by Nicole M. Bailey
One summer, when I was sixteen, I lived on a boat with four men who started out as complete strangers to me. We sailed from San Pedro Harbor to Catalina Island on a 1969 fishing boat. It stunk the way an old wooden pier stinks on a hot day, fish guts and bird shit. We were preparing this boat for its ultimate purpose. It was going to be the vessel an entire documentary film crew lived on. The film was focused on exploring the social life of great whites. Though there had been countless SharkWeek episodes devoted to this topic, our documentary was special because of the mechanical shark. The mechanical shark was a replica of a great white but the inside was completely hollow. The shark opened at the gills. Once opened, a diver could climb inside the shark’s belly and use a joystick mechanism to propel it forward. It was a bizarre invention. Throughout our journey, the shark sat at the stern of the boat, buried under tarps to protect its coloring from the sun. We were traveling with a robot shark.
My mother dropped me off in San Pedro Harbor. I stood – two big black duffel bags weighing me down – and watched her car pull out of the parking lot through the rusty chain link fence separating us. There was enough work on that boat for a crew of twenty men. When I boarded, it barely looked sea worthy. Large flecks of paint chipped away revealing deep rust on the hull. It became clear just how much interning was going to be required. I was less of a film intern and more of a boat lacky. It didn’t bother me. I was happy with the prospect of four long weeks away from home.
I saw the intern opportunity on a website geared toward young filmmakers. The director of the documentary, Mike, interviewed me for the internship at his home in Ranchos Palos Verdes. As my mother drove me to this meeting, I realized we were heading into filthy rich territory. We drove uphill past mansion after mansion. When we arrived, I was painfully embarrassed by our dumb, white Astro van.
To reach Mike’s front door, we passed through the exotic jungle that was merely his front yard. Hulking trees reminding me of Banyons stooped around his doorstep. Tropical vines swallowed the walls of his house so that even the paint color of his home was not visible. Mike’s front door was wide open. We were left trying to decide the best course of action. I was feeling insecure. I hated my outfit. I looked shabby. Why had I picked these shoes when the toes were so scuffed? Mike lumbered to the open door. He was seven feet tall, hulking over us with a blank expression. I noticed he was barefoot. He wore shorts, a t-shirt, and a blue baseball cap with new emblem. The lines in his face were deep set. His skin reminded me of a soft, warn baseball glove. When he said, “Come in,” I though of Lurch. We went into the dining room and Mike peppered me with questions. Some rather direct: “Do you think you can live on a boat for an extended period? Would you say you are tough? Are you afraid of me right now?” Other questions surprised me as he asked them because of their political and philosophical nature: “What do you think of the Iraq war? What is the best part of life? Why do you even care about movies?” When he was finished with his questions, Mike got up from the table and invited me into his backyard. He opened the wide, glass sliding doors and followed me into the yard. I knew we were close to the ocean, but I had not realized that Mike’s house was perched on the edge of a sea cliff. The ocean was breaking in wild waves and mist below us. No fence or any kind of barrier kept us from the endless drop, just a low makeshift wall of rocks. He stood beside me, gazing down the cliff, when he said, “Are you sure you want to do this? because I can’t waste my time babying some teenage girl. You sure you can rough it?” I said I was sure. I said it louder than I’d said anything else that day, as if yelling would convince Mike I wasn’t weak. The view caught me so off-guard, I hadn’t noticed the wide, bright yellow boa constrictor curled up in the corner of the yard. When he saw my eyes drift to the snake, Mike said, “Oh. Would you like to meet Stevie?”
