The mako shark flag as used in Kenya is definitely the most brightly coloured fish flag but how many people know the story behind this flag? This story had a massive impact on my childhood and why I became so infatuated with big game fishing. Mako sharks have always been a very special species to catch, one that demands total respect.
It was back on the 4th of March 1964 that Bob Cronchey, Tony Clifford, and Liz Coverdale set out from the Pemba Channel Fishing Club aboard the club’s flagship, White Otter skippered by my father, Pat Hemphill. As was customary in those days, they began the day by fishing for baitfish on the ‘bait patch’ immediately outside Shimoni harbour. In those days nobody fