"Cor, hell!" exclaimed Percy as he reeled back from the rail, throwing his hands in front of his face. "What is it?" Today, we have a guest columnist, Ed Boddaert, for whom my recent columns on sea serpents "brought back childhood memories of fishing off the Cornish coast" in 1944. I’ve edited his great story only because of space limitations.
Almost 70 years later, he wonders "if it was an oarfish. The fishermen of the village did not believe the crew and ridiculed them. Things have changed a bit since then, when if anything was said to exist that was thought to be extinct or could not be because it was not commonplace, then anyone purporting to have encountered it was not in his or her right mind or, as the Cornish say, ‘gone Bodmin.’ "Bodmin being the town where the asylum was. There have been several sightings recorded in the papers since 1944."
"Ed was 13 at the time and spent his weekends and school holidays helping aboard the fishboat Ibis, owned and operated by the Lakeman brothers, Eddie,
Archie and Dick, with crewman Percy Hunkin, all of whom substituted for his father who was away in the war…
"It was a pleasant calm autumn evening as the Ibis sailed out of Mevagissey Harbour, with the other members of the fishing fleet, bound for the pilchard grounds off Fowey Point. The bay was glassy smooth with a slight swell, I was at my usual position at the helm and Eddie Lakeman was outside the wheelhouse door, leaning against the jamb.
"Mevagissey was a busy fishing port in those days, located midway along the south cost of Cornwall, England. With one hand on a spoke of the wheel and my body leaning on the wheelhouse window, my eyes scanned the waters with an occasional glance at the compass to check the course. About a quarter of a mile off the starboard bow, I spotted a plume of water like a fountain’s jet, my first encounter with a whale.
"Some time after 10 o’clock we started hauling in the nets; there was hardly anything there. After some discussion it was decided that we would look for schools of pilchard. Percy started one of the engines, put it slow ahead, came up from the engine room and knelt on the deck with his arms on the rail, peering into the black water off the starboard bow. The Lakemans were aft by the wheelhouse. I walked to the rail, braced my knee against it and also peered down into the black water [watching for the telltale silver fluorescence of a school of pilchard].
"Suddenly the Ibis heaved in the water, causing me to almost lose my balance. A massive silvery shape passed amidships from port to starboard. I knew what it was, but a scared 13-year-old needs some reassurance. ‘That’s a whale, come up to scratch its back on our keel,’ said Percy. I retreated from the rail to the foremast, amidships. If that whale was coming back, I wanted to be as far away from the side as possible and near something solid that I could grab hold of.
"All was quiet after that, Percy leaning over the rail, looking for pilchard, Eddie, Archie and Dick on the starboard side by the wheelhouse, I by the foremast, the black night illuminated only by the one shielded netroom light, the only light that we could have at sea during the war.
"Suddenly the black sea parted some 10 to 12 feet in front of Percy’s face, off the starboard side. A three to four-foot diameter object with a black ball-like head came straight out of the water and rose to a height of some 12 feet above the water’s surface. The deck that I was standing on was four feet off the water. I was about five-and-a-half
feet [tall] and was looking slightly up at it.
"’Cor, hell!’ exclaimed Percy as he reeled back from the rail, throwing his hands in front of his face. ‘What is it?’ "I looked back at the others by the wheelhouse; they were staring at it with their mouths open. That vision still remains with me: three seasoned seamen staring at this thing with their mouths open! I turned to look at this ‘thing,’ momentarily poised on the sea. It gave a breathing sound, ‘Aaagggh, Haaggh,’ before slipping vertically down the way it had come.
"A stunned silence for a few seconds before excited conversation broke out as the four fishermen compared sightings: a tubular form with globular head seen from the bow and the stern. Not a whale nor a submarine periscope or snorkel. Whatever it was, they had never seen or read about anything like this. I remained holding onto the foremast, feeling cold, clammy and decidedly scared. I do not remember what we did after that; I think the idea of looking for more pilchard was abandoned and we returned to harbour.
"It was 12 years later, 1956, when I returned to Mevagissey on holiday with my wife. Ibis
was tied up to the west arm of the inner harbour, the crew was busy mending gear. I climbed down the piling to the deck to renew acquaintances, my wife remained on the quay with the three or four other fishermen who were passing the time of day.
"After introducing my wife and chatting about this and that, I turned to Eddie and said, ‘By the way, did you ever see anything [more] of that thing we saw off Fowey Point in 1944?’ "Eddie turned excitedly to the fishermen on the quay and said, ‘There you are! He remembers it after all this time and you didn’t believe us!’ "No, they had never seen it again, but it had been a memorable night at sea."