By Jim Callas
As a young deckhand, I had the opportunity to fish with some really awesome guys—one of whom was a fellow by the name of Capt. David Russell. Russell was fishing on a boat called the Bali Hai and was a pretty cool guy. We got to talking one day and he basically hired me on the spot for some reason and soon we were fishing every day. The Bali Hai was what was referred to as a Navy Crash boat or
AVR boat. AVR was an acronym for “air, sea rescue.” These old wooden boats were built for the navy and resembled a PT boat from WWII. Built out of double diagonal mahogany planking, powered by twin Ford Lehman diesels and had a reverse sheer line. The old AVR boats came in two sizes: 44 feet and 63 feet—we had the 44 foot version.
The Bali Hai was one of those boats that when you would get on-board you’d take a step back into history. For me, I took one sniff down below and could only imagine all the history this old girl could tell. She wasn’t by any stretch one of the modern boats with a plastic/fantastic pedigree—certainly not a production boat. She was earthy, in a good, warm smelling and organic sort of way. You could go down below and she was comforting and cool. She was trees that had been reincarnated into a something that carried people around on the water for whatever they wanted to do at the time. This is why I believe wood boats have soul. Some have said, “If God wanted people to be in plastic boats, there would be plastic trees.”
Russell and I enjoyed some really good fishing in those days. For some reason the Hawaiian waters were being infiltrated by a whole bunch of short nose spearfish. We’d catch them on 130-pound test loaded onto Penn Senator 14/O’s. Talk about overkill! These beautiful, skinny little billfish were no match for the huge tackle we were employing. Knowing now what I didn’t know then, these fish would have been excellent candidates for ultra-light tackle, bait and switch techniques and tagging. Of course, tagging is where you do not kill the fish but rather pop a little research tag into the fish to hopefully gain some knowledge about where they migrate. When and if the fish is caught again, that tag is taken and mailed to marine researchers who track such things.
After fishing with Russell for about a year, he suggested that I get my captain’s license as he was getting antsy to leave Maui and move to Kona where he and a partner were going to start operating the 38′ Bertram, Sea Wolf. He helped me by getting the necessary paperwork started and he signed off on my sea-time record. There was a traveling school that went inter-island in those days to instruct us deckhands to successfully pass the US Coast Guard captains test. I learned that soon the Pacific Maritime Academy would set up in a elementary school at night and I signed up immediately.
The plan was to fish all day and go to the school at night taught by a Captain Halvorsen. The old sea captain teaching the class had the curriculum down perfectly. He taught us new-comers all about the rules of the road, safety at sea, navigation and all the rest of the stuff that the Coast Guard requires. Occasionally, when he thought we needed a break he’d ask, “you guys want to hear some sea stories?” One of which was from when he was literally a young lad and working on a square rigger as a deckhand. To keep the crew in good spirits on that ship they were given a ration of cookies each day. One day, in particularly rough seas, one of his shipmates froze in fear high aloft up in the rigging and wouldn’t come down. Captain Halvorsen asked the young man if he could have his ration of cookies since he wasn’t coming down and that’s all it took for the nervous deckhand to make his way down the foot ropes to the safety of the main deck.
After the six weeks in school I graduated with a “near-coastal six pack” license, later going on to obtain my 100 ton license. Dave Russell left the Bali Hai and I was given my first command. I really didn’t know how to maneuver a boat of that size very well as the guys I worked with would always drive it away from the dock and park it at the end of the trip. So I started practicing maneuvering the boat and soon had the hang of it for the most part. The only problem I had was that one day I bumped a boat in a nasty cross wind after fueling but didn’t cause any damage so things went well. And as luck would have it I actually started catching fish for my clients. For some odd reason I was picking up quite a few double wahoos and mahis on our short charters. One day, I was fishing on the south side of Lanai, picked up a little tuna and slowed the boat down so the client could reel it in. Just then one of my engines died. I was dangerously close to a jagged lee shore so I floored the other engine in hopes of getting the hell out of there!
There was about 15 knots of wind and 4-foot seas running right toward the rocks when my other engine died! I had everybody put on their life jackets while I went into the engine room to try and figure out what had happened. The boat was lying in the trough and I nearly hurled down in the stifling hot engine room while trying everything I could think of to get the Bali Hai running again. I was getting absolutely frantic as I tried bleeding the injectors and still had no fuel. Going topside to check our position I even tried to put out a sea anchor to slow our progress toward the rocks but we were still staying in the same exact spot and not moving toward the rocks. Now, totally frustrated and scared out of my wits I called the owner on the radio and explained the situation to him. He just happened to have one of his other boats in a nearby harbor and he raced out to help.
Sure enough, he instantly got her fired right back up as he explained that we had basically run the engines dry of fuel. In retrospect, I asked my deckhand to switch fuel tanks earlier and as a result, we ran out of fuel—still my fault for not being on top of my game in the fuel department. The owner called me a fool, he departed and we resumed fishing as if nothing had happened at all. As a side note, as I was taking my captains class, I learned that the current on that side of Lanai actually off-sets against the weather and it kept us from going aground on the jagged lava rocks and breaking the boat apart into bits. I really thought that my fledgling career was over but learned a valuable lesson in the process.