The main reason for going to Catalina was so the dive crew could finally test the robot shark in the ocean. The documentary would be filmed in rough waters off the coast of Mexico in a well-known white shark migration path. During my time, the boat crew was made up of four men: Peter, Mark, Paul, and Colin. Peter was our captain and the head of our boat family. He was kind and had spent most of his life on the ocean with Sea Shepherd. Mark, our resident marine biologist, was loud and domineering with a foul mouth that continually embarrassed me. Mark was known for his work with white sharks in South Africa. He swam with them and never used a cage. He also never missed a chance to mention it. Paul was the boat’s muralist and “beautification expert,” as I liked to call him. He was quirky and his Canadian accent often made me laugh. Most of my work involved helping Paul chip rust off the boat, repainting the bunks, head, galley, decks and rails. Mike hired Paul to paint a giant white shark with his mouth wide open on the bow of the boat. It was supposed to draw attention to the project and look cool on film. Colin was 19 and the other intern onboard. He’d been with the project since its inception. Somehow, his father knew Peter and Mike. Though we were both technically film interns, the time we spent together on the boat involved very little filmmaking.
Colin was the first person to greet me when I arrived. He helped me aboard and led me to the bunks so I could get rid of my duffel bags. All over the deck were tangled messes of bright orange extension cords. These cords were plugged into countless devices: sanders, radios, mysterious wide black boxes I was told had something to do with the bilge. We weren’t scheduled to leave the harbor for a week and a half. Plenty of time, Peter said, to make sure she wouldn’t sink.
While we lived in the harbor, we learned to be a crew. Paul and Peter were eager to teach me things about the boat while Mark lectured Colin and me on the nature of the white shark. Peter was my favorite. He felt like a father, an uncle and a best friend wrapped in one. His genial nature balanced out the strong personalities of goofy Paul and intense Mark. At the end of our long workdays, Peter would let us fool around with the high tech, professional cameras we’d get to use once we were in Catalina. We were especially excited because Peter said Colin and I would be responsible for shooting important B-rolls while the shark was lifted off the deck by crane for the first time.
Paul and I made easy dinners each night from whatever canned goods we had available. We’d sit in lawn chairs and eat on the deck, feeling the cool breeze off the harbor. After dinner, Peter stood far off from us smoking tobacco out of an old pipe. Those first two weeks acquired a dream like quality. Our days were filled with hard manual labor, and our evenings were spent listening to the slow, steady lap of water against the dock.
The truth of the matter was I hadn’t anticipated becoming seasick. I’d been sailboat racing a couple times so I just assumed that once we took to the high seas, I would adjust easily. I was wrong. Mike was scheduled to visit the boat for days, but he kept postponing. He was supposed to double check our progress before directing us to set out for Catalina. On a Tuesday morning at 4:45 am, Colin was shaking me awake. “All hands on deck,” he whispered. Through the fog of sleep, I heard those words and panicked. “Is it a fire?” I said. He laughed. “No, we’re leaving today.” Mike called Peter to say he wanted us to go ahead to Catalina. His schedule was packed with financing meetings, and he had no idea when he would be able to get out and see us. The boar erupted in activity as we rushed around preparing to leave dock. Once we completed our own tasks, Colin and I retreated from the activity to the edge of the bow. We sat high up, swinging our legs against the side of the ship. We were finally going to get that robot shark in the water.
Before we actually set course for Catalina, Mike asked Peter to swing the boat past his home so he could film us passing his backyard cliff in morning light. The morning was unusually still and clear, nothing like the usual dreary, overcast setting. The sun was out and burning by 8:00 am. The sheen off the water burned my eyes. I went below deck to grab my sunglasses, and when I came back we were making wide swings on the ocean so Mike could get his perfect shot. If you squinted, you could see him on the edge of the cliff in a white t-shirt. I thought of Stevie curled up in the corner of the yard, feet upon feet of bright yellow scales, tanning and enjoying the comfortable life of a wealthy, man-crushing snake.
