The Mexican island of Cozumel that sits off the wild coast of Quintana Roo in the western Caribbean keeps getting rediscovered. To judge by legends cut in stone, Cozumel was first found by Mayan Indians, who abandoned it before Europeans showed up. Scholars believe the Mayans left Cozumel by choice, but realists who have probed the island's interior maintain the Indians were carried back to the mainland in the talons of large mosquitoes.
Reputedly, after the Mayans left (or were deported), Cozumel was discovered by Hernando Cortés, the conquistador, and later by Jean Lafitte, the French-Louisianian buccaneer. In the mid-19th century when piracy became passé, refugees from the endless wars of Mexico started farming the island. Cozumel might have become famous for tobacco and pineapples, except that the original landholders sent their children abroad to school. After they had a taste of city life in Chetumal and Valladolid, it was hard to keep the kids down on a pineapple farm. In a matter of three generations the island went back to sleep.
Cozumel was next rediscovered 15 years ago, at the start of the jet age, by Robert Marx and Don Pablo Bush Romero, two of the world's famous underwater archaeological bums. Scuba divers by the thousands followed on their flippered heels. The first heavy assault of divers had barely hit the beach before travel editors began discovering the island, dipping platitudinous pens into purple ink and extolling the unspoiled virtues of the place. The travel editors were followed by fashion photographers and New York models wearing getups that would make an ancient Mayan gag.
Today the busy island of Cozumel needs discovering about as much as the Mississippi needs another gallon of water. Nonetheless, it is once again being discovered, this time by sport fishermen led by a 44-year-old, button-nosed, Alabama-born charter skipper named Charles (Cliff) North.
April 23, 1973
Although he is a man of considerable wisdom, Cliff North is no better suited to cope with the whimsies of Cozumel than any of its earlier discoverers. North has only two eyes, two ears and one mouth. In the fish-rich waters west of Cozumel, that is barely enough. Twelve miles across the Cozumel strait, where a torrent of Caribbean water impinges on the coast of Quintana Roo, the bottom rises sharply. For most of 30 miles along Quintana Roo, the 20-fathom curve, where sailfish abound, lies less than a quarter mile offshore and barely a hundred yards inside the 100-fathom line where marlin dwell. Marlin are bigger, but offer less action, and most anglers want action. A skipper after sailfish must constantly watch his fathometer and at the same time keep his boat away from the seabirds that swirl over baitfish like paper scraps caught in a dust devil. On classic game-fish grounds the swirling birds are a happy sign, for under them usually there are bonito, tuna, or dolphin. But in the new waters of Cozumel, where there are crazy, dancing sailfish galore, it is considered a sin to waste baits on trashy fish like tuna and dolphin.
While he follows a fine line on his fathometer and avoids the telltale birds, with his other eye Cliff North tries to watch the four baits trailing behind his boat. The sailfish of Cozumel are dainty and freakish eaters. In the nutrient water pressed up along the steep coast, they are well fed but still curious. They often rise out of the blue, singly or in pairs, simply to window-shop. Sometimes they come by the dozen. While North has his eye on a lone fish cruising behind the left outrigger bait, suddenly three more fish will pop up behind the right short bait. In the next moment there may be a half dozen fish toying with all four baits, pecking away so delicately that they do not even knock the lines off the outriggers. In such instances, Cliff North is beside himself. "We're being eaten alive by sailfish," he bawls in distress, "and there's not a dad-gum thing I can do about it."
North's command of salty English is inadequate for the frenzied fishing off Cozumel. Considering that he has been some kind of seaman for the past 24 years, his repertoire should be as rich as a manure pile, but curiously it is limited. In a crisis he vents his rage with a staccato burst of "dad-gummits" punctuated by an occasional "goddam." "Left long! Left long! A sailfish, dad-gummit," he yells from the bridge to his anglers and mate in the cockpit. "He's eating it! Dad-gummit, wind in. Wind, dad-gummit! Wind! Wind! Right long! Right long! Two more fish. Another fish on right short! Free spool, dad-gummit! Free spool. He's eating it! Now, wind! Dad-gummit, wind. Wind. Get in the dad-gum teaser. Let's get these dad-gum fish." The fish do not oblige. They take two baits but not the hooks. "Four hungry, eating fish," North wails, "and we blew them all. Goddam."
When the action falls off, North becomes morose. Forty minutes after tagging a good fish, he reports dolefully on the radio to a rival skipper, "We've been wandering around Playa del Carmen for the last two hours doing nothing except pick up seaweed and get eaten alive by dolphins." Even when a sailfish is solidly hooked and dancing beautifully 200 yards out, North is seldom content. "All right," he shouts down to his mate, Tiny Brown, "let's get this fish tagged so we can start fishing again." He wheels his 44-foot Striker boat around on the troubled sea as if it were an eight-foot dink. As the dancing fish swings from the deep to the shoals, then outruns the 30-knot Striker, then reverses its field and races for the deep again, North charges ahead, then goes hard right rudder astern, then left forward and dead astern. "I'm backing, and there's a big sea coming after us," he yells down to the cockpit. "You all will get wet, but there's not a dad-gum thing I can do about it." In six-foot seas, if a 60-pound sailfish is not brought to boat on 20-pound line in three minutes, North is ashamed.
