Francis Meyrick

The Tuna Hunter Ch.3 “The Caddock lambs “

Posted on December 25, 2008


All her friends and family felt she should have been a vet. Such were her patent abilities with animals. Her father’s dairy farm afforded her many opportunities to work with animals of all kinds. Cows, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats, geese, ducks and a lone tortoise all seemed to thrive under her care. Not to mention the odd hedgehog, rabbit, or bird. And of course, Billy, the moody old goat with a penchant for yellow oilskins hung out to dry.
The old folk would comment that the sheep, normally the most shy of animals, would run to the fence only for her. The retired farmers would shake their heads in amusement, and pronounce it highly unusual for a whole herd of sheep to display such obvious enthusiasm for their mistress.
If the truth be known, it was the old caddocks that led the rush, those sheep who as young lambs had been left abandoned, or whose mothers had died giving birth. Who, shivering wet, hungry and bewildered, had found themselves alone on a hillside some foggy, wet, March or April morning at early dawn. In a world of strange sounds, smells and colors, and surrounded by swooping Blackbacks. These large birds, with a three foot wingspan or more, would quickly locate a lone newly born, and swoop at its head, terrifying it. Then they would land, like a gang of street thugs, and form a circle around their victim. They would puff themselves up, and hop steadily closer. The lamb would cower, defenseless and utterly distraught. The blackbacks would hop a little closer, sensing the vulnerability of their victim.
Then one would lunge forwards, and cruelly peck out one of the lamb’s eyes. The lamb would jump back in pain and horror, momentarily galvanized into flight. But soon it would sink to its knees again, gazing around pathetically out of the one good eye, whilst the sight of the bloody socket drove the blackbacks into a frenzy of excitement. It would not be long before another tormentor would seize his opportunity, and swiftly slide in from the other side. The sight in the one good eye would be obliterated in a second as well, and instantly the gang of killers would fall on their still quaking victim, and tear viciously at the quivering flesh. A last tiny strangled sound would be heard, a whimper of despair, a final plea for mother to come, and then another new born life would slowly, slowly, painfully, slip away…

Sometimes however, the gang of killers, forming a circle around their intended victim, beginning their final death dance, would suddenly be disturbed. A hundred yards away, a tousled black mop of hair would appear. Followed by a panting, rain lashed face. The eyes would search, focus, and open wide. Then there would come a ringing cry of:
“Get away you bloody bastards…! “
And a figure, rain soaked, wrapped unflatteringly in a blue anorak, leggings and wellington boots, would come hurtling forwards, yelling, cursing, throwing stones, tripping over rocks, falling into ditches, tangling with barbed wire fences, but all the time advancing, clamoring against the world, determined to reach the scene. The unmistakable voice of a young woman, high,angry, determined, would startle even the hungriest Blackbacks. It reverberated around the valley, leaving no doubt as to the intensity of feeling. As the young men locally, many of whom eyed her with interest, would say:
“Nice face,great figure,smashing knockers, but… not quite feminine. ”
Perhaps not…
She had a ringing voice, that could travel far when needed. Thus it was that some of the local ladies complained quietly to her father, that the expression…
was perhaps a little over the top?
Her father, having thought for a second, was rumored to have replied:
“Sure that’s fuckin’ nothing! You want to hear her when she’s really pissed! ”

* * *

Life would improve dramatically for the rescued little lamb, if only it could cling to life for a day or two. It would find itself picked up, stuck inside an anorak, where it would be warm for the first time. It would be bounced up and down for an hour or more, and a strange voice would keep up a constant stream of encouragement. Then it would see daylight again in a nice, warm kitchen, with plenty of warm milk.
It would live in a cardboard box, all comfortable and snug, and its new mother would come and feed it regularly, chatting away in the same
happy, chirpy voice. The lamb’s life would be simple again. Eat and sleep, and enjoy being stroked and tickled and fussed over.

Her determination was inexhaustible. Time and time again, when she was very young, her father would come in and look into the cardboard boxes to see what his daughter had rescued this time. He would shake his head, and say things like:
“That one will never make it through the night. Waste of time… ”
His daughter would sit up all night, feeding, stroking, cajoling and loving the wet little bundle of scrawny wool. More often than not, her father would come down early the next morning, and find his daughter still sitting there. And a little face peeping out at him, taking tiny sips at a warm bottle of milk. “Well, I’ll be… “, he would say, scratching his head. Then he would take off across the early morning hills, tramping the sheep farmer’s spring vigil.

Perhaps it was small wonder then, that the caddocks would come racing across the field to her, bringing the rest of the gang along with them. She would laugh and stroke them, and feed them slices of turnip.
And on market days, when many of them were packed off to market and eventual slaughter, she would hide herself away, not bearing to see them, and cry.
Christina O’Dwyer, ‘Chris’ to her friends, was a tough broad on the outside.
…and soft as butter on the inside.

