The Mary Anne

At the very end of its sullen journey through the hills of the Coast Range, the Noyo makes several last-minute twists and turns. The river widens and slows down, almost as if it were somehow trying to sneak up on the sea, trying to figure out some way to avoid pouring its waters into that blue oblivion. Today would be a superb day to pull such a trick, if that's really what the Noyo has in mind. The sea is smooth as a centerfold's bottom, from which every wrinkle, freckle or other blemish has been banished with an airbrush. The sea seems perfect, locked in a perfect, dreamless sleep.

"I was just a shaker back then," says Vinnie.

We're sitting on the rickety wharf beside the urchin processing plant on the north bank, at the last dogleg in the river, where the troller Mary Anne is moored. Back then is the late '50s, when Vinnie carried a switchblade and sported the knee-length, black leather jacket that was the uniform of young North Beach hoodlums on the make or on the take. Gobs of hair cream kept his Elvis pompadour slicked back in place, and Vinnie had few thoughts beneath his sculptured conk. What he did have was pool-room pallor from rattling dice late into the night and just enough bad-boy good looks to get a nice Italian girl in the neighborhood into trouble.

"A real shaker," he repeats.

The nice girl had brothers who weren't so nice. They'd probably never heard of shakers, salmon too puny for sport fishermen to keep, and certainly wouldn't have tossed him back into the sea to swim about till the next bright lure came along. Catholics and game wardens have quite different notions about catch limits and legal size, barbed hooks, chumming and the other minutiae so vital to proper angling and marriages.

Vinnie fled to Fort Bragg. And so it was that he found himself stepping aboard the Mary Anne much too early one gloomy May morning. He was seasick before the boat was out of the harbor. When Captain Jack, a seminary dropout turned skipper, wasn't barking orders at him, he was pacing the deck, humphing at the swells or admiring the smoke drifting from the bowl of the pipe clenched in his teeth. Always to the south it drifted. A wind out of the Gulf of Alaska blew during Vinnie's entire first voyage, an icy scalpel flecked with spray, a mad doctor chuckling in the rigging, slapping the nets in their hoists. Vinnie shivered, and his two crewmates warmed themselves with laughter. Brothers, seedy wharf rats in ragged T-shirts, they were so alike you could only tell them apart by their tattoos. And when they howled and guffawed at Vinnie's clumsy imitation of a fisherman, the ladies inked into their biceps turned somersaults.

The twin diesels of the Mary Anne cough, sputter, catch. Her new owner slams the throttle full. She roars. Blue smoke pours from her exhausts. One of her crew tosses the stern mooring rope onto her deck, loosens the bow hawser, jumps aboard with the rope in his hand, and the Mary Anne shudders into motion, hull groaning at the sudden shock.

"Shouldn't gun her like that," says Vinnie. "Boats aren't so different from women. You got to go easy, real slow, let them warm up. You got to give them flowers and show them they're beautiful, appreciated. Treat them right, or they'll play you a nasty trick."

Nobody would guess it looking at her now, all beat up and blistered over, mottled with rust and leaky at the seams, but there was a time when the Mary Anne walked the waves like a queen. She was tough, sure, like those dolls who lean from doorways to part a sailor from his money, but she had a heart that just wouldn't quit, a heart that beat the same as the hearts of the men who sailed on her.

According to Vinnie, he probably wouldn't have learned that about her if it hadn't been for a great stroke of bad luck on his miserable maiden voyage. The second night out, there was a squall, and Captain Jack settled into an anchorage in the lee of Punta Gorda to ride it out. The crew played poker to pass the time. Muscles that Vinnie never guessed he had ached. His face felt like one big, burning blister, and his hands were so raw from yanking cold nets out of the deep, he could hardly shuffle the cards. But poker was his game. He knew he could win, teach these hayseed salmon hunters a lesson, sharp them and shark them, maybe skin them clean, squeeze enough dough out of them so he'd be able to kiss the ugly sea goodbye.

Aces found their way into Captain Jack's fingers like dogs creeping into a butcher shop with the back door open. He built more full houses than a real estate investment trust, bluffed, dealt himself wheels. Vinnie's bad luck was unbelievable. He couldn't land anything better than a pair of squinting kings, and before the night was half over, he already owed the skipper three weeks' salary. At this point, Captain Jack slipped the deck back into its pack.

"You better learn fishing or something, son," he said, "because you're the skunkiest gambler I've ever seen. Don't you know enough yet to play what you have, not what you hope to get?"

He went to his cabin, returned with an armload of books and suggested his novice fisherman "read these." Vinnie had no idea how to pronounce the names on the spines of the volumes, weird monikers like Boethius, Epicurus, Epictetus. The first book he opened contained the purple stamp of a seminary library and the curious notion that bad luck was the best luck of all. What Fortune gives, Fortune can take away with a quick spin of the wheel. She is, after all, a capricious giver-taker. But what is created through adversity, against all odds, is no accidental gift. To avoid being the plaything of the fickle goddess, a man should always wish for bad luck.

Vinnie stayed on to pay off his debt to Captain Jack -- stayed the whole season, in fact -- and signed on for the next. He hauled his living out of the swells by day and read the obscure books by night. Gradually, both the sea and the philosophers became familiar. He learned how a boat could talk to you, how the hull of the Mary Anne would creak a certain way at twilight to let you know the current was shifting, how her wheelhouse would whistle back at the wind to let you know weather was in the offing, or her bow groan at a certain slap of spray to tell you to come a couple compass points to the west of due north. Sometimes it seemed her diesels were humming a lullaby to the fish, crooning to them like a siren on the rocks, luring them.

He learned to fish, to appreciate the smell of salmon iced down in the hold and the taste of salt on his lips, the horseplay on the taffrail and the soft light from the binnacle. He learned well, and when Captain Jack retired, Vinnie bought the Mary Anne. He could've afforded a sleek new troller, one of the streamlined honeys with sonar, radar, picture screens and God knows what gizmos. But like that fellow Epicurus said, if you aren't satisfied with a little, you won't be satisfied with a lot.

"Besides," says Vinnie, "you think those smart new boats have her smell for weather, her knack for tracking fish? How many years do you think it'll take that dandy sonar to learn how to guess the sea's moods before the sea itself knows what it feels?"

The Mary Anne is just a blip in the distance now, a bump on the glassy skin of the sea, about to slide over the horizon. She no doubt carries wistful memories of the days when her new skipper was in kindergarten and salmon was king in these waters, when the Noyo ran deeper and faster, and the sea heaved thronging multitudes upstream, towards pools in the hills, to spawn.

"And the girl?" I ask, suddenly recalling Vinnie's early romance.

"Who do you think mixed up these margaritas we've been drinking?" he smiles, holding up the Thermos to rattle the ice cubes.

That was Vinnie's other great stroke of magnificent bad luck. A few weeks after his first, utterly wretched voyage, her brothers found him.