On the best of days off Cozumel, North has raised over 200 sailfish and has tagged and released more than 35. Even on a ho-hum day, when he raises only 40 fish, he keeps busy. The radio beside him is constantly crackling. While he coaches and scolds the anglers in his cockpit, out of the other side of his mouth he counsels rival skippers who are fishing Cozumel for the first time. Skipper Ronnie Hamlin of the Big Blue calls North on the radio with a special problem: some huge, huge fish with white markings on its back is horsing around the Big Blue. "What you got there, Ronnie," North replies, "is probably a whale shark. It won't take any bait you got out. Whale sharks are real friendly. Skin divers have climbed all over their backs."
The boat Sea Chaser reports to North jubilantly that they have just released a whopper of a sailfish, about 150 pounds. North moans. "All I can say is I am sorry. The biggest Atlantic sailfish ever caught is around 140 pounds. What you have just done is blow a dad-gum world record. If the weighing scales in Cozumel aren't good enough, you could have bought the fish a ticket on a plane and had it weighed in Miami."
In some respects Cliff North's pioneering of a new world of fish off Cozumel resembles the earlier ramblings of Christopher Columbus. Like Columbus, North was not the first to sail beyond the old horizon, but the first to do so convincingly. A half dozen years ago a New York perfume manufacturer, Luis de Hoyos, had started angling in Cozumel, and several private fishing boats in Florida had played around in the strait, but North was the first to do more than sample the place. Like Columbus, he kept going back and prowling around.
He might never have gone to Cozumel if Hurricane Camille had not blown across his path in 1969. At the time he was skipper of Splurge, a charter boat owned by a dental surgeon named Warren Spurge. In the summer of '69 North was headed for South Pass, La. to charter Splurge out for a few months. When Camille beat him to South Pass and smashed up the place, he swung down to Cozumel. He spent the better part of the next two years there, learning the ways of the local fish and reveling in their abundance. In those two years more than 50 times an odd species of fish with a white spot at the base of its bill trailed his lines. About a dozen of the white-spotted billfish took baits but never the hook. Other anglers, who have since seen the same queer fish, agree that it is some kind of marlin—maybe. When the spotted fish goes for a bait, its spot lights up, and its tail gleams neon bright like that of a blue marlin. But unlike the blue marlin, the pectorals of the spotted fish do not light up.
At the time North was probing the mysteries of Cozumel, Mark Phillips, a sales representative of Striker Aluminum Yachts, Inc., went there to celebrate a wedding anniversary and was impressed by the fishing. Since it is the proud claim of the Striker people that their dieselized, customized craft are not only the best for fishing but also the best for traveling afar to where the action is, it occurred to Phillips that a good way to prove the point would be to send a flotilla of Striker boats to the new grounds off Cozumel. And what better fleet leader could there be than Captain Cliff North?
Thus in another respect North resembles Columbus: he found a good backer. The late Queen Isabella of Spain only plunked out about $10,000 for the three caravels Columbus used—and she was scolded for spending that much. If Isabella had ever furnished Columbus with a million-dollar fleet of aluminum boats simply to catch fish and throw them back, she would have been judged a real loony and might have ended up in irons. But times change. A 44-foot Striker, bought bare, costs $117,500. When you add a tuna tower, outriggers, fighting chairs, loran, shoran, floran, bait boxes and an assortment of squawk boxes and other essentials, the price climbs sharply. In ball-park figures the fleet of 11 Strikers that Cliff North led from Florida to Cozumel last spring cost about a million and a half. Despite the price, no one considers either North or Mark Phillips to be too far off his nut. At the international fishing tournament that they helped to promote in Cozumel they were treated by their peers as just an ordinary pair of fishing idiots.
A fishing tournament such as the one at Cozumel is sweet relief from the logic and ritual that sully most sporting affairs today. In Cozumel many of the anglers did not care whether they won or lost, or how they played, or, indeed, if they played at all. According to Terry Byrne, a Floridian who ended up as official scorekeeper largely by default, 70 anglers fishing on 28 boats at Cozumel raised 1,327 fish in three days and brought 327 to boat. It is an impressive record and reasonably accurate, although no one will ever know the true score. None of the officials ever saw one of the boats supposedly competing (it may well have been the old Mary Deare, traveling incognito). Several anglers who did not fish (including one who was not even on the island) were credited with catching fish. Several anglers who caught fish were credited with none. No hay de qué.