It was rapidly apparent that things were going from bad to worse in my head and stomach. What took about an hour and a half aboard an average Catalina Express took about six hours on our bucket. Instead of gliding over the waves the way a speedboat or even a sailboat would, we were pounding every swell we met. The boat rocked unpredictably so that I could never rock with it. I thought if I remained on the bow and stared at the horizon, I would make it to Catalina without looking like the seasick dork I actually was. Colin had gone below for a bottle of water. When he returned, he saw my face painted with sickness and said, “Are you alright?” As I answered him, I vomited. I was careful not to get it on deck, mostly because I didn’t want anyone telling Mike I’d barfed on deck. The slurry of my insides landed, an oily slick on the foaming water below. Colin ran to get Paul. When Paul saw me, he said, “Oh no. Oh no. Now you’re green.” He tried to persuade me to go below deck, but everything I knew about boats told me it would only be worse down there. He wasn’t listening, though. He stood behind me, reached under my armpits and pulled me from my seated position on the edge of the bow. In a strange type of torture, he told me to walk down the stairs of the deck holding onto the rail. I couldn’t see straight. With every step I took another swell smashed into us, the boat tumbled forward and lurched backward at once. I don’t remember how I made it to my bunk, but there I was lying on my back, moaning. I slipped in and out of fevered dreams. I was convinced the boat was somersaulting in the water. When I passed out, I dreamed of robot sharks. During the boat’s somersault, our shark came alive and he multiplied. Now a school of robot sharks swam toward me with their jaws mechanically opening and snapping shut.
I woke to the comforting snores of Paul, Mark, and Colin. Mercifully, I was no longer sick. I climbed out of my bunk and grabbed a beach towel to wrap around my shoulders against the chill of morning. On deck, Peter stood at the stern, smoking his pipe and peeking under the tarp at the shark. I cleared my throat loudly. He turned and smiled, his coke bottle glasses fogged over by morning mist. He said, “You’re alive. Now you’ll never be sick again. Now you’re a sailor. Coffee? Black, I’ll bet.” He scuttled past me and into the galley.
During our first week in Catalina, we accomplished plenty. We tested the crane and worked out a good system for using it. Paul finished his mural on the bow of the boat. It was a menacing white shark with a wide-open red mouth and crooked rows of teeth bared. During our second week, Peter went to dry land to check his cell phone messages and call Mike. Our boat was too big for the resort slips on Catalina, so we anchored further down the island, a great distance from Avalon, but near a boys summer camp. Some camp counselors paddled out to us in kayaks with rosy-cheeked ten-year olds. “They wanted to get up close to the shark boat,” the leader said.
When Peter returned from dry land, the dingy he captained was packed with food supplies. Peter hollered for Colin to grab the rope ladder and buoys. Paul and Mark came to deck when they heard Peter’s voice. These days they argued in the galley, daily. We’d been living in close quarters together for close to three weeks, and Mark and Paul were really starting to get on each other’s nerves. Once Peter was tied off against the boat, he passed the supplies up the ladder to Colin and me. We loaded them on the deck while Mark leaned over the rail shouting at Peter for details. “What did Mike say?” Peter’s brow furrowed. It was obvious that Peter wanted to get the damn dingy unloaded first. He kept answering all of Mark’s questions with, “I will tell you everything Mike said when we’re done.”
The last couple days, I’d been able to tell something wasn’t quite right. Peter, Mark and Paul kept standing around in a little cluster, farther from the interns than usual, and arguing. Colin noticed it first. He kept saying, “I don’t know what’s up, but something’s up.” Once the dingy was unloaded, Peter came into the galley where we were all waiting for him. Mark was brewing tea but tension enveloped him as he did so. He leaned with his back against the galley counter space with his arms folded and resting on top of his belly. Peter ducked in and held a hand up to Mark before he could start talking. We’d all gotten pretty good at silent communication. Living in such a tiny space together allowed us to read each other’s nonverbal cues expertly. “Now, I know,” Peter said, “you’re probably wondering what Mike had to say. And I’ll tell you.” He held his palm up to Mark again, “But first, I want absolute guarantees that once I tell you, we’ll all get straight to work with no complaints.” Mark sighed with his whole body from the top of his head to his pinky toe. Peter sighed back, mocking him. Mark squinted his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose and stared at Peter.
“He’s coming out in two days with the dive team and the rest of the film crew. So we need to clean up the bunks and the head. We need to get ready for our living space to shrink further.” Peter went up the stairs from the galley before Mark had a chance to reply. Mark’s face was a cartoon shade of red. He followed Peter out and above deck shouting about the possibility of someone being killed in that contraption. Paul sat with his elbows on the kitchen table, and his head in his hands. “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy.”
