What’s the most bizarre sight that I’ve witnessed on the ocean? I field that question frequently, having been at this sport fishing thing a long time. And, as of late, I have given the subject a lot of thought. Naturally, there are the beautiful sunrises, sunsets, whales, porpoises, free-jumping fish, schools of fish and all of the usual stuff most anglers have come to experience, or will get to over time.
As for things with more “wow”, I’ve seen boats flip, sink, get struck by lightning, and run over my fishing lines (hopefully not intentionally). There are also the priceless boat ramp theatrics: vehicle wheels spinning and smoking like a dragster heating up its tires -while trailer and boat remain stationary, vehicles sliding roof high into the drink, and, of course, the short tempers and occasional “King of the Ramp” title fights. But the most “Bizarre”? There’s only one clear cut winner in this category: a dead body.
THE BALL PLAYERS – This story line dates back to 1980. I was in my Junior year at the University of Miami, and, a year earlier, had befriended a couple west coast Florida baseball players on scholarships. They will remain nameless, to prevent my embarrassing them needlessly. These guys loved to fish, so we hit it off. My school schedule had me off on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they swore they’d play hooky whenever I offered to take them fishing. They made good on their deal every time, and it became a pretty good match up, especially for weekday fishing trips!
Both guys were awesome ball players, hence their scholarships. As for their academic achievements, I honestly can’t say. I’m certainly not implying their grades were “altered” to keep them playing ball for the school (a common practice back then), it’s just that I never saw them in class. One was more serious and somewhat more responsible, whereas the other, a pitcher, was a carefree, live-for-today spirit and major beer consumer. In fact, he always brought a case of beer on the boat – for himself - and he’d always polish it off ! Sometimes he was upright when we returned to the boat ramp. And sometimes he wasn’t. He was a hell’uva pitcher though, who threw a wickedly fierce curve ball. After getting to know him, and his religious-like devotion to beer, I’m sure what was flowing through his veins contributed greatly to that “curve” on his pitches. I wasn’t so sure he could have thrown a straight ball to save his life, however! Nonetheless, they were good, fun-loving guys, and I enjoyed the times we fished together.
DOLPHIN TIME - One fall day, I borrowed my family’s Mako 25, picked up my two ball player friends, trailered down to the Florida Keys and launched at a small Key Largo boat ramp. The day was outstandingly flat and sunny, and we sped off in search for weedlines and hungry dolphin.
On the way offshore, the Coast Guard came on the VHF with a request that startled us. It was for all boaters between Islamorada and north Key Largo to be on the lookout for a body. Yes, a body! We all looked at each other oddly, raised our eyebrows and kept cruising offshore. The Coast Guard repeated the announcement so frequently, I finally turned off the VHF; We had received and understood the message, loudly and clearly. We also knew the odds of our crossing paths with a dead body were a long shot at best.
The dolphin fishing, as I recall, was good. We had boxed numerous school fish and a few 15- to 20-pounders. In fact, we started back in around 2:00 p.m., since there were fish to clean. Being nearly 30-miles offshore, we’d look for working birds and debris on our way in, which could give up a few more fish.
DEBRIS IN THE DISTANCE - About 12 miles offshore Molasses Reef Light, and in the distance, I spotted something large and submerged. I alerted my friends, and they saw it too. This looked good, and I just knew that there’d be a 30-plus pound dolphin on this find, and, perhaps, a wahoo or two underneath it. I told my friends to take the 20-pound test Penn spinning outfits (one was rigged with a jig and the other a plain hook), bait each hook with a ballyhoo, and get in position to cast, once we reached the debris.
As I got closer to the find, I couldn’t make out what it was – other than it was bright white and big. And then, when I pulled alongside it - with jigs and hooks ready to fly, we all stopped and stared. We were momentarily frozen; not a word was said nor cast made. It was a dead man, floating face down, wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans! This was the person the Coast Guard was looking for, and he was ten feet away from our boat! We all looked at each other in disbelief, and I thought the baseball pitcher was about to throw up or pass out, although I couldn’t be sure that wasn’t from his alcohol consumption. Well, I thought “What do we do now?”
HAILING THE COAST GUARD - For about a minute or two, I had this proud feeling overwhelm me, as we were the ones who found the body for the Coast Guard. I picked up the VHF, and hailed them. When they responded, I gave them the name of my vessel and VHF call sign – just as I was taught at a young age by my father and his highly experienced fishing friend. I reported that we had discovered this floating body, and twice repeated the Loran coordinates. I also volunteered to stay put with the body until a Coast Guard vessel or helicopter could get there. What I heard next nearly floored us!
