Our grandparents had a summer house on the Rhode Island coast, one peninsula north of Newport, at Little Compton. In the summers when we were young, my brothers and sister and I stayed there with our mother and grandparents, and our father came up from New York City on the weekends and sometimes for longer. For me, and for my brothers and sister, it was a time and place of wonderful peace and total lack of cares.
A couple of miles from the house was Sakonnet Point, with a small harbor protected by a long seawall on the seaward side, with moorage for fishing and sailing boats and, on the far side, commercial fishermen’s docks and old wooden buildings. My father loved the place; it was plain, and the people who kept fishing boats there were serious striper and blue fishermen. The commercial fishermen’s docks smelled right, of tar and fish guts, and the air was full of seagulls wheeling and screeching and fighting when a boat was in and the men were sorting and cleaning its catch. We liked to go there early to see them come in and unload, and sometimes they let us go out with them to watch them pull the nets. My father was childlike in his enthusiasm for this place, and I never had the feeling he was taking us to do these things—just that he was bringing us along. He would comment on the boats and point out the kinds of fish and buy fish or squid to take home for lunch.
My father was an early skindiver and spearfisherman. He made his own masks and snorkels when he started, during World War Two when he was stationed with the Army Air Corps in Florida. He designed a spear gun and started a company after the war, “The Aqua Gun Company,” to sell the gun and diving equipment. He loved diving and spearfishing, and when we kids were pretty young, we were introduced to it, too.
We began spearfishing with him from the beaches, where it was easier to get out of the water after a short time. The water was cold—getting in was agonizing. Our lips were blue when we came out, and we would shiver on the warm sand for a long time.
When I was about 14, my father made neoprene wetsuits for me and my brother Dave, so we could go out with him to spearfish around rocks offshore. He was good with the neoprene. Seams were made by applying glue to both edges, waiting a minute, and sticking them together. Our suits were well fitted, and tears were easy to repair.
With the wetsuits, after the initial shock of the water getting under the suit, we were comfortable. The suits were just tops, only covering our upper bodies and arms, but legs didn’t seem to matter. The suits were tight, and the rubber didn’t slide easily against the skin. Putting them on was difficult.
My father had a seaworthy wooden skiff, a lapstrake v-hull, 16 feet long, open, with an outboard motor. It would plane with us all on board.
We would load all our gear—fins, masks, snorkels, spears, and wetsuits, plus weight-belts to counter the buoyancy of the suits—in the boat (no water, no food, maybe towels) and zoom out of the harbor and around the point to one or another set of rocks a few hundred yards off the shore. We would anchor the boat some distance off the rocks—far enough that it couldn’t hit them if the wind or current changed—and then it became a race to get into our suits and equipment and overboard before getting seasick from the rolling and pitching of the boat. Sometimes, when the sea was calm and flat, it was easy, but my principal memory is of barely making it or getting into the water feeling very sick.
This was not your beautiful Caribbean clear blue water. It was grey-green and murky. On a good day we could see 10 feet, which meant that, on the way from the boat to the rocks, around which we hoped to find our fish, we could see nothing at all, except the limit of our visibility. It was like being in the dark in an unknown place—easy to imagine something big and dangerous coming into view from any direction.
So I was glad when the rocks came into view. They distracted me from my imagination. They were real and interesting, and around them we hoped to find our fish. The rocks were also a significant part of the exercise when there were waves of any size. Our father taught us not to resist them, and to avoid the places where they broke against the rocks. We learned to use a wave to get out onto the rocks, letting the surge take us to the high point, then gripping the rock and letting the wave recede. It gave me a sense of having a skill.
The fish we hoped to see were of two kinds: striped bass—stripers--which preyed on smaller fish tumbling in the surf, and blackfish, or tautogs, which grazed on mussels on the rocks. The stripers were rarely seen, and then only fleetingly, which made them a great prize. The blackfish were to be found back in crevices and overhangs under the rocks near the bottom. We could hear them crunching mussel shells with their hard jaws.
In the years of this kind of spearfishing, sometimes with my father, sometimes on my own, I speared many blackfish and two stripers. One striper was a great success, and I still have a photo of myself with the fish. The other was a success and a heartbreak; out by myself, I speared a passing striper perfectly, but the cotton line by which the point was attached to the spear had loosened in the water and came off when the fish gave a reflexive thrash, and it was gone. No fish, no glory.
For blackfish, my father showed us how to dive down near the bottom and look into those crevices and under those overhangs for the fish. As the name implies, the fish were black, and it was dark under the rocks. You had to get your eyes into the same shadowy darkness, with the spear cocked in your hand, to see the fish, and sometimes the first, or the only, thing you could see clearly was their white-tipped lower jaws. I clearly remember seeing him do it the first time, watching him from the surface.
When I did it myself, there was a revelation when my eyes adjusted to the darkness in the shadow, and the fish were suddenly visible, lurking in the back of the space. Picking out the biggest, if there was a choice, I would let the spear fly, a hand-spear with a loop of rubber attached to the end to propel it, aiming for a spot just behind the gills. Often I missed and jammed the spear tip against the rock, bending or blunting it. If I hit the fish, the point would detach from the spear, connected to it by a line, and there would be a flurry of action as the fish struggled and thrashed. If the fish was hit right, it would be killed and inert, but that was rare.
Spearing a fish was the goal, but succeeding also had two negatives: first, we had to swim all the way back to the boat, and second, the fish was never as big in the boat as it had seemed underwater with the magnification of mask and water.
In later years I dived in lovely clear blue water, over coral, surrounded by sun and colorful fish. Now I wonder at my father and brother and myself enduring the discomfort and terrible conditions for those unremarkable fish, but it was exciting at the time and it still gives me pleasure to remember it.