Frank Flynn is frantically punching numbers on his cell phone as he shuffles toward the boarding gate for American Airlines Flight 1845 at the Miami airport. His face is a mixture of perplexity and determination this Thursday morning, June 12. Late last night, he'd gotten word that Dream Catcher, a brand-spankin'-new 52-foot fishing boat that he expected to carry him to big prize money in a few days, had blown its transmission or its engine or both. Or possibly neither. Maybe the mechanical problem was entirely routine and, with some luck, right at this moment, the 2,600-horsepower craft is zipping down from San Juan to the Caribbean isle of Antigua.
Flynn is about to embark on the second leg of a five-contest tourney among the six teams of the Billfishing Xtreme Release League, and he has invited me along to get a firsthand look at the unpredictable and adrenalin-infused world of deep-sea billfishing.
Flynn smells victory. In March, his Mercury World Team drubbed Team A-Fin-ity to win $50,000. The team happened upon a cluster of sailfish, and although this species doesn't yield the high points that marlin do, the team managed to tag and release five of them in a flurry of reeling. Flynn is proud of the opening victory over Team A-Fin-ity, a team he describes as "a fishing machine" because it won the $250,000 grand prize last year.
The Billfishing Xtreme Release League, or BXRL, approaches big-game fishing like no other competition. It's elite, expensive, hard-core and hard-partying. Thirty-six of the best anglers and captains from the Western Hemisphere compete for the largest marlin and sailfish and the biggest stories about marlin and sailfish. They spend tens of thousands of dollars sailing from contest to contest around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico in million-dollar fishing machines. Standing in boat cockpits the size of pickup truck beds, these anglers battle pitching seas and hours of anticipation. Then, like a meteorite crash, a 300-pound marlin will burst through the water, snagged and brawling. A fisherman might toil for hours bringing in this unpredictable and rowdy billfish only to lose him in the last crucial seconds. Once ashore, the anglers share the camaraderie of drink, food, and fish tales, all the while scheming for the next day.
Flynn has been riding high on his team's victory in March, but you can't rest on your laurels. Not in this high-stakes sport. So he keeps dialing numbers, anxious to find out whether the Dream Catcher stands a chance of getting to Antigua in time for the three-day competition that begins Monday. He learns nothing, and minutes later a flight attendant seals the cabin door and instructs everyone to turn off all phones.
There's still no word about the Dream Catcher as Flynn hops a connecting flight to Antigua in Puerto Rico. Half a dozen fellow anglers are onboard this small half-filled jet. They've all met before, and even though some haven't been to Antigua before, the predictability of what lies ahead draws them together: a wooden dock, rum and beer, familiar faces, ocean spray. Whatever anxiety Flynn had about the Dream Catcher seems to melt away in the company of fishermen. The 40-year-old Flynn owns Dania Boats, a boat sales and repair business in the heart of South Florida's thriving sport fishing industry. He possesses a piercing voice that has no difficulty in overcoming the roar of jet engines. Despite having lived in Fort Lauderdale for the past 12 years, his working-class Boston accent remains thick. He sports short-cropped hair and a goatee, and his face resembles Robert DeNiro in the final scenes of Raging Bull. He filters little of what comes to his mind before it exits his mouth.
Directly in front of Flynn sits Christopher "Percy" Gomes, an Antiguan who now lives in Miami. Flynn met him just a week earlier in Antigua during a local fishing tournament and, as with most fishermen Flynn meets, it's as though they're lifelong buddies. They begin reminiscing about the fishing and boozing. Flynn and Gomes describe a particularly aggressive night of intoxication. So did you fish the next day? someone asks. "I tell ya," Flynn says, "the only angling I was doing that day was deciding whether to be vertical or horizontal."
He waxes philosophical about the boat breakdown. That's just one of the hundreds of variables that might work against you or might work for you in a fishing contest. "Deep-sea fishing is all about missed opportunities, capitalizing on others' mistakes," he explains. Worst-case scenario, he says, his team will lease a local charter boat. Yes, that might seem a handicap, but who knows what unforeseen benefits could arise from this Hobson's choice. He clowns with Gomes, who earlier had commiserated with him. "I've got a boat!" Flynn bellows as he pulls the imaginary oars of a farcical substitute. "I've got a boat!" Last week, the marlin were running fast and big, and Flynn gets pumped thinking about them. The jet circles around the edge of the island and tips slightly, filling the small window with a blue ocean speckled with whitecaps. "There's marlin out, there's fucking marlin!" he howls with a faith others will come to doubt.