General Fiction posted August 24, 2010

This work has reached the exceptional level
A naval patrol boat encounters a fisherman

The Fisherman

by snodlander

Strong Character Contest Winner 
"Captain on the bridge!"

Lee lowered the binoculars, turned and saluted.

"As you were," said Captain Chan, returning the salute of his crew. "Mr Lee."


"Your navigation exam." The captain looked over his glasses at the officer, frowning.


"I expect officers under my command to pass their exams first time." He suddenly grinned. "Ninety-seven percent. Well done." Lee smiled in relief.

"Thank you sir. But how do you know? I haven't had the results yet."

"This is my ship, Mister Lee. You think anything happens to it or my crew without me knowing? I expect you'll be officially informed later. In the meantime, just accept my word. Ninety-seven percent. It's a relief to know we won't get lost this trip."

"Thank you sir. I expect that will be a relief to everyone."

"Indeed. So, what's happening? Anything I need to know?"

"All quiet, Captain. A bit of a heavy swell. We might get rain later. We passed a tanker en route to Shanghai one hour ago, but apart from that the shipping lanes are clear."

"What were you looking at?"

"Nothing sir. Just scanning the horizon."

"You don't trust the radar?"

"A wise captain once told me a sailor's best instruments were his eyes and his brain, sir."

"Ha! Flattery will get you nowhere, Mister Lee. Carry on."

Captain Chan opened the log and skimmed across the entries. Lee turned to the sea again and raised the glasses. Captain Chan was all right. When Lee had first joined the ship the Captain had instilled the fear of God onto him. Well, more accurately, the fear of Captain Chan, which at sea amounted to much the same thing. However, after a few months, when Lee had become used to his ways, he grew to appreciate the Captain's strategy. He demanded perfection from his crew, because he demanded no less from himself, but he was prepared to acknowledge a job well done. And he'd worked his way up from a deckhand, so he knew everyone's job almost as well as the sailors themselves. Yes, there could be far worse skippers to serve under.

At the edge of his vision, something flashed. He trained his binoculars to the patch of grey sea. Nothing. But he'd seen something, he'd been sure.

There! As the swell rolled again something bobbed over the wave and then disappeared into the valley. Some flotsam, maybe? A container washed overboard during a storm? He checked the radar. Nothing. He raised his glasses.

"Mister Lee?" said the captain, by his shoulder.

"Something in the sea, Captain. Fifteen degrees off the port bow." He nudged the focus wheel gently. "A life raft, maybe, or some flotsam. Small, anyway. Nothing on the radar."

"Helm," said the Captain. "Fifteen degrees port." He raised his own binoculars and scanned the sea.
"Where? Oh, got it. Not a life raft, Mister Lee. A dinghy maybe. How far are we from land?"

"Just over seventy miles, sir."

"You know what I think it is? I think it's a fishing boat. You know, one of those bath tubs the peasants use inshore."

"A fishing boat? Do you think he got swept all the way out here?"

"From the mainland? No. The currents go the other way. Still, we'll pay him a call. Pass the time of day with him. See if he's lost."

"Aye aye, sir."

The navy patrol boat battled through the waves towards the small boat. The Captain was right. As they neared the vessel Lee made out more details. It was a tiny bark, no more than ten feet long, open to the elements. A fisherman in traditional dress stood on the stern, tiller in hand. A slight blue haze behind him betrayed a small diesel engine. He'd seen them in harbour, old truck motors hammered onto traditional hulls, held together more by prayer than engineering. What on Earth was one doing this far out to sea?

The captain didn't even attempt to use the radio. Instead the patrol boat slowed as it approached and Lee stepped out into the chill wind of the deck and leaned over the rail.

"Ahoy!" he called through the megaphone.

The fisherman was old, his face creased by the sea and the weather. He gave a gummy grin and waved.

"Heave to, sir. We want to talk."

The old man waved again and steered towards the boat. He pulled alongside, his tiny boat dwarfed, small as the patrol boat was. A sailor threw a line and the old man made it fast to the hull. The little boat bobbed six feet below Lee. The bottom of it was laden with crates; the antennae and claws of scores of crabs waved at Lee. The last couple of feet consisted of boarding covered by a stained tarpaulin. Presumably it housed the diesel engine. The old man stood sure-footed on it, heedless of the heavy swell.

"Good morning, sir," called Lee.

"Good morning, sir," replied the old man, bobbing his head and smiling. Under the coolie hat his face crumpled into a network of deep crevasses.

"A nice catch."

The old man dropped into the bottom of his tiny craft and lifted one of the crates.

"So fresh her husband hasn't noticed her gone. You want some? I can make you a good price."

Lee chuckled. "No, that's all right. You keep them for the fancy restaurants. They have more money than the coastguard. Are you in trouble?"

The old man replaced the crate.

"Trouble? No. Why? Am I?"

"We just wondered why you're out here, so far from land."

The old man waved a hand over his catch and looked at Lee with a puzzled expression.

"Fishing for crab," he said, as if it were obvious.

"But you're a long way from land, that's all. Seventy miles."

"Nearer seventy-five, I think. Everyone knows where the crabs are in shore. Me, I know where their big city is. More crabs. More money."

"Where's that then?" Lee wondered how far he'd sailed in the tiny boat. The old man tapped the side of his nose. Lee grinned, in spite of himself. As if he would sell the secret to the fisherman's rivals. "Do you need any help, sir?" he asked.

"Help? Why?"

Lee looked up at the leaden sky. It gave no clue as to where it was hiding the morning sun. The horizon was flat and featureless.

"It's a long way back home, and there's a storm coming."

The old man in turn looked up at the sky, then back from where he'd come.

"It won't strike till four, four-thirty maybe. I'll be nearly home by then."

"Are you sure?"

The old man looked up at the officer for long seconds, then asked, "Excuse me, but how long have you been at sea? How long have you been a sailor, I mean."

"Fifteen years."

"Ha! Fifteen years ago I was already an old man. I've been fishing since before your parents were born. Tell me, do you want any help?" And then he smiled, and despite himself Lee laughed.

"Fair enough, sir. Good luck." Though he doubted the old man would need it.

Back in the bridge Lee watched the tiny boat fight through the waves, on the exact heading to take him home. He shook his head.

"How do you think they do that?" he said.

"Do what, Mister Lee?" said the captain.

"There's no sun, no stars, nothing at all out here, and yet he knows exactly where he is and where to go. He knows when the storm will hit and where he'll be when it does. How does he do that?"

The captain raised his binoculars and watched the boat bounce across the waves.

"Perhaps he's part salmon. There used to be stories about spirits, half human, half fish. I wonder what he'd score in your exam."

The old man glanced back. The patrol boat was pulling away. They hadn't been too bad. The young officer had been respectful, at least. That was in short supply amongst the young today.

He listened to the note of the labouring engine, then looked at his watch. It was Japanese, very expensive, but it kept good time. He flicked the edge of the tarpaulin to one side. The diesel engine connected to a small dynamo, which in turn was wired to an old car battery. It should be charged by now. He switched on the laptop. The GPS showed his position. Seventy-three miles to go. MSN weather still predicted the storm, but he would be within sight of land by then.

It was a long trip to the crab city, but it was worth it. With this haul he might even be able to buy that FM radio Lin kept boasting about.

Strong Character
Contest Winner
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