As interns, we were confused by Mark’s anger. We’d waited for this call from Mike since we anchored. The whole reason for us to even be offshore from Catalina was so Mike could bring out the dive and camera crews to test the damn shark! Listening to the heated argument above deck, it was clear Mark thought this was a very bad time to test the shark. Three days before, he found a fundamental problem. The escape release was sticking. Mark wasn’t the diver who would be inside the shark during filming, but he continually asked Peter to let him climb inside it. He kept saying the only way he would feel good about this project was if he, a very experienced diver, got to climb into the shark himself and see how the whole thing worked. Mark was always pulling the tarp back and fiddling with the gills (where the shark would open) when Peter wasn’t looking. Peter was so tired of Mark’s obsession that he promised once we anchored in Catalina that Mark could get inside the shark, on deck, and inspect the machine.
When we pulled the tarps back to let Mark in, we were all thoroughly annoyed with him. I think Paul had half a mind to fire up the crane, pick up the shark and drop Mark into the water with no dive tank on his back. While Mark was inside the belly of the shark, he found that the emergency escape lever kept sticking. From inside of the thing, he was giving a muffled lecture on diver safety and the possibility of encountering particularly aggressive sharks. “Sharks are smarter than you think, guys! It’s entirely possible one of them could decide to ram this sonuvabitch.” When he pulled the lever, the shark’s head would open away from its gills only slightly, not enough for the diver to make a quick escape. Mark saw this as a fatal error. “The whole point of the escape lever is for the diver to get out and fast!” He shouted this several times a day with foamy flecks of spit in the corner of his mouth.
I don’t think Peter disagreed with Mark, but I do think he was trying to come up with a delicate way to present this problem to Mike. Our little expedition was plagued with minor problems, mostly to do with the age of our boat. Still, each problem frustrated Peter because he’d have to go Mike, explain the problem, present the solution and then get money, supplies, whatever we needed to make the solution happen. Even though Peter and Mike had known each other for over thirty years, it was clear Peter hated telling him about any of our problems. None of us wanted to be in trouble with Mike. Though he was rarely around, he haunted everything we did. This was his project, his money, his robot shark – no one wanted to fuck anything up. Peter wasn’t eager to explain that the entire, expensive centerpiece of the film had a pretty significant malfunction no one thought to check. Mike and the divers were coming, and Mark wasn’t about to let the stickiness of the escape lever go.
Now that we had an exact date for Mike and the extended crew’s arrival, Paul and I had our own problems. The deck needed to be repainted, and it needed to be finished and dry before Mike arrived. It was a task we kept putting off because it was so tedious. Peter warned us over and over that if we didn’t start painting the deck soon, we would be in a world of hurt when Mike arrived and this most basic task remained incomplete. The good news was that two days before we heard Mike was coming, we’d finally started to paint. The entire top deck was close to complete. The bad news was we still needed to paint the lower deck and stairs.
While Peter, Mark and Mike stood next to the shark arguing, Colin went to the Captain’s quarters to organize camera equipment. I went to the top deck to gather paint supplies so I could start on the stairs. In my haste, I kicked over a can of grey paint. It rolled on its side and oozed all over the freshly painted white deck. I stood motionless and horrified. If anyone saw I’d made this mistake, I was in for some real trouble. In two seconds, I’d created a ridiculous amount of stress and even more work for everyone onboard. In a flash of what I thought was brilliance I noticed Paul had left the turpentine out. I’d seen him use a rag dipped in turpentine to clean up small areas of his mural. The liquid acted like an eraser.
