Olivier and I showed up in his sickly green Volkswagen at the Massachusetts invitational spearfishing competition at King’s Beach… in Rhode Island.
The sole purpose of the Mass invitational is to bring people beyond low impact Instagram freediving, and to somehow convince them of the wonders of facing other spearfishermen, on a level playing field, at a set date which implies fishing in possibly terrible conditions, within a predetermined area, using only muscle power and no possibility of outside help, all of which add up to, you guessed it, the increasingly exotic concept of making an effort. In this spirit, the invitational is meant to be an introduction to the rules and challenges of the Open Championship competition format, a first step into a physically and psychologically demanding activity which has very little to do with people pouting at their cell phone cam.
I was all excited to see the fresh faces. At nine, the kayaks were all lined up at the starting line. The high tide was about to turn and all the water of the bay was set to pour on our area. Some spots would be swept and made very difficult to dive both because of the current and the low visibility. To make it more interesting, a crazy swell rose at about the same time.
Very few of the guys had much experience at the Open format, or diving in less than optimal conditions. Fortunately no one went for Brenton reef or Seal’s Ledge. Both of those areas where receiving the brunt of the outgoing tide, and they were the problematic spots where you could expect overly keen inexperienced divers to be separated from their kayaks and swept to sea. Also, no one decided to go towards Land’s End. Therefore, by default, Seal’s rock was covered with dive flags.
Olivier and I got there first. The visibility was OK, but the water was freezing and there were no fish.
I refrained from shooting the first tog I crossed, holding off in case there was bass.
After twenty minutes, of finding no bass and seeing very few tautogs, I decided to shoot the second 18-inch tog I saw that day. I wandered the reef feeling depressed, cold and nauseous. I knew one of the other competitor, perhaps all of them, was killing it. My performance anxiety was at its height. I was not diving well because of motion sickness. I knew I wasn’t doing what needed to be done to win this event.
The way to win, is to you swim hard nonstop both on top and on the bottom until you find fish. Then you do not take a break. You do not contemplate. You shoot fish and make points. From the outside, it may appear stressful, but it is the opposite. The single-mindedness, or the psychotic drive to perform, is very liberating. You certainly don’t think about your taxes, your bosses, and what he may be doing with your girlfriend right now…. Just kidding, I knew she was brunching with her ex at the Sheraton.
Since I was about to lose last night’s Big Mac meal, I decide to get back on the kayak and head for Gooseberry Island. I knew I would find some relief in the back. Surely the waves did not circle the entire island. I rationalized that if there were no fish at the rock, maybe there would be some togs. In my mind’s eye, I could see then at the bottom of the cliffs. I paddled fast, but not like you would during an Open. If you want to win, you have to move fast, cover territory and be on the bottom a lot. Hiding behind Gooseberry Island, however fast I got there was not what I was supposed to do…
In any other circumstances, I would have headed towards Brenton Reef, and I would have killed my bass and my togs in less than twenty minutes. I might have gotten swept away, but that’s what needed to be done. I could have held on to my kayak and worked like a mule tugging at the anchor rope while the surf turned my kayak over and over. I didn’t. I was about to puke. I had no energy for it. That’s what happens when you are out of shape. Pretty soon I’ll have to go kill lame cows on a charter boat, and I don’t even know where to get a selfie stick.
Behind the island there were just as many togs as at the rock, meaning very few and all small. But there were skates all over the place. We don’t normally shoot skates during Open competitions, but they were fair game for the invitational. I laughed. I could have shot thirty in less than an hour. They simply laid there. I didn’t. I couldn’t imagine filleting skates for hours, and I didn’t want to win that way, although it would have been great, or do we say epic? for my Instagram.
After almost two hours around Gooseberry I felt fine. And then I got this brilliant idea of paddling half an hour to Land’s End. I calculated I would have about twenty minutes to shoot my togs and a bass. It could be done. Besides, I didn’t want to waste any more time at Gooseberry. Time to lose that winter fat I reasoned, and burn it I did.
As I approached Land’s End, the seas looked like those calendar images of lighthouses beat by the raging ocean. A powerboat was trying to get close to the surf. I could see the fear in the eyes of the driver. I would get my manly moment I thought.
I managed to anchor in the opening behind the main set of rocks. I only had 20 minutes and no patience for my former pussyfied self-cajoling ways of the morning. I swam full speed in the breakers. It must have looked awesome. Alas, besides hundreds of schoolies there was nothing to shoot. It felt great to be in there though, and I was not seasick in the least.
At one o’clock, I was at Land’s End, with one totaug. I had never shot less fish during a competition with one exception and it had been in 1995 in the aftermath of Hurricane Felix. This was more humiliating somehow.
To redeem myself, I paddled the forty-five-minute distance in thirty and got in front of King’s beach at one thirty-five. I threw the anchor near the breakers, put my fins, mask and weight belt back on. This time I took the original 90-cm renesub speargun. I dove down with a maximum of ten minutes to spare. I saw shadows. On the second dive, a tog swam at the edge of visibility. I took a shot. A very hopeful shot. The tog trashed at the end of my shaft. I could not see it yet. I swam and pulled it in at the same time. Not sure if I should keep pressure or not. I could not see the fish. When I got to it, it was trashing wildly between two rocks. I grabbed it with all the strength of my desperation.
I got to the surface and measured it against my gun. I should not have bothered since i did not have the time, but I needed to know. It looked like an 18 incher. It was one forty-five. I was ten minutes from the staging area. So I persisted.
By the time I got back on the boat it was one fifty-one. I paddled quickly. Now that I had such a great catch I didn’t want to be disqualified!
I got in at one fifty-nine. I expected everyone to have bass and full sets of togs, but I was still very happy with my two good togs!