A Swell Story — The Good Men Project

This story starts in the sea. And it ends in the sea. It begins with water. And it ends with water. It is never stopping. It is always starting. So what’s it about?

Well, a swell, can’t you tell.

Let’s begin. It was late afternoon, late fall, and I was on a private charter a mile off Montauk Point. There was a touch of breeze and light from an emerging, honey-gold sun had made short haste of a heavy fog determined to keep secret the fact that massive schools of striped bass were prowling the surface. But we could hear them hunt, and when close enough, we could see them hunt, roiling and boiling, splashing and crashing, flipping and flopping in pursuit of prey. It made for an exciting time, but for me, also a frustrating one, as counter to the success of the boat’s captain, and my friend, the other person onboard, I could not hook up.

To be honest, I had caught a few since morning, but nothing like these two gentlemen, who appeared to be bringing in big fish cast after cast. After a while, it became a joke — my ineptitude. It was more chiding than chaste, a playful counter to my groaning and moaning, sighing and whining, cursing and griping whenever I came up empty. The captain was particularly inventive in putting me in my place, calling my attention to his bent-double rod with a click of his tongue, and then after landing and unhooking the fish with practiced hands, tossing it by my ear on its way back to its watery home.

I liked the captain despite this, and maybe even because of it. He was fun and funny and really good at finding fish. Plus, he had more than done his best to try and help me catch them. The problem was I thought I was doing exactly as he advised: that my casts were the right length, that I was letting the bucktail drop to the right depth, and that I was jigging the lure the right way.

But I wasn’t. For a good part of the day, I placed blame on the size or color of the bucktail, the flexibility of the rod, where I was standing on the boat. Several times, after another bass whizzed by my ear, I asked the captain to trade rods and position. And each time, as if we were performing a Vaudeville skit, he immediately landed a fish, while I continued to flounder.

And then the fog lifted. And my luck changed. Or I changed my luck. I finally got the hang of what the captain was teaching and I began to catch fish at a pace commiserate with the amount of fish surrounding us. Which was extraordinary. Bass abounded, moving in rapidly forming and changing shapes — from circle to rectangle, triangle to square, oval to oblong, giving one the sensation that a living, watery puzzle was being assembled.

I continued to catch fish as the day inched toward dusk, so many my arms grew tired. I started to rest between casts, and in doing so, had more time to look past the schools of fish. It’s how I noticed that first swell coming our way. It was huge, so big I worried it was a rogue wave that would swallow us up whole. It came closer and closer until, finally, I realized it was not meant to crest. Instead, it lifted the boat and then set us down as gently as a newborn from a crib.

I watched, transfixed, as it rolled onward, toward the waiting shore. I was not alone in this admiration. The captain was pointing his finger, telling me to look at what I had already seen: a line of bass, being carried along atop the swell, their stripes glowing like dark candy canes, the rest of their torpedo bodies sparkling like newly poured champagne.

I realized, at that moment, that nothing I will ever do, have done, or could ever dream of doing, was equal to what that swell was accomplishing, what it was creating, what it was defining. Because along with the bass it carried forward toward the sand, it also carried something even more important: eternity. For with its crash and after the rise of foam, it began its path back to the deep sea, readying to begin this miracle of nature once again.

Pretty swell, right?



Originally published at https://goodmenproject.com on January 20, 2021.

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John McCaffrey

John McCaffrey is a writer and a director at a nonprofit mental health treatment and training center in NYC. jamccaffrey.com