I had ever seen. I turned my head back towards my dad and tried to tell him that it was too big to be a shark. I thought it must be a whale of some kind. But it was no use. He couldn’t hear me and motioned for me to throw the harpoon. I took another look at this monster of a fish and had such a weird feeling. Here I was a scared fifteen year old, shaking and knowing I was all along standing on a narrow plank 12 feet out over the water, beneath me was a giant of fish that had to be over 20 feet long.
I raised the harpoon and with extreme apprehension I threw the harpoon as hard as I could. I almost wished that I missed, but couldn’t as it was right under the pulpit. After the harpoon struck, all I saw was a big swirl of water and the fish disappeared and the line began running out of the basket. I tried to compose myself as I jumped down into the cockpit, after handing the basket of line and keg to my father.
He asked me if I could tell what kind it was. I told him nervously that I didn’t know. But whatever kind it was, it was the biggest of its kind. He started to laugh, but could tell by my reaction that perhaps he should be worried. Then he looked in the basket and saw that the 600 feet of line was almost gone. As he held the line running out at a rapid rate, he told me to get another tuna line from the stern locker and to hurry. We needed to get another line tied on before the end of the first line was gone from the basket. We weren’t going to stop this fish with only 600 feet of line. In the next minute the first line had all run out, and the wooden keg had splashed over the side and went right out of sight.
Now this giant shark was working on the second coil of 600 feet and taking it out at a fast clip. There was no way we could slow him down. All we could do was let the line run through our gloved hands and hope that he would tire from the strain of all the line he was pulling. As the second basket of line melted away, I could tell my father was getting concerned. He wanted another basket of line ready to tie on. We knew that getting all this line back wasn’t going to be easy. Again the end of the line came, and the second keg was let over the side and we were working on the third coil. There was over 1200 feet of line on this fish going out at about a 45 degree angle with the same intensity as in the beginning.
My father was now wondering what we had gotten ourselves into and was worried we would go through all our lines. I could tell he was getting anxious when he asked me to put on my gloves and grab hold of the line with him and put more strain on the fish. He said we had to stop it or cut the line.
We both held as tightly as we could, but the line continued to slide through our gloves. We wet our gloves and tried again to hold him, this time snubbing the line on the gunnel of the boat. It wasn’t a good tactic, as the line could part and I was thinking it might be best if it did. But being brand new 9 thread rope it held. The line was taut as a bow string but we had stopped it, but for how long we didn’t know.
Now we had to try to get the shark in or let it go as time was running out. It was about an hour and a half before sundown and we couldn’t be out at sea trying to land a large shark after dark. That would be crazy and dangerous.
We decided to give it all we had. We both pulled with our arms and backs and began to get some line back. The line began to pile up on the deck and that wasn’t a good thing. However, there was no way to coil it back into a basket, as it took both my dad and me pulling together to make any headway.
After a while, we began to realize that we weren’t pulling the fish in toward the boat. We were pulling the boat toward the fish. This continuous pulling was beginning to take its toll on us. My arms were getting tired and my fingers were stiffening. My father’s back was also in pain, but we had to keep going. Finally a keg came aboard. It was crushed from the pressure of being at a great depth. We knew that we had 1200 more feet to go. Just the thought of pulling all that line in, one foot at a time, made me want to give up. But the curiosity, that strong desire to see what was on the other end of this line, drove me and my father to keep going.
But in between gasping for air, groans from our aching bodies, and wiping the sweat from our eyes and faces, we questioned our decision to keep going more than once.
Then the second wooden keg came up also smashed from water pressure. Now we were on the harpoon line, 600 more feet. Could we keep up the straining on our legs, arms and backs? This last stretch would be the hardest, as we would be pulling its whole weight straight up. The deck of the boat was a tangled mess of line and broken splintered kegs. It was the most dangerous of situations, if the shark decided to make a run and take back the line strewn all over the deck. One misstep and one or both of us could be hauled overboard.
With the sun setting within the hour we were now fighting against time. Without any warning the boat began to rock and move like it was caught in a whirlpool, slowly moving in a circle.
We could tell the shark was getting close to the surface. There was an air of excitement in our weary bodies and a renewed sense of urgency to get it up. A few more feet and it would be close enough to see.
Now, we did have a tuna gaff on board, but to try to gaff and hold a fish of this size with a gaff was not impossible. We had talked about how we might secure this fish during the time we were pulling him up. I had told my dad that I’d seen a long tow rope under the stern locker. It was about two and half inches in diameter and perhaps 25 feet long. We were prepared to use it if we got that far.
Then, we saw something about 12 feet down moving back and forth, slowly but steadily. As we wiped the sweat from our eyes, we could see what looked like a large tail making big sweeps back and forth. No wonder it came up so hard, not only was it coming up tail first, the tail was in constant motion.
