Few things take precedence over a good fire at sea. One of them, it came as a surprise to learn last month, is a good fish on the line.
This we discovered 80 miles off New York City on a blue-water sail from Annapolis to New England.
Against my better judgment, I'd agreed to troll a couple of fishing lures behind the sailboat on this 200-mile journey. My view is that fishing and sailing don't mix because when you do both, you do neither well.
But others in the crew were adamant, so we packed a pair of trolling rods and some rusty old lures and, after navigating the perils of the upper Chesapeake Bay, the C&D Canal and the treacherous, shoal-strewn, ship-infested Delaware Bay, which was foggy, windy and dark, we found ourselves boiling along in the open ocean with a fair, stiff breeze. The cry went up to rig the fishing lines.
As usual, when fishing from a sailboat, hours and hours went by and nothing happened. Then everything went bad at once.
Clarence Corey was busy in the galley fixing lunch when he let out a yelp. The alcohol stove had blown up in his face, blue flames were licking two feet out of the burners and the pan beneath them was ablaze. Nickel-sized circulation holes around the stove-top gushed blue fire as well, which was menacing the mahogany woodwork.
Given the fact we were miles from land at the mouth of Hudson Canyon, where the water depth drops from a few hundred feet to a couple of thousand, with no boats around and no one in radio range, it was a nasty situation.
So, while Corey ran for the fire extinguisher, I draped wet rags over the stove to control the blaze. Just as he returned, we heard an excited cry from the fellows topside and all firefighting efforts ground to a halt.
"Fish on!" they hollered, followed by the unmistakable whirr of line stripping from one of the reels.
Corey and I are old fishing rivals and when we heard that, he dropped the extinguisher and I dropped the rags. But I had better position and blocked the companionway, scampered up the ladder first and grabbed the rod, leaving him below, muttering, with a fire to attend to.
It was a big fish, of course. The ones that escape usually are. I guessed tuna as it stripped 100 yards of 30-pound-test line off in powerful bursts, then ripped another 100 yards with no apparent diminution of strength.
I was looking at 75 yards to go before the reel went bare, and did the only thing I could think of, tightening the drag slightly in hopes of slowing the beast's flight.
Snap went the line. Corey was indignant, but I was pleased to see that while I was muffing the chance, he at least had about quelled the blaze.
Next time one of the rods went off we were crawling around under the engine, which had mysteriously died, never to run again until it got professional help in port.
It is a bit unnerving to have your diesel go dead in mid-ocean, but I still managed to crawl out from the greasy engine box and race first to the rod holder. Corey watched in alarm while I lost this fish, as well, and we began to wonder what disaster would accompany the next strike.
It was fog, as it happened, which closed in just before dusk and just as the deep line went down with the last fish attack of the journey. This time Corey grabbed the rod and successfully boated a 12-pound bluefish, an exercise that left him inexplicably seasick when it was over.
So here we were, survivors of a galley fire, our engine blown, surrounded by fog in strange waters, with a seasick first mate and a great, thrashing bluefish flopping around on deck demanding to be cleaned, and nothing but penknives aboard to do the job.
Somehow we survived, and limped into Block Island's New Harbor with all hands and the vessel intact.
Safely at anchor, we mapped out a strategy to fish the way man was meant to fish.
Corey rented a $10-a-day skiff from the island fishing camp, Twin Maples. He bought some minnows and a box of frozen squid, and early one morning we tooled out to the harbor inlet, propelled by the two-horsepower outboard, and began drifting across the deep channel, dragging the squid and minnows along the bottom.
It was pure murder. In two hours, we'd hauled in 15 keeper flounders, which we later filleted and froze in packages of dinner for four.
On the voyage home we got our fish the civilized way -- straight from the ice box, cleaned and ready to fry. We still trolled a lure, but when no one was looking, I discovered the hook had fallen off. I flipped it back overboard and breathed a sigh of relief.
We made it home without a single strike. And no bad luck, either, for a change.