There is only one slat left on the old bench near the lighthouse atop the cliffs on the western tip of Martha's Vineyard island, and it's a great pity. For this particular bench, almost hidden now in the tall, neglected grass, happens to command an incomparable view of a placid stretch of the Atlantic that will soon be transformed into one of the summer's most exciting fishing grounds.
I have been making a pilgrimage to this particular bench for more than 10 years now, always at this time of year, just before the fish arrive at the end of their migration, a time when I can have the place all to myself. I knew this old bench when it had all its slats. You could stretch out on it in those days and close your eyes and listen to the surf pounding far below and think of all the great schools that were heading (as they are right now) for their annual assembly off the Vineyard: the white marlin, the tuna, the bluefish, the striped bass, the mako shark and the star of the big show that runs through July and August and into September—the mysterious and magnificent swordfish.
A man can't lie down with any comfort on one slat and so I sat up straight on the bench and looked out over the sea to Cuttyhunk island and the old whaling port of New Bedford to the north; to the tiny, uninhabited island called No Mans Land, a practice target for bombing planes, to the south. West and south, out of sight, lay Block Island. These islands marked off the approximate limits of the arena in which surf casters, bottom fishermen and big game charter boat captains would spend the rest of the summer with their sticks and strings and baits, real and fraudulent, managing to outwit a few fish.
I was looking over the water with new interest because I had just learned that this summer's show would be better than ever. Before driving up to my bench I had heard about it quite by accident. I had stopped at Menemsha, the port where the commercial swordfishing boats tie up. The Christine and Dan, whose crew has ironed thousands upon thousands of broadbills over the years, was just about ready to set out on its first trip of the season. The rumor among commercial fishermen was that the swordfish would be early this year. Down the pier a little way, Henry Bigelow of Chilmark, an up-island town, was working on his boat, the Barbara, and in the course of conversation he happened to mention that he was going to try rod and reel swordfishing for the first time this summer and" might even enter the big tournament.
June 12, 1960
That didn't register right away. There are all sorts of tournaments and derbies around the area. When Mr. Bigelow's casual remark had sunk in I said, "You don't mean there's going to be a rod and reel swordfish tournament?"
Mr. Bigelow said he did. I said there had never been such a tournament. Mr. Bigelow said he knew that; this was going to be the first one, and it was being put on under the auspices of the Cuttyhunk Angler's Club and was headed by Captain Coot Hall of Cuttyhunk as tournament chairman.
I decided that I had better take a detour before I went out to the old bench and get the straight of the matter. I knew Coot Hall and had been swordfishing with him one summer when he was serving as guide on a twin-diesel cruiser named the Rose Marie. It was during this trip that I had seen at first hand what excitement there is in the waters off Martha's Vineyard at this time of year. We had run into an actual traffic jam of fish near No Mans Land. We had baited four swordfish, but the only one that was hooked had jumped entirely out of the water and shaken himself free. There had been tuna and marlin, and the Rose Marie's owner, Ray Dackerman, had had to cut a mako shark off the line to go after one of the swordfish.
Having told Mr. Bigelow all this, I headed for the airport and got a seat on a plane just taking off for New Bedford. At the Outdoorsman, the tackle shop on the waterfront, one of the proprietors, Johnny Waldo, not only confirmed the news about the tournament (he himself is chairman of the bait committee), but said he could get me a ride to Cuttyhunk on Arthur O'Leary's boat, the Louisa.
An hour later I was sitting down on the dock at Cuttyhunk with Coot Hall and his dog, Cutty, the only sea going Kerry blue in that part of the country. Kerry blues, as a breed, take a dim view of water sports, but Cutty, raised on fishing boats, is so sold on deep-sea fishing that when a client hires Coot he also gets the services of the dog whether he wants them or not.
Coot Hall said that the first rod and reel swordfish tournament ever held anywhere in the world would run August 11 through August 15. He said it was possible to hold the tournament now because of two factors: 1) the docks at Cuttyhunk had been enlarged to accommodate about 50 boats, and 2) rod and reel sword-fishing was—thanks to general prosperity—now within the reach of more and more people.
Coot handed me a copy of the tournament regulations, and they showed that the rules committee had been thinking things through pretty carefully. The principal regulation, however, printed in big type, just about summed up the basic idea of the competition. "The angler," it read, "must hook, fight and bring the fish to gaff unaided by any other person, except that during this tournament, another person may handle the line to present the bait to the fish."
A rule that the official regulations neglected to mention is Cuttyhunk's law against selling liquor. It has no regulation against consuming liquor, however, and there is no record of anybody perishing for want of a drink there.
Among those who have entered the tournament so far, said Coot, was Lou Marron, who holds the world record for a swordfish (1,182 pounds), taken off Iquique, Chile in 1953. Other well-known swordfishermen like Harry Peters and August Belmont III (a pioneer in the sport around Cuttyhunk) are also to compete. So far there are 28 boats entered, and between 60 and 70 are expected before the lists close.
"Coot," I said, "this is a big thing in the history of swordfishing. This tournament gives the swordfish status, and that's the big thing with people and fish today."
"The broadbill," said Coot (he prefers to call swordfish broadbills), "doesn't need status. He's in a class by himself."
"That's true," I said, "but he's never had a tournament run exclusively for him before. The tuna has the Point Judith tournament across the sound, and the stripers have the derbies at Martha's Vineyard and all up and down Cape Cod."
"Maybe you have a point," said Coot, returning to the matter at hand, which was scraping paint off the flying bridge of his own swordfishing boat, the Cuttyhunker. "Anyway, you'll see a lot of excitement around here this summer."
The bench by the sea
I told Coot I had to get back to Martha's Vineyard for a personal reason, the quicker the better. I saw no reason to mention my pilgrimage to the old bench. Coot said he'd send me over in the Sea Coot, one of his bass boats. When I got to the Vineyard, I went immediately to the bench by the old lighthouse with the intention of lying down (as I used to do) and thinking over the dramatic events that were beginning to shape up.
But, as I said before, a man can't lie down on a bench with one slat and so I had to sit up and be content with the breathtaking view from the cliffs and the thoughts of all the stripers and tunas and makos and marlins and swordfish racing—at that very moment—toward their summer's rendezvous. It was a beautiful place to be: there was a gentle breeze and a warm sun and a flat calm sea, and you'd think the powers-that-be on Martha's Vineyard island would do something about a wonderful bench with only one slat left on it.
BLOCK ISLAND SOUND
RHODE ISLAND SOUND
NO MANS LAND