When the West Hotchford Angling and Sporting Club has a flounder fishing tournament on Long Island Sound, only flounders count. Nobody gets a prize for hauling up the most seaweed on his hook. Although the Cozumel tournament was ostensibly a billfishing contest, there were also prizes for the largest dolphin, wahoo and tuna. After three days of trying to keep pesky dolphin, wahoo and tuna off their baits, three unlucky fishermen who caught big fish they did not want won prizes. It makes no sense, and therein lies the special charm of such affairs.
The tournament was won by Glen Logan, a Miamian who broadcasts angling reports and is best known around his hometown as the "Flying Fisherman." Since Logan was fishing on the Striker skippered by Cliff North, he had all the best going for him; still, his victory was a squeaker. After the regulation three days of fishing—a total of 17½ hours—Logan had 19 fish and was tied with Clyde Woeber, an Ohioan fishing out of an identical Striker. After three hours and 57 minutes of a four-hour overtime, Logan and Woeber were again tied with 21 fish apiece. Then with only three minutes to go, as if to oblige Cliff North, the man who made them famous, two of Cozumel's dainty-eating sailfish popped up and charged the baits like wolves. When he saw both fish were solidly hooked up, North shouted, "All right, let's get these fish and get this dad-gum tournament over so we can start fishing for fun."
On the last day of the tournament angler Gerard Bos aboard the Big Blue brought a fish to boat that had a white spot at the base of its bill. Possibly flustered because he was still in contention for the title, Bos tagged the fish and let it go. On the tagging card he mailed to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution he described it as a sailfish about 7½ feet long. Under REMARKS he wrote: "white dot on head." There are only nine species of billfish recognized the world around. Was the spotted fish that Gerard Bos had in hand a new species? Who knows? When he heard that one of the spotted fish that have nagged him for three years had been released, Cliff North said "dad-gummit" several times.
Aboard the Blue Streak a lady named Ellie Dowd, who is a steady sailor but only a casual angler, hauled in a bull dolphin weighing 76 pounds. It was such a big beauty that the crew weighed it out of curiosity before cutting it up to eat. Once again North was grief struck. "They cooked and ate a world-record dolphin," he moaned. "I tell you there are people around here who know less about fishing than I do about flying a submarine."
In traditional grounds like Palm Beach such crazy goings-on possibly are not appropriate, but in Cozumel they are. The whole island—everything that walks, talks, flies, swims or crawls—is slightly and delightfully out of step. Whereas most of the world craves quiet, Cozumele√±os thrive on noise. They play radios at full volume and they love to roar around on motorcycles and in poorly muffled cars. When the sun rides high in Cozumel, the noise abates, but as soon as siesta time is over, bedlam is restored and often lasts well into the dark and starry night.
Almost everywhere in his range the common water roach shuns light and hurries for a crack when he gets too much. In Cozumel the roach ofttimes promenades at noon, weaving his feelers in a friendly way. The boat-tailed grackle is a sensible bird everywhere but in Cozumel. When the wind pipes up to near gale force, a normal grackle cancels his plans and hangs onto a good perch, head to the wind. On Cozumel in a hard blow the grackle, undaunted, goes on with its nest building. The wind knocks its feathers askew, tumbles the bird over the ground and blasts the wisps of nest material away. The Cozumel grackle laughs it all off raucously and starts picking up more nest stuff as if the day were fair and calm. The man-o'-war bird is an able pirate. He takes his own fish and robs other birds of theirs, but he is rarely fool enough to go for anything trailing on a line. Slicing the air on half-folded wing, the man-o'-wars of Cozumel sometimes dive on baits and hack off the tag end without getting the hook. "Look at that fool man-o'-war on the bait," Cliff North shouts from his bridge. "I hope a sailfish sticks him in his dad-gum gut."
The wahoo of Cozumel are very high flyers, and the local kingfish often jump as only a wahoo should, taking one bait on the rise, sailing 40 feet through the air and pouncing down on another. The sailfish of Cozumel are deep-shouldered like marlin, but even when cleanly hooked, they sometimes sulk in the deep like tuna. Some leap from the water belly up and bounce from crest to crest on their flanks, like bright stones skipped on a pond. They jump on the horizon and they dance beside the boat. Even when the gloved hand of the mate is on the leader, they keep on jumping.
In the Bal-Hai restaurant on Cozumel a lady scuba diver from the U.S. tells her newly acquired male companion about the beautiful experience she had on her first visit to the island a year ago. Diving on the great reef of Palancar, she saw an angelfish swimming upside down. Her companion corrects her. Angelfish do not swim upside down. What she saw was one of the little basses that swim belly up when they are under ledges. The lady is infuriated. "It was no bass, you Mexican ass," she shouts. "It was a queen angelfish a foot long, and it was swimming upside down in broad daylight."
Cliff North sums it all up. "Cozumel is a crazy place," he says, "but dad-gum beautiful, especially if you like a lot of fish."