Writer and broadcaster

Big fish in a very big sea. Marlin fishing in Madeira. The Independent.

THE SUN shines bright and keen, the sky is blue with no clouds to mess it up. The sea, 3,000ft deep beneath our 40ft fishing yacht, is playful, gently bobbing the boat up and down but occasionally giving it a bit of a big push. The skipper, Peter Bristow – nearly 50 years at sea – jumps about the boat, brown and bare-footed, wearing a very smart white fisherman’s shirt, double layered at the shoulders to protect from the sun’s rays.

All is quiet at sea. Four fishing rods are anchored in special metal pots at the back of the boat, their lines lazily dipping into the water. The fighting chair – white glossy plastic – is empty. No one is fighting big fish because all is quiet at sea. Suddenly, some way out, and directly behind us, something bursts out of the water, causing the sea to fragment into white surf. Wow! Was it a whale, or maybe a dolphin? “Fish! Fish!” cries a crew boy, and one of the rods bends into the sea, its line rendered taut by a fighting fish. A big angry fish, in Atlantic water one mile deep. Someone has to take the rod, sit in the fighting chair and battle with the monster until their arms and shoulders go dead with pain and exertion.

Before going to Madeira to fish for blue marlin, I had made the mistake of watching a programme about it. The commentary said that if you got the physics of fighting the fish wrong, you would be dragged out of the boat and into the Atlantic. This was very frightening and quite inaccurate. True, some blue marlin in Madeira top the 1,000lb mark and fight hard, but you’d have to be pretty stupid to be dragged overboard. Plus, you have an experienced crew at hand.

Blue marlin come to the deep waters off Madeira between May and October. They are deep-water fish – hence their big eyes – which swim at speeds of up to 50mph and can cover 3,000 miles in one week. Because these fish are so fast and strong, and grow to be so big, they are considered prize bounty for the men and women who go big-game fishing. Chartering a yacht with a crew costs around pounds 1,000-a-day, but as most boats carry about six people, this works out to be much more affordable than it sounds. However, the chances are that: a) none of you will catch a fish, so you will have a nice but expensive day at sea; or b) one of you will catch a fish and the rest will have to watch. The chances of all of you catching a marlin are pretty slim.

Usually, four rods are put up, with lines of about 80lb-120lb in breaking strength (consider that to fish for salmon, you’d use a line of about 10lb breaking strength and you begin to realise how awesome these fish are). Attached to these lines are lures which, for marlin, are big, iridescent things with tinsel tails and eyes. These lures have names: Super Plunger, Green Machine, Zulu Impi and Grander Candy. I call them dolly lures, but they crudely resemble squid in the water. So you sit and take in the sun and a beer while the rods, trailing the lures in the sea, do all the work for you, until the marlin bite. At the beginning of the day you have to decide who will fight the fish if you get one, because when a marlin bites there is no time to say “no, you”, “no, really, you”.

You could go to Madeira and see what is available for hire at the harbour, but this might prove a bit hit and miss. Captain Bristow’s boat, the Katharine B, is chartered by guests staying at Reid’s Palace Hotel. Reid’s has had some conflicting press of late: some people have found the staff rude, and say that the hotel isn’t what it was; others love it. I liked it very much indeed.

Built in 1891, it sprawls across the Madeiran coast, all higgledy-piggledy, so that you have to go up and down, across and up again to get to breakfast. The views are magnificent. I loved it because the air hangs heavy with ghosts of yesteryear. Famous people came here to hide from the world’s press, and you can understand why. Here they could wander round the grounds, swim, take tea on the terrace, play bridge or snooker, sit at writing desks and compose reassuring letters with a dip-pen and ink to folk back home, and eat swordfish at the Trattoria Villa Cliff. Or sit and read in peace. There are many secret corners at Reid’s. It was here that Gregory Peck and John Huston stayed while filming Moby Dick – some of the whale-hunting scenes were shot in the seas of Madeira. Reid’s was also where George Bernard Shaw met the “only man that ever taught me anything”, referring to Max Rinder, resident tango instructor in the 1920s.

Madeira itself is a queer little island, only 36 miles long and 14 miles wide. It is where you would come to write a book, or have a second honeymoon. Had I been 19, I may have found it boring, but instead I found it peaceful: no packs of holidaymakers or men in frightening shorts. The island has microclimates, so one moment you could be on a boat in a bikini, the next, trekking up a mountain in a fleece. There are guided walking tours of the mountains, and once you are above cloud-level and have breathed deeply of the pure and bracing air, your guide will know the little cafes and bars that are perched on the mountain tops.

But back to deep-sea fishing. While fishing for blue marlin, you might also catch a shark, or a tuna. If you’re lucky enough to catch a marlin, you will see at close hand their beauty: big eyes, fierce little faces, sulky with being caught, and sword-shaped upper jaws which can spear a man to his chair. And our marlin? Well, we never really saw him. As I said, all was quiet at sea.