In Widechard's Seas
Sure you have heard hundreds of sea tales among your lives but I bet none of them compare to Widechard’s. Few sea creatures matches its oddity and even fewer have its will. Indeed, you can go to any port here in South Africa or ask our seadogs and you will get things like: “one night, Widechard was so bored it robbed my rod and tried fishing Volens constellation”; "As a little fish, Widechard is said to have been raised by a shark"; "Widechard is so determined in the water that sea storms stop to avoid disturbing his swimming".
And you know what? As far as I can tell, this is not a huge creature. It is just like a big sardine. Many sailors, including myself, have wondered over the years if it is a divine being or if we are just sail too drunk. Maybe we were always wrong about this creature.
In any case, as I am a sailor of many hooks, I once caught a very interesting story from Widechard, told by the admired Captain Buenaventura, may he rest in peace. Perhaps such a story is going to surprise you as much as it surprised me at the time.
Captain Buenaventura, experienced as he was, found it hard to believe everything that was said about Widechard. In fact, he laughed about it. "I sail among children who believe in fairy tales," he said. But early one morning, the captain, jaded, decided to put an end to all that fantasy and go fishing with his own hands for that mythical fish. He sailed from Green Point to the Lord's Islet, where Widechard was supposedly splashing around.
"I'm going to show those idiot sailors that Widechard is a Columbus-era invention", he said to himself, vehemently taking the helm of his boat.
Already at high seas, he began to observe every mile for anything unusual with his binoculars. As he told me himself, he looked like a spinning top, a chimpanzee and a lover at the same time. He was spinning around like crazy, scratching his head and pretending to dive in at any moment as if his beloved was going to drown. The incessant breeze of that day attacked the boat adding strength to Captain Buenaventura's fierce search. He insisted that it was like this for hours until a drowned moan came out of his mouth when five miles from the Lord's Islet a whale ejected a cloud of fish from one of its blowholes. The captain frowned and was stunned to see this. But, despite his surprise, he dove in shortly after the fish entered the water.
The sea was quite clear, so he could easily identify the fish. He saw that the characteristics of the fish were what the sailors always mentioned, including that unusual mouth opening that reminded him of the whale shark. Since they were all very similar, he couldn't tell if Widechard was among the fish at first. He was surprised by how the school of fish swam in circles at great speed. He thought it was some kind of fish mating ritual he had never seen before. I still remember how he told me with a mysterious smile:
—And, boom, they're gone! They shot out and left me there like a fool. They just wanted to distract me.
Captain Buenaventura realized from the beginning that his prey was no ordinary fish. His steely attitude increased and he swam quickly back to his boat to hunt it down off the South African coasts.
It was an intense, difficult chase because these strange fish constantly varied their route. At times, they seemed lost, but it was not so. The captain told me they were trying to tire him out; however, his spirit and fight roared like the wind in those days of 1898 Summer.
As part of his strategy, he devised numerous baits for the fish, knowing that so much swimming would make them hungry. The fish approached and he was ready to capture the famous Widechard and his group with his nets, but what he saw at that moment left him more perplexed than before:
"I was powerless, young man. Those odious creatures let yellowfin tuna, albacore, and other fish take the bait for them to then ambush and devour them when they came down. They attacked them as they say they attack the piranhas of the Amazon".
After a second great taunt, the captain was more outraged than ever. He even tried to harpoon the fish that had been playing with his pride, but with no results.
In this frenzy that the captain embarked on late he realized that he had ended up in a very choppy open sea. His boat was rocking hard and the fish were no longer visible to the naked eye.
The situation got worse and worse for Captain Buenaventura: the waves grew and grew. His boat was like a toy for the rough sea. The wild swell made the bow of the boat face the sky for a few seconds. When the boat splashed out again, a big wave hit the boat from one side and flooded it with relative ease.
The captain managed to take his life jacket, but the uneasiness of the sea did not allow him to stay on the surface easily.
"I simply feared that my time had come," he said, looking up at the sky.
But his luck changed against all odds. When the sea had exhausted the captain and he could hardly breathe, he saw silvery flashes. As he looked more closely at what it was, he realized it was Widechard and his group. He told me for sure that this was the first time he had seen Widechard. This is, he was the one in front of everyone commanding the move.
Quickly, the shoal approached the dying Captain, as he remembers, and his body was propelled upward.
After this, there was an indefinite silence. The captain knew no more of the world for a while. In fact, feeling invaded by a strong glow, he believed he was about to be reunited with God. But it was only the light of the Sun, the light of noon on the high seas.
With all his strength, the captain rose from the floor of what was a small boat. Very puzzled, he looked around for explanations. After a few seconds, he saw a little man with a white beard peeking out of the cabin of the ship. Followed by a laugh "hahahuhihu", the little man shouted at the captain:
—Finally you wake up, you bum! Help me fish something. Hurry up.
The crazy moment only brought up several questions from the captain. Then there were two men talking about the issues of the sea, while waiting for some fish to be caught.
