Take Me With You

Thinking about blowing major cash at the boat show this week? There is a cheaper way.

Captain Fritz dropped his nets and began the troll at "walking speed," sucking up anything off the ocean floor that would fit between the one-inch gaps in the iron grates.

After fifteen minutes, he pulled the nets into the boat and emptied them into two tanks. "Look at all this goddamned trash," he said, shaking his head and stirring the fish, seaweed, and crustaceans with a big stick. ("Trash," according to Captain Fritz, meant anything that wasn't shrimp.)

He donned a white rubber apron and a pair of smelly canvas gloves. I did the same. He took the right bin; I took the left. Inside an aquatic stew of life awaited.

"Be careful," he called over his shoulder. "There's all kinda things in there that can fuck you up. Dogfish'll bite you. Portuguese man-of-war will sting you. Those robin fish have a barb like a reverse fishhook, and we'll have to cut you open if that gets a hold of you. If those scorpion fish get you, you'll have to sit down for a second. You'll lose your equilibrium and you're goanna have trouble breathin'. Cowfish too, if you get one of them horns in your finger, we'll have to get that out. Then there's the crabs; watch them crabs. And the stingrays. And the moray eels — man, they'll really take a chunk out of you."

Captain Fritz untied the lash at the ass end of my net and began shoveling pile after pile of burgundy and emerald sea grass overboard. When the water in his bin looked relatively clear, he scooped a pile of "trash" onto a big tray that emptied out into the sea.

Furious crabs danced sideways along the perimeters. Shrimp, some as big as gorilla thumbs, bucked like rodeo bulls. Everything moved at once, kicking and fighting and suffocating together. Some creatures even chomped down on their neighbors as they struggled to breathe in the teeming maw. Others flipped and flopped over the ledge and into the waiting mouths of a flock of seagulls.

Capt. Fritz's gloved hands nimbly hurled shrimp into the tanks like a dealer flicking cards across a poker table. He sorted his entire pile before I'd even stuck a finger into my mess. "You gotta pick 'em," he urged. "It's called pickin' shrimp. You gotta work quick, before everything dies on you." He made quick work of my pile and left me to shovel the next one onto the tray.

After a while, the display came to resemble a morbid oceanic petting zoo. Sea life that might fetch high prices at an aquarium just sat there, waiting to be picked up and thrown overboard.

Despite having nothing, Captain Fritz was generous. And despite all of the menacing, dying sea creatures, he managed to make the most hateful kind of work fun, by sharing pork rinds, tall tales, and joint after joint of "commercial weed." He didn't expect much of me, and even suggested I take some time to lie on the cabin roof and nap under the stars. I agreed and conked out under a light drizzle for the rest of the evening.

At around 4:00 a.m., he guessed that we'd caught our order, 7500 shrimp. While the boat lurched back to the dock, we each had a beer and talked about where it was all going.

The live-aboards in the marina were trying to inch Captain Fritz and his kind out, replacing the shrimp boats with charter operations. What's more, Pegeen's owner wanted out. Even Captain Fritz wanted out. "Once I get my boat fixed up, I'd like to sail out to the islands with a nice little nest egg. Maybe take people out fishing with their kids."

It wasn't a love of the ocean that brought him to live on a boat in the middle of the bay, but disdain for everything else: bosses, traffic, thieves, ex-wives, customers, math teachers, the army, and, worst of all, yacht owners in the marina.

As the sun peeked above the pink horizon, we parted ways with a handshake.

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