Driving the Bali Hai had one particular quirk. She didn’t have a tuna tower and sat low to the water so it was difficult to see much out on the ocean. What we would do is peel back the canvas Bimini top, stand on the dash board and steer the boat with our feet. Since she had a reverse sheer, and if you hit a sizable wave head on, the boat would plunge into it rather than go over it sending green water up and over the forward deck and into the main area where everyone was hanging out. I doused several people before I got the hang of quartering into the seas a little better and keeping my guests a little drier.
I was just a “so-so” fisherman way back then at the tender age of 24. I was able to raise my share of marlin, but my catch ratio wasn’t that great. One day, which I’ll never forget, we hooked into a very respectable size marlin probably in the 500-600 pound range. She screamed out a bunch of line, gray hounded a bit, and then got right up on her tail and started chasing right at us! I put the pedal to the metal and I heard one captain on the radio say, “Jimmy! She’s going to land in your boat!” I turned the helm hard over thinking it might be a good way to change tactics but she popped off. Yet again, another big fish that got away and lived to tell the tale about a young fisherman with hooks that could’ve used some sharpening.
The Bali Hai had a built in tuna door in the transom. That is, there was a cut-out in the transom that was covered with a slide in and out type of door. We would park the boat in the harbor with the stern facing the dock which presented a fun albeit juvenile opportunity for a young harbor rat such as me. Back in those days I owned a little moped that I used to scoot around Lahaina town. Every once in awhile, early in the morning I would show up for work by riding my moped down the dock and jumping it through the tuna door, onto the back deck of the boat and coming to a squealing stop!
This of course gained me some laughs from some of the neighboring crews—disdain from others.
The owner of the boat had a penchant for making side money by salvaging boats that had gone aground—i.e. maritime salvage rights. He at one point owned a small tug boat which he used to pull boats off the reef and after completion of that he would basically sell the boat back to the poor owner. But for some reason that tug boat went away and the owner opted to modify the Bali Hai for this purpose. This required to take the boat on a 12 hour trip across the channel to Oahu and haul her out at the Hawaiian Tuna Packers dry dock. Once there, we built a towing bit in the middle of the deck about a third of the way forward which gave us a much better purchase for pulling on boats for salvage rights. We didn’t see much salvage action for a few months after the re-fit but then a Kona storm brewed up from the south and we anxiously waited for any boat that might go aground.
The very next day we got the word that a sailboat had gone aground north of us on Kaanapali beach. So off we went into the teeth of the storm. It was blowing around 50 knots that day with 18 foot seas running. The Lahaina harbor entrance which is usually a nice calm channel had begun to close out with breaking waves—with the owner at the wheel he put the hammer down and we blasted out of the harbor. We hit that first big wave leaving the harbor with the bow of the Bali Hai pointing skyward and then came down with a mighty crash!
How that old boat held together is a mystery to me but I guess she was a testament to the skillful boat builders who slapped the old girl together. Once outside the harbor the seas were less confused, and we had a downhill ride to the beach where we found the sailboat high and dry. My deckhand had brought his surfboard and paddled a messenger line from the boat to the beach which we then secured to our tow hawser. Now we had a secure line attached and we were ready for business. The owner jumped into the tumultuous torrent and with the aid of the tow rope, he did the hand over hand method and made his way to the beach to orchestrate the operation of removing the sailboat.
I was at the helm and having the time of my life with this crazy distraction to everyday life. The owner and I communicated and he let me know how much power to apply to the hawser. I’d give the Bali Hai full throttle, the rope would come taut, she pulled hard against the big waves and not go anywhere. That sailboat was firmly stuck! The owner and a bunch of tourists, dug, pushed, cajoled and crab-walked the stricken craft toward the welcoming arms of the sea where we finally got her dislodged and towed her back to the harbor safe and sound. Apparently, she was a well built boat and only suffered minor physical damage not to be compared with the financial damage that our tow-boat owner inflicted on the sailboat owner I’m sure.
Much to my surprise the next day we were called into action again. This time south of where the first boat went aground. We steamed south to the town of Kihei and could clearly see from a distance that the 50′ Santa Cruz Suntan Special had found the rocks. We repeated the same procedure and had her off the reef in no time. The difference this time though was that the Suntan Special had a little split in her hull and she needed to be towed to Oahu to undergo repairs. The owner assigned me the job of getting her from Lahaina to Oahu safely and off we went into the night. We had an uneventful trip up until about 0200 when we were quietly cruising along on the downhill run toward Oahu. I was half asleep at the wheel and a pod of dolphins showed up to visit right up alongside where I was driving and startled me awake!
We got to the Ala Wai boat harbor that morning without incident and the skipper of the Suntan Special said he would like to drive the boat into the mooring himself. I was thinking, “cool—he’s got this, no problem” both boats are cruising down the channel toward the harbor when I hear the owner start yelling at me over the radio, calling me a fool again and telling me to stick with the Suntan Special. We get both boats into the harbor, secure them and off we went for food and drink. Back at the harbor that night the Bali Hai had become a gathering spot of sorts for wayward souls and travelers. The next day we just sort of hung around on the boat, fixed a few things and got ready to head on back to Maui. A couple of our new friends wanted to go to Maui with us and I certainly had no problem with that. One of these guys was my friend Kevin and he wanted to bring his Harley Davidson. It was a big heavy bike but we just wrestled it through the tuna door and battened her down securely for the bumpy uphill ride back to Maui.
Such were the life and times of one fisherman and occasional pirate.