Look, sir—said the little man named Vincent, I just left early for my daily chore and you were in my way.
Was I alone?— asked the captain.
—Affirmative. You were alone, on a piece of wood. Half a body on the wood, the other half in the water. I thought you were dead. The sea was terrible yesterday.
The captain made a thoughtful face and then he saw Vincent. This way for a few seconds until he dared to ask:
Weren't there any fish near me when you found me?
—Hahahuhihu! What? No. If so, I had already caught them, hahahuhihu!
Despite this response, the captain took the situation calmly. He accompanied Vincent in the fishing that day, after he gave him some food. Unlike the day before, the sea was like a plate, very calm and bright. Late in the afternoon, Vincent and Captain Buenaventura managed to fish at least 30 kgs and this became a reason for celebration. They sang happily at the top of their lungs:
A song of waves, a song of men
raises in us, to be voiced with strength.
We are survivors; we are the ones that calls
Come unto me, all you who want.
By the time the constellations marked the course of the little ship, Vincent and the captain sat down to talk like best friends. Between anecdotes and sea jokes, the captain could not help but reveal his recent history, why he was in those waters.
—I wanted to prove that fish were only fish, but this Widechard is special—said the captain, looking at Vincent with pity. The most unfortunate thing is that now I have lost his trail.
Not so fast, Captain—warned Vincent, raising one of his index fingers. I have seen before those fish that you describe to me, hahahuhihu! They were partying on a reef not far from here. They jump, turn and dive like crazy.
—Are you absolutely sure?
—Yes, of course. Look at me, Captain, tomorrow morning we will be at the reef and we will fish for Widechard. You will be famous among your people, hahahuhihu!
The sails of Vincent's ship were raised and the search for Widechard began. The morning looked promising along the African coast. Especially rewarding were the dolphin games and the affectionate swim of a mother whale with her playful calf. Later on, near the coral zone, Vincent pointed out with emotion some small islands that in his childhood were a reason for happiness. Captain Buenaventura knew some of them, but others seemed to him to have just come out of the sea.
The moment of contemplation ended when Vincent said:
—Hahahuhihu! There it is, there it is! Widechard's reef.
The captain immediately left the cabin and heading to the bow he saw the dilated colors of the reef closer and closer. When Vincent stopped the ship, the captain looked incessantly at his saving shoal. However, he found nothing but a reef full of strange ray fish and many spiky limbs.
What are these fish, Vincent? I've never seen them before— said the captain in astonishment.
No idea, Captain. First time I see them, and if I'm honest with you, they make me afraid—answered Vincent, scratching his beard.
That's when they were both suddenly shocked to see how many of Widechard's fish were on the coral floor, dead. The ray fish seemed to be the culprit because beyond them were some surrounding Widechard himself and some of his companions.
I remember that in this part, Captain Buenaventura clenched his jaw and said to me
—Young man, as never before, I felt a great instinct of protection. I did not hesitate, really not, to attack the striped fish.
As fast as they could, the captain and Vincent approached where Widechard was and started throwing rudimentary harpoons at the strange attacking fish. Some of the harpoons hit; others stuck in the sand.
This helped Widechard and his group to take a quick swim out of the striped fish conglomeration.
—Won't we catch them, Captain?
No. I'm happy to return the favor. I know that Widechard is real and that's enough for me—said the captain.
Shortly after he uttered those words Widechard himself jumped out of the water like a dolphin would. The captain immediately understood the fish's way of thanking him and then raised his hand to say goodbye.
His biggest surprise that day was not finding Widechard cornered, but seeing him disappear seconds later through some rusty ladders. Both the disappearance of the fish and the ladders were very curious. The intrigue generated by both sailors was great. Since they couldn't resist the desire to see what had happened, they anchored the boat and dived in. At first sight it looked like a ladder, nothing out of the ordinary. But then the captain and Vincent noticed something extraordinary.
The captain said to me:
—We were very surprised, young man. When we put our hands on the ladder it felt strange, like a tickle, and we saw how the part that had been inserted disappeared before our eyes
I told him that time:
—But, Captain, with all due respect, how do you expect me to believe this?
—Wait! As we experienced such a peculiar event, Vincent and I looked at each other and nodded our heads before throwing ourselves completely "inside the ladder". It was really amazing. It was as beautiful as in our seas: abundance of marine species and interesting rock formations everywhere. It was just different in the intensity of the colors. The water, as if adorned with bright silvery bits, showed a very intense blue.
I stopped him again and asked him the same question as before. He answered me:
—You must believe me because I went a couple more times. The ladder exists. It seems to be forgotten or something that doesn't hold anything important, but it is precisely that kind of things that holds the most relevant issues for our lives.
And here I am, remembering, thanks to the silvery glow of the moon that I see outside the window, the brilliant and extremely lively sea that Captain Buenaventura took me to when I was younger.
Unfortunately, the captain died two years after he took me there, but twelve years later both his stories and the images of those waters behind the rusty ladder in which I saw the mythical Widechard swim are still intact in my memory.