Every summer and winter, during the years I was at university, I worked on deep sea fishing boats off the coast of New England. Shortly afterwards, I wrote a book about it called 'Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn'. The book was originally published by Houghton Mifflin in the US and by Hutchinson in the UK. Later, it came out in paperback with Faber & Faber in London and St Martin's Press in New York. About five or six years after the book first appeared, it was turned into a film by Hallmark Hall of Fame and starred Peter Facinelli, Kate Nelligan and Michael Moriarty. Recently, the British publisher Daunt picked up the rights to the novel and are due to re-release it in tandem with the next Sam Eastland book in February of 2013. Daunt asked me to write a short piece about how it feels now to be looking back on those years as a fisherman. I thought about that for a while, and then decided to write the story of the last fishing trip I ever took, which was probably the closest I ever came to getting killed on the deep sea boats.
I was very happy to hear that Daunt will be releasing the book. They have been great to work with.
Here's the story -
When I wrote Calm at Sunset Calm at Dawn, I had only just finished working on the
deep sea boats. A lot of the wounds I had suffered in the previous years were still
healing, and I was still awakened several nights a week by dreams of sharks and
shipwrecks – mostly things which almost happened but didn’t – that now played out like
a film projected against the inside of my skull.
I was 24 years old, and had no real sense of whether those experiences had
made me into someone different than I’d been before I went to sea.
They did change me. I know that now. But the nature of those changes was
something I could never have predicted at the time.
One of the hardest parts about working on the boats was returning to university at the
end of the fishing season. Following months of discomfort and danger, I found it hard to
take seriously the wagging fingers of my professors and the men on my hall who wept
when they received A- grades instead of A’s.
Out on the ocean, the stakes were huge. Lose your footing and be washed
overboard or vanish in a storm when a rogue wave swamps your vessel. Back on
land, my friends wrangled over things so trivial that, for a long time after getting back
to school, I would feel a wall between us, isolating me from the obsessions which
governed their minds. Eventually, I would slide back into the rhythm of student life
and the fretting of my classmates would become my anxieties as well. Until that
transformation was complete, however, the sense of separation seemed a heavy price
to pay for the time I’d spent away from land.
It wasn’t until my final voyage that I began to realise this might be, in fact, a gift,
rather than some kind of penalty, and one more valuable than any of the wages I had
On the day after Christmas, I shipped out of Parascondolo’s Dock in Newport,
Rhode Island. The boat was an old scallop dragger with a bad reputation for accidents
and fights breaking out among the crew. It was the kind of ship that fishermen refer
to as a ‘slab’, but it was the only boat with an empty berth and so I had to take it. The
weather had been rough that winter. As I stood on the ice-covered dock with my duffle
bag slung over my shoulder, waiting to climb on board, I had a bad feeling about it, but I
was hoping that this one trip would earn enough to see me through to graduation, which
was only a few months away. So I went against my instincts, a thing I have never done
About sixty miles off the coast, we were hit by the worst storm I’d ever been
in. It is the sounds I remember more clearly than anything else. The terrible shriek of
the props as they cleared the waves. The incessant and demented moaning of the
wind through the steel cables of the rigging. The clang of the metal baseball bat we
used night and day to knock away the ice that built up on the surface of the boat. In
the pitching sea, the winch men would often misjudge the precise moment when the
dredges, each one as big as a car, would be hoisted on board. Instead of coming down
smoothly, they would skid across the plates, smashing into the metal apron on the other
side. For a deck hand like me, there was no place to hide. All you could do was try not
to be in the way.
Down in the crew’s quarters, we strapped ourselves into our bunks, listening to
the sucking gasp of the bow as it rose from the water and feeling the shudder, all along
the keel, as we charged into the next roller.
I wondered how much more of this the boat could take. I knew that if we
foundered, I would never get out of the boat before we sank. And even if I did get out,
I had no survival suit and would only last a few minutes in the waters of the Labrador
After two days of this, the mate and two senior crewmen did something I had
never seen happen before. They asked the captain to go in. I remember how quiet it
became in the galley, even with the storm outside.
The captain refused, in language so exotically obscene that I, who thought he
had heard everything, was left stunned when he got up from the galley table and locked
himself in the wheelhouse. In the days that followed, while the storm grew worse and
worse, he remained by the wheel, sleeping on the floor beside it even when the mate
stood his watch, as if he was afraid that we might mutiny.
Which, eventually, we did.
I didn’t find out until the plan was already underway. The first I saw of it was
when the captain burst out of the wheelhouse, staggered through the galley and out
onto the deck, where he leaned over the side and vomited. For a long time, he hung
there, gripping the cables while he roared his guts into the waves. Within an hour, he
was back on the floor of the wheelhouse, too sick to stay on his feet.
The cook had poisoned the captain’s food, not enough to kill him, but enough to
make him think he might be dying. Finally, he gave the order to come about and head
By then, it was New Year’s Eve. I sat in the galley with the rest of the crew,
watching the festivities on a little television set. We were tuned into a Connecticut
station, which was covering a party taking place among ice sculptures on the New
Haven Green. There, through a haze of poor reception, I saw classmates of mine from
Yale, wearing tuxedoes and dancing in a conga line. I knew that within a few days, I
would be back in class among them.
Nobody else on the boat knew where I went to university, or even that I was in
school. I kept that to myself and no one asked. The only past you ever learned about
the fishermen with whom you worked was what they chose to tell you.
We reached Newport at three in morning on New Year’s Day. The snow was
knee-deep in the streets. After carrying the captain to his bunk, the rest of us took a
walk down Thames Street, through the pooled and yellow light of street lamps. We
peered into shop windows, threw snowballs at each other and lay in the middle of the
road, sweeping our arms and legs back and forth to make snow angels.
Everything I saw and touched and smelled that night seemed conjured out of
some fantastic dream. There was even a moment when I wondered if it really was an
illusion, and whether, at this very moment, I might be drowning at the bottom of the sea.
Later that day, after unloading the catch, I collected my pay and went home
on the bus. As we rode over the Newport Bridge, I wiped away the condensation on
the window and stared out at the gray sea in the distance. In that moment, I suddenly
realised that I’d made my last trip. I had used up all the luck I had coming to me as a
crewman on a deep sea boat.
Now I am exactly twice the age I was when I sat down to write Calm at Sunset.
If I look at my hands, I can see the white lines of old knife cuts from those times
when I misjudged the butchering of Monk Fish out on Block Island Sound. Running my
tongue over my back teeth, I feel the porcelain and gold which took the place of the
molars which got smashed when I was hit by the dredge while climbing out of the ice
room hatch during my first summer as a fisherman.
Those are the physical things I will always carry with me.
But there are also memories.
I still have dreams of being on the ocean, but none of them are as clear to me as
the recollection of that night I walked down Thames Street in the snow. Everything that’s
happened to me in all the years since then has been balanced against that memory.
I no longer worry about the little things, the way I often did before that night. Of the
changes I have undergone as a result of those years as a fisherman, that is the one
which matters to me most.
Once you become aware of the luxury of drawing in breath, even the most
ordinary day becomes a miracle.
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