We were concerned that the boat was now no longer lying flat in the water. Instead, it had a serious list and the shark was still thrashing. At this point, we paused to figure out our next move, if there was one. Then my father had an idea. He tied the harpoon line to a cleat and told me to get him the tow rope from the stern locker. He made a large lasso and planned to lower it over the shark’s tail and pull the noose tight. At the same time, we would have it fastened to a ring bolt in the stern and from there to a stern post running from the keel up through the stern deck. Surprisingly, my father was able to get the noose over the shark’s tail on the first try. The next step was for the both of us to pull the noose tightly as quickly as possible and then snub the line over the gunnel to try and hold it in place.
However, everything didn’t go as planned, as the shark didn’t take lightly that its tail was being immobilized and made a desperate attempt to get free.
What happened next was a frightening experience. With the tow rope now snubbed, the book took a dangerous 45 degree list and I believed that this 33-foot boat was going to roll over. All the lines, kegs, bait boxes and everything not tied down on the deck and in the cabin came crashing down. Where we were working became a jungle of tangled lines and debris. We were now on the floor of the deck both holding on to the tow rope for dear life trying to keep the line snubbed to the gunnel. I panicked, as I thought the water would be coming in over the side and pleaded with my dad to cut the shark loose. He must have been thinking the same thing, as he reached for the knife that we had left on the gunnel in case of this very emergency. Unfortunately, the knife had rolled off the gunnel and overboard when the boat listed. At the moment my dad took his hand off the rope to reach for the knife, the shark pulled the tow rope out of our hands. The harpoon line tied to the cleat parted, and the boat quickly up righted and we both fell back on the deck floor amidst all the clutter.
The tow rope was all that was attached to the shark now and was tied first to a ring bolt in the stern, which was immediately torn from the deck with a sound of cracking and shattering wood pieces. Then the boat jerked and shuddered abruptly as the tow rope fetched up on the main stern cleat. I held my breath waiting for the stern bit to let go and pull the stern deck apart. But luck was with us at this venture, and the shark was now secured to the boat. Still trying to get away, it was about 20 feet off the stern. Just far enough away for its tail to be under water and a factor in being able to tow the boat backwards.
My father and I stood there amid the rubble near the back of the boat panting, sweating and beaten. We were not claiming victory. We were just glad to be alive and uninjured after this nightmarish experience. We discovered that we had a giant basking shark tied up. It was estimated to be between 20 and 25 feet long and somewhere near 2000 or more pounds.
Instead of letting it tow us backwards, my father started the engine, and we began to tow the shark towards shore. We towed for a half hour at close to full throttle, without making a great deal of headway. Every now and then, the shark would thrash its tail and jar the entire boat.
The sun was now setting and we still had a long way to go. We knew it would be well after dark before we arrived back at port. We didn’t speak much during this time. I was still trying to fathom the whole ordeal. My father was thinking of other more important things, like what we were going to do with this shark? What was our family wondering as to why we weren’t in yet? And what about Charlie Sutherland, the owner of the boat. What was he going to think about the whole situation? His boat still out at sea after dark and when he gets a look at his once orderly, ship-shape cabin cruiser and sees the mess we made of it. How would he feel? He probably will never speak to us again.
The decision had to be made, and in my mind I knew that that conclusion would be. There really was no other option. We had to cut this shark loose.
If we didn’t get back soon, the Coast Guard would be out looking for us. My mother and sister Barbara would surely be down on the dock worried about where we were.
My father handed me a knife and said since I was the one who got a shark I should be the one to let it go. With mixed emotions, I took the knife and went down to the stern deck where you could now see the entire length of the giant shark stretched out in the wake of the churning propeller.
I knelt down on the stern deck next to where the tow rope was tightly tied to the stern post. I began to slowly saw away at the heavy hawser, almost wanting to prolong the act. The rope was so taut that with each swipe of the knife, the fibers of the manila hemp would burst. As the hawser was about to shred apart, I glanced behind to see my father coming toward me in earnest. He had realized that even though he had now stopped the boat, the momentum would accelerate the boat forward when the line was cut loose. When the rope lets go, the momentum of the boat’s forward motion would create a situation in which I could tumble off the back of the boat and into the water.
As the rope parted, I felt my weight going back over the stern of the boat and at the same time I felt a strong hand grab me by the belt and the back of the my pants. My father, in his infinite wisdom, had indeed saved me from a fate I don’t even want to think about. As he hauled me back from a near disaster, we both stood looking out to where the shark was last seen. We both felt very lucky, relieved, and free from a burden we could have never anticipated.
Then, in a most unusual and spectacular finish, the giant basking shark made a leap into the air with the tow rope tied to its tail, and with a half twist made a tremendous splash back into the ocean. My father thought it was probably trying to free himself of the hawser it was tied to. But I was convinced it was thanking me for setting it free.
This true story was written in 1949 as an English Composition paper by Carl Beal, Jr., age 15.