I plunged the nearest rag into the turpentine. In a panic, I got on my hands and knees and began wiping at the spreading spot. I noticed that while the turpentine was erasing the paint I’d spilled, it was also eating into the clean white of the deck. The hideous brown we’d worked so hard to cover was exposed. I’d have to fix this new mistake once I’d wiped up the gray paint. I wasn’t feeling very well. It came on so suddenly. My head was fuzzy. I saw bright little pinpricks of light, like fireflies in the middle of the day. Then I was sick. Everything was spinning. I stood up to call out for someone, but when I did, I stood so suddenly I slipped on the mess before me and fell back against the rail. I was thinking in slow motion. Everything I saw and did took several seconds to register so that in the same moment I felt lucky to be saved by the rail, I realized mid-air I was falling into the water. I hit the surface flat on my back. Even in my haze, I felt the thwack of water against my skin, like diving into cement. Underwater, my mind was working but my limbs weren’t. My deepest survival instincts were saying I needed to swim, but I couldn’t get my arms and legs to cooperate. I was drowning. My brain said it back to me, “You are drowning.” I opened my eyes and could see clearly underwater as if I was wearing goggles. I felt the tangle of kelp against my legs. Glistening fish swam around me like I wasn’t even there. I was dying the way fog slowly rolls through a city. The water was so clear I could see the lines in my palms. My lungs were preparing to explode when through the kelp forest I saw a gigantic white body swimming towards me. It’s back half was swaying in a powerful, familiar way. I could see the trail of bubbles and the rippling of water like sound waves from its tail fin. Tail fin? My brain caught up with my vision and interpreted a white shark. His eyes were ink black points against his head. Multitudes of tiny little scars lined his snout and rows upon rows of jagged teeth grew from his pink gums. When he saw me, he pumped his tail fin harder racing toward me. I thought, “He is ugly beautiful.” That’s when he swallowed me.
When I came to I was surprised to find myself lying on warm sand. I could hear Paul, Colin and Peter talking but I couldn’t open my eyes or answer them. Though my brain seemed to be working, my initial thought was that inhaling too much turpentine had caused me to go brain dead. Someone was spilling cool water over my forehead, “Kid. Hey, Kid. Time to wake up now.” Paul was trying to bring me back to consciousness. I willed my eyes to open. It was like lifting lead weights with my eyelids. Through my lids, I could see Paul and Colin dripping wet. I moved my head to locate Peter, but it was impossible. My head weighed a thousand pounds. In the distance, I could hear Peter say to Paul and Colin he was going to give me five more minutes before calling the paramedics. “No, no, no,” Paul was saying, “The kid’ll come to. She just opened her eyes. She’s rousting.” I didn’t want the paramedics coming out and embarrassing me further. If they came, Mike would surely learn of my mistake, and he might send me home. He’d made it perfectly clear that I couldn’t be a liability for the team. I forced myself to my elbows in a sloppy reclined position and croaked, “I’m alright. I’m alright.” Peter was kneeling in front of me asking me to look right at him. I opened my eyes as wide as I could and peered into his thick glasses. Many Peters floated in front of me.
“What about the shark?” I asked.
“The shark that swallowed me.”
Paul’s voice entered the picture. “You must be thinking of the robot shark, kid. Your brain’s fried.”
“No, no,” I said. “I saw a great white shark.”
“Impossible,” Colin said, “we’re on the wrong side of the island for that. We jumped in and grabbed you. You were sinking like a stone. There was no shark.”
I knew it was true that great white shark sightings on this side of Catalina’s coast were extremely rare.
“Oh Jesus,” Peter said, “Would you look at that?” My eyes were open just enough for me to see Mark hopping around on the deck in the distance and yelling, “Shark! Shark! You gotta see this thing you guys!”
“I never met someone so full of hot air and shit,” Paul said. The guys helped me to my fight, and we piled into the dingy. We were about fifty yards from the boat when Peter cut the engine. “Holy hell,” he said and pointed. Circling the boat was a lone fin. We sat quietly watching the animal make wide circles around the boat. Mark was hollering at us, “Don’t move. Don’t do anything.” We waited for five minutes while the shark swam around and around. “He’s looking for me,” I said. “Shhh!” Peter cupped his hand over my mouth.
Just as soon as the shark appeared, he vanished. We waited in silence for the fin to emerge from the water again. When it didn’t, we flew across the surface as fast as the dingy would take us and scrambled aboard the boat. Mark was wearing a smug smile. “So, Peter,” he began, but Peter held his hand up and said, “I’ll talk to Mike about the fucking escape lever.”
© 2014 Nicole M. Bailey