* * *

He hit the starter button, and the big piston engine turned over a few times, wheezed, coughed, and stopped.
Not now, baby, not now…
Three hundred yards off the port side, he could clearly see the massive foamer, the dark shapes darting about, and the swooping sea birds preying on the tiny anchovy. There was a two hundred ton haul out there, begging to be caught. The presence of anchovy was a huge plus. It
meant the tuna would be gorging themselves, and less likely to be distracted by the purse seiner’s propeller, or that of the skiff boat. They were also unlikely to dive deeply when threatened.
Come on darling…
He pressed the starter again. The engine caught, backfired, ran on for a second, and cut out with a disappointing ‘phut!’.
Oh, sheeeit…!
He had been hauled from his cabin by an excited deck boss, and the rapid call to ‘standby’ had quickly energized the ship to fever pitch. The skiff boat crew had legged it to their post, and climbed hurriedly over the waiting net to the secondary boat. Carried high on the stern of the fishing boat, piggy-back style, the skiff could be slid down a steep ramp by the release of a pulley. It would hit the water with a splash, with the three men inside holding on for dear life. There it would bob patiently, serving as an anchor point for one end of the massive net. The purse seiner herself would continue steaming around the foamer, with the three quarter mile long net and the associated chains and rubber floats playing out noisily over the stern of the ship. It was for all the world like a curtain being slowly drawn in a four hundred meter circle around the -hopefully- unsuspecting fish. Slowly, slowly, the ring would encircle the foamer. After a few minutes furious steaming, the ship would slow down again as it approached the skiff boat. Cables would be thrown across quickly, and now the ring had closed…

But still the fish could escape. For the bottom of the purse was still open. All the tuna had to do was dive deep, one hundred and fifty meters or more, and they could escape the curtain slowly draping down. But time was now at a premium. The moment cables were passed from skiff boat to mother ship, the winches noisily started their work. Hauling in on steel cables, the bottom of the net would be slowly drawn together. Slowly, slowly, the potential escape area underneath would be reduced. The winches would strain, cables would creak, the minutes
would pass. Then, maybe twenty or thirty minutes later, the moment would come: the purse was closed. No escape was now possible, except for the odd fish lucky enough to find a damaged area of net. Now it was only a matter of time. Two hours, sometimes three of four if it was a big catch, would go by before the net was back on board and the last fish deposited down the one-way slide to the super cooled sea water and the freezers. Escape was impossible once the purse closed.

Of course, things could go wrong, and often did. The mother ship would drop its piggyback sibling off the stern, and then steam away from the skiff boat as fast as possible. The encircling movement would start, and then, for no apparent reason, the tuna would suddenly head off towards freedom. Before even the ring could be closed, never mind the purse, every last fish would be well clear, hundreds of yards away, swimming strongly into the sunset. There would be nothing left to do but continue to close the ring, draw the purse cables, and begin the
massive labor intensive task of hauling the net back in, in the certain knowledge that it was all a complete waste of time. This could happen time after time, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. The crew would shake their heads in disappointment, and mutter their frustrations.
Crazy damn fish…
Or maybe they would blame the captain.
What a bad set… he let go too late!…
what a clown…

It was small wonder that the experienced captains would rack their brains as to methods to contain the fish until the ring was closed. Speedboats would race around in circles in the open area of the ring, trying to hem the foamer in. The slower net boats would assist, and each
ship usually carried three of those. The noise and the propellers churning up the water might deter the fish from heading out to safety. Sometimes it seemed to work, more often it didn’t.
Another trick was throw dozens and dozens of small bags of colored dye into the water. As the bags sank down, bright luminescent green clouds would pour forth, turning the water murky. The fish would turn away from the dye… or dive underneath…
Even dynamite had been tried. And many were the hair raising stories told of sailors losing their fingers.
The favorite device though, the most mobile, the noisiest, the quickest to respond to a weak area in the defenses, was always the helicopter…
The chopper could race ahead of the school of fish, and pirouette, tail-spin, hover three feet above the water, and generally scare the leaders into turning around…
If you turned the leaders, you had turned the pack. It was a simple as that. Sometimes.
Provided, as Bob grimly reflected, the bloody thing would condescend to start. He pumped the throttle twice more, and winced as he heard the distant commands and the crash as the skiff boat slid down the ramp. The captain was ‘setting’, unable to wait any longer for the helicopter, and Bob hadn’t even got the damn thing started yet…
“Come on, baby, PLEASE…
NICE helicopter… ”
He spoke the plea out loud, held his breath, and touched the starter button again. A loud backfire resulted this time, the blades turned a desultory two or three rotations, and then everything died once more. His patience suddenly worn thin, Bob turned the heads
of some of the crew members leaving the crow’s nest at the top of the tower with a loud:
“START…! You bloody BITCH! For FUX SAKE!! ”
The witnesses grinned to one another. They knew their Irish helicopter pilot’s routines quite well by now. There followed a loud bang, a cough, and then the healthy roar of a six cylinder Lycoming engine. The blades turned, faster and faster, and Bob sighed with relief. On the bridge below, the Fishmaster, turning the wheel as he started around the ring, also breathed more easily.

The race was on…


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