The Coast Guard , claiming they were short staffed, asked me to take the body aboard and proceed to a specified marina. Time out! Now, we had no idea whose body this was, where it came from, how long it was at sea, or if it could be carrying a disease. I told the Coast Guard that I refused to touch the body, but would willingly work with them by waiting for someone in their ranks to come retrieve it. That is when I heard: “Captain of the vessel MARC VI, you are ordered to retrieve the body and proceed to the marina we order you to.” Being just a college kid with no prior experience with the Coast Guard, that command took a lot of wind out of my sails! I wondered if they could legally do anything, had I refused? I tested the waters by replying: “What if I still refuse?” To which, they promptly answered: “You will be arrested and your vessel confiscated.”
I couldn’t imagine calling my dad from jail, and then ending the call with: “Oh, and by the way, the Coast Guard took your boat.” So, I told the Coast Guard I would oblige. It occurred to me then that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to have broadcasted the name of my vessel and its call numbers when I hailed the Coast Guard after all? Maybe just an anonymous call to them, complete with Loran numbers, might have been better? I pondered these thoughts, as I likely would have avoided what we were about to do next.
IN-COMING ! Landing fish has never been a problem for us, regardless of size. But, we never boated a human. This was going to be difficult. Here was a body, face-down, that no one wanted to touch. Being the captain (thank God for small favors), I passed orders down to my friends to retrieve the body, once I eased the boat next to it. But, they couldn’t reach it, at least not enough for a solid grip. I then instructed them to get the eight-foot gaff, and very lightly pull on the extreme back collar of his T-shirt, avoiding flesh at all costs. They obeyed and pulled the body alongside the boat, and in a more upright position. I took over the gaff duty, so that each guy could grab the body under its arms. We had him now!
Rigor Mortis had begun to set in, as evidenced by the body’s stiff, outright arms and bent knees – a position much like one would sit in a car. My friends then lifted the body onto the gunwales, and rested it there. It took a moment for me to comprehend that I was looking at a semi-stiff dead body sitting upright, arms outstretched, on the gunwales of my boat! “Now what do we do?”, quipped one of the guys. “Well, he can’t ride sitting there, so ease him into the cockpit” I responded. My order was carried out. And so this body was in the MARC VI’s cockpit, on its back, arms up and knees bent. It was surreal! It was also time to let the Coast Guard know we had the body in our possession.
GHOSTS AMONG US? - Upon confirming we had possession of the body, the Coast Guard asked if he had any identification. I told the Coast Guard to stand by while we searched for a driver’s license or other ID. My friends removed a wallet from the body’s back pants pocket, and found a driver’s license. I took the license and was just about to call the Coast Guard when one of the guys discovered $ 350.00 cash in the wallet. They both began pleading with me not to say anything about the cash, with the pitcher claiming it would buy a lot of beer. But, once the Coast Guard was advised of the person’s name, and after confirming it was the body they had been searching for, they asked if the wallet contained anything else. This prompted my friends to wave their hands in desperation, shake their heads sideways, and silently plead: “No!”
Now, I’m not quite sure that I believe in ghosts, but I was certain I didn’t want the spirit of an angry boat captain haunting me for the rest of my life because I let two ball players abscond with his money. Plus, it just wasn’t right. I told the Coast Guard that we found $ 350.00 cash in his wallet. My friends were so upset that they didn’t speak to me for the reminder of the trip! But I felt good knowing that his wife or family member would get that money, which – as I later discovered – was for a charter fee. According to the Coast Guard, his charter boat was booked for a half-day, and discovered abandoned and going in circles early that morning.
On the ride in, I frequently looked back at the body in the cockpit, primarily because I couldn’t believe this was really happening. To a much lesser extent, I wanted to make sure it didn’t just get up and try to strangle us; Credit that to watching too many horror movies as a kid! But, one can never be too certain!
DOCK TIME! I recall law enforcement vehicles of all types when we entered the designated marina – Coast Guard, Florida Marine Patrol, Highway Patrol, Monroe County Sheriff, Fire & Rescue, and also a hearse. I believe that there was enough man- and fire-power there that they could have successfully taken over Cuba! Obviously, my boat drew a crowd. The body was quickly removed and put into the hearse, and I spent the next 45-minutes or so answering questions and filling out paperwork with the Coast Guard. Before I left, I had asked the Coast Guard official if he’d be kind enough to let me know the entire story of what happened, once it was figured out; I wasn't sure whether it was foul play, or if he had just gone out by himself and fallen overboard, or died of natural causes. He said he would. And I never heard anything about the incident since.
Reflecting back, it was quite the adventure. “Bizarre” would be the perfect description. And while I spun some tongue-in-cheek humor into this story, I am glad we did the full assist for the Coast Guard, and would do it again. Even though that individual’s life came to a tragic end that morning, I feel that some good came out of it through us finding his body and bringing it to shore, where it would be properly taken care of, and, above all, provide closure for his family.
And for those of you with a warped mind – there were no dolphin with him! And, yes, I have been asked that as well.