On tuna and birds

A day of hooky east of Chatham looking for bluefin tuna aboard the tractor-of-the-sea, the good ship Laura J, dawned to find me in the company of some sixty-other boats trolling squid bars and rigged ballyhoo in aimless etchings across a calm October sea somewhere to the north and east of the wreck of the Regal Sword. Wreck sites are sinister places and entomb under their unknowing depths some vestige of the violence and fear that occurred there on that exact spot on the Cartesian grid some days and years before.  Some wreck sites, like that of the Andrea Doria south of Nantucket, are marked by buoys so divers can find them. Other are marked by little death symbols on the chart. Others are existentially unknown, but down there just the same. The Furuno depth plotter will sketch a pixellated silhouette of the tanker or trawler, but only the tuna and the blue sharks, the herring and the humpbacks can really know the truth of what lies on the sands 200 feet below shrouded in tattered fishing nets.

Fishing isn’t called “catching” for a reason. Ten hours of standing at the rail or atop of the flying bridge scanning the surface of the ocean for signs of the unknowable below can inspire reveries on the micro chaos of the water’s surface and the macro order of the implacably flat and even line of horizon between sky and sea. One’s complete insignificance as the only lonely thinking speck in the middle of all that nothing… the fear of drowning, of falling overboard, zipper dropped, into the foaming wake of the Duffy ’33, is compounded by the thoughts of the broken-backed tanker somewhere down below the skipping squid bars and the hydraulic breaching flukes of the whales.

The sight of the tuna fleet trolling around in a disorderly fleet of $6 million Merritts and tiny death-defying $100,000 center consoles, boats owned by beer distributors and contractors, real estate tycoons and dentists, all chasing the elusive 900-pound giant bluefin while bickering about run-over lines and cut off fish in amazing blue rants of obscenities and racial epithets unsquelched on channel 68, is enough to calm any anxieties about going over the side and drowning slowly in the nothingness with no one to come and care. There is a society east of Chatham. An improvised tribal structure of men in competition and cooperation, bound together by the anonymity of a VHF radio that has no Caller-ID, just the blind attempt to know each other by the color and type of their boats. Sample discourse:

Blue center console to my port. Blue center console to my port. What the fuck am I supposed to do if you do that under my bow? Get your shit out of my shit please. Over.”

Skippers give one another a “shout” and try to find some enlightenment as they ask each other “how’s it going over there?” and share veiled intelligence by trying to hide from the crowd on a different channel and speaking in extemporaneously composed code:

“I’m a-south of you, near the place with the initial of my last name where we found them last week….”

The radio chatter is heard by all, a common sound track for the afternoon. The fights, the squabbles, the hints of success ….the crew of the Laura J.  stops talking amongst themselves to listen like a Depression family in the days pre-TV of radio fireside chats and Fibber McGee.

There are no fish this morning, but hopes are pinned on the slack tide in two hours, the story of yesterday’s success that says the tuna will rise from the depths after 3 pm for the “late bite.” So the crews of the 60 boats stop staring at the skein of lines strung off their sterns and sit down for sandwiches and apples, Double-Stuffs and Ruffles, and tell each other yarns about condom-jammed cesspools, dockside fist fights, and the stupidity of wealthy boat owners.

The lunch break brings a change of topic to the discourse on Channel 68. Ornithology.

“Hey, we’ve got a bird aboard.”

“We’ve got two.”

“Ours likes ice cubes and SmartFood”

“Ours likes macadamia nuts and Poland Springs”

As the radio talks of birds one flies up to the starboard side of the Laura J and tries to perch on the splash rail.  The crew looks over the side to see it fall and land in the water. We cheer when the bird breaks free from the deadly surface and lifts itself up and over the rail, confusingly skittering among the three bodies in the cockpit, to dodge past us to safety inside of the cabin with the captain who is tucking into an Italian sub with no hots.

“Don’t tell Eddie there’s a bird in the cabin,” says one. “He’ll go nuts if he thinks it’s shitting in there.”

A second bird arrives a moment later. A different kind of bird. Like a chickadee, but different. It lands, exhausted, panting, feathers puffed out and disheveled on the floor of the cockpit among the flying gaffs and mono leaders, not caring at all about the boots and TopSiders so close by.

“Look, a sparrow.”

“Nah, that’s a warbler.”

“How do you know?”

A pedantic, semi-informed lesson in the fall warbler migration begins, with discourses into the annual phenomenon of the flocks that fill Provincetown’s Beech Forest, the deaths of tens of thousands of birds that strike illuminated sky scrapers in the cities of the East Coast, and disruptions in the earth’s magnetic field that mess with the Corolis effect and put these tiny little birds off-course and far out to sea where they will perch on a sportsfisherman out of sheer desperation.

The crew stops worrying about the possibility of defecation on the boat and decide to come to the aid of the dying birds. One puts his finger down and provides a safe perch for the little creature. The magic of that moment, of man and little bird, so close together, forced together by the bird’s desperate need for a moment’s rest, is about as poignant a scene as that of a lonely old man holding one of his grownup and departed daughter’s childhood dolls and feeling maudlin pangs of loss for her and their youth. The bird is a metaphor for something, and initial jokes about tossing it over the side to the sharks, the “blue dogs” is softened as the bird makes itself at home on its human finger perch.

It closes its eyes, puffs out its feathers, and breathes deeply, beaten down by the frantic flight that set it thirty miles off the beach into the void of the Atlantic. A bottle cap is filled with spring water and offered. The bird opens its eyes, dips its beak, and then nuzzles the thumb holding the cap. A Cheez-It is crumbled up,  offerred and ignored. A nut is crushed and ignored. The bird sips more water and continues to perch.

The second bird, still alone on the cockpit floor, rouses itself and flies in a tight circle, landing on my shirt. It hangs on, upside down, like a wren would. It is a bit perkier than the other bird, more curious, and hops down onto the crotch of my pants which elicits the coarse suggestion that it unzip them and perform an oral sex act. It hops onto my finger, looks up into my face, closes its eyes as it relaxes, and then poops a big squirt of dark brown juice that suddenly connects its fading life with my own by being warm and transmitting the fact that it too has a body temperature.


The birds stayed for an hour. The tuna never arrived. The wren left first. It spent a few minutes on the port rub rail psyching itself up then bravely lifted off and headed northwest towards P-town, skittering over the waves. The warbler stayed a while longer, standing in the sunshine inside of the cabin under the windshield until Captain Eddie scooped it up in his hands and tossed it out the window.

There was sadness as it flew to the west in little darting swoops. Was it strong enough to make it? Did it know where to go? Couldn’t it have stayed aboard until the Laura J. was steaming into the Cotuit channel and then flown ashore to the certain safety of the trees? Or could it have been tamed and adopted like Otis Barton’s tame tern and lived in a little bamboo bird cage from Chinatown ….

The birds were gone and there was no more talk of birds from the other boats on the radio. Lunch was over. Slack tide was near, and the breaching whales among the Rybovitches and Grady Whites meant the bite could still happen, but it didn’t, and the fleet dispersed in the late afternoon over still waters for their docks and moorings inside safe harbors.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

3 thoughts on “On tuna and birds”

  1. Seriously. You channeled Melville, Hemingway and Cortazar in the space of that lede. Beautiful.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. The analogy of the old man and the doll damn near made me cry.

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