I was unhappy with the weather. It would have been better to stay in the fishing harbour. Chris had convinced me to carry on; he had said that they’d cast the net in weather like this before, and that was still with the old net. The new net would make this easier. Once beyond the protection of the promontory at Pelican Point, the swells were frightening. However, we soon found large shoals of fish, not far from Walvis Bay.
The boat’s deck was in darkness. Chris had slowed the boat in an area thick with fish. The crew waited expectantly for him to give the ‘Los’ command. I noticed Bruce’s hand slip from the railing as the boat rolled again, he crashing against me, and we falling to the deck. I landed on up on back on the deck with Bruce lying over my legs. I couldn’t move until he had untangled himself. He seemed to have a problem and only after a few seconds, did he climb to his feet and apologise profusely. I hardly had regained my feet and had just grabbed the handrail on the side of the wheelhouse, when I heard the command to release the net. Through the deck floor, I felt the engine’s revolutions increase. A few seconds later my feet were pulled with tremendous force from under me, my body crashing painfully to the deck again. The next moment I was dragged like a rag doll from the boat by my foot, which was somehow tangled in the net. I was yanked over the gunwale, my leg feeling as if it was were about to be torn from its socket. The net streaming over side was below me protecting me from crashing into the gunwale as I went over the side.
I heard myself screaming as fell towards the sea. I hit the water and immediately pulled under the surface. The shock of the ice-cold water momentarily paralysed me. An excruciating pain stabbed across my forehead brought on by the searing coldness of the water, the throb of the boat’s diesel engine resonating in my ears. I was disorientated, not knowing where up or down was. I kept thrashing around under the surface, my eyes wide open trying to distinguish some light. I knew that if I could not get my head above the surface within the next few seconds, I would drown.
Using my hands, I felt for my trapped leg, my fingers closing around the rope that ensnared my foot. My fingers groped at the rope. The rope was tight; it was knotted or tangled. My lungs screamed for air. Finally, I kicked off the gumboot round which the rope was entwined, my foot suddenly free. I saw a vague opaque glow in the utter darkness and realised that had to be the direction in which the surface lay. I struck out in that direction but the glow just seemed to elude me, I getting no nearer. Again, I lunged up towards the light wildly kicking my feet, knowing that in seconds I would have to open my mouth, no longer able to hold my breath. My head broke the surface and, with an enormous gasp, drew in a breath of wonderful cold air. A feeling of profound relief overcame me.
I heard somebody shout in Afrikaans: “Daar is hy!”
I was right up against the net where I hung on the cork line. I saw the dingy being rowed frantically towards me, the illuminated boat in the background. The crewmember came alongside, grabbing me with both hands and hauling me aboard. I clung to the man’s clothing, trying to help him by pulling myself into the boat. I rolled into the bottom of the rowboat and lay there gasping for breath, wheezing like the bellows in a farrier’s shop.
“Thank you, thank you,” I finally managed to whisper.
I was exhausted. I knew that I had evaded death by a hair’s breadth. The dinghy banged against the boat’s hull and willing hands hauled me aboard the Carelia. I was heavy, my woollen clothing sodden with water, which streamed on the deck. The crew stared at me, the shock of what had happened still registering on their faces. Everyone wanted to help.
Chris led me to the cabin in the wheelhouse where he helped me strip off my waterlogged clothing. Initially, we said nothing to each other. Chris found spare clothing, which he handed to me. I dressed slowly, my muscles still numb. The clothes did not fit well.
“I’m always telling people to be doubly careful when the net is released. It’s dangerous,” Chris finally voiced in an admonishing tone.
“Chris, it was nothing like that. I know exactly how dangerous the boat is when the net is released. Goddammit, I’ve been long enough on the boat to know that,” I replied irritably, my teeth chattering.
“Well, what happened?” Chris asked.
“I don’t know. The boat rolled and Bruce fell against me. We landed on the deck, with Bruce lying on top of me pinning my legs to the deck. Christ! All the lights were off so as not to scare the fish, which would otherwise have sounded, the school well below the closing net. All lights were off. As you know, it’s so dark you can barely see anything. We eventually disentangled ourselves and I’d hardly regained my feet when you shouted ‘Los’. Suddenly, my feet were jerked from under me, andas I was dragged by my foot, which was somehow entangled in the net. How the hell I ever got entangled in that rope, I’ll never know,” I said.
“God, you’re lucky,” Chris said.
The cook stepped into the wheelhouse, his face expresssionless, masking his concern, and handed me a steaming mug of tea. “Boss, you okay?” he asked in his high-pitched voice. I nodded and thanked him.
“I was saying,” Chris continued, “there are a few incidents like this every year; usually this involves novices who often strike their heads on something on the boat as they go over, losing consciousness. Of course, that’s fatal; they’d be trapped under water and drown. Even with the deck-lights on, we can’t see them in the dark to help.”
“All I can say is that this didn’t happen due to any negligence on my part. The strange thing was that one of the ropes attached to the net was wrapped around my boot. Just ask the crew working the net on the stern of the boat to check for any loose ropes.”
He nodded but looked at me strangely. “I’ll do that,” he stepped out of the wheelhouse onto the deck.
Warmth slowly returned to my body and my teeth eventually stopped chattering. I realised that I must appear to be a novice to this seasoned crew. I was certain that it was impossible have been caught up in the net or a rope. Somehow, this must have happened when Bruce and I fell on the deck. How could a rope, which should not have been there, become wrapped around my leg?
The crew was back at the job, hauling in the net, it with a fair catch of at least half a load. Somebody near the stern shouted for the skipper. A minute later Chris called me. I stepped out of the wheelhouse and went to stand next to him grabbing hold of a handrail.
“Just look at this,” he said, handing me a length of one-inch hessian rope, the other end looped and entwined in the net leaving about fifteen foot of rope free.
“This is what caught you and dragged you off the boat,” Chris added.
“How the hell did the rope get entwined in the net and around my foot?” I asked.
“I don’t know. There shouldn’t even be a piece of loose rope lying around. I’ve no explanation for this. Probably someone’s carelessness,” he said.
The crew stopped hauling on the net to look at us, realising what had been the cause, listening to our conversation.
“Anybody know about this rope?” Chris asked.
Some said ‘no’; others shook their heads.
“Okay everybody, back to work; we have to cast the net at least twice more tonight. Move it!” The skipper shouted.
I made little contribution to the night’s work, still numb from my ordeal. It was with relief that I climbed into the wheelhouse cabin bunk, the skipper was in the top bunk, and the boat on its way back to the factory with Thomas was at the helm. We had nearly filled the hold, a good catch considering the wind and sea that had battered us.
I slept fitfully and woke just as the boat approached the fishing harbour. I stumbled out of the bunk and made my way forward. I found Bruce standing at the bow smoking a cigarette.
“Christ, cousin, you’re damn lucky. How in God’s name did you get caught up in that rope? I never saw any rope and I was standing next to you,” he said, laying a hand on my shoulder.
“I haven’t got the foggiest idea,” I said.
“I’m just relieved that everything’s okay,” he said consolingly.
The boat came alongside the jetty below the massive suction pipe. Within minutes, the enormous pumps started to suck our catch from the hold. I gathered my wet gear, stuffed it into a kitbag and threw it on the jetty. My only desire was to get home, take two Advils and crawl into bed. I secured the kitbag to the motorcycle’s pillion seat and headed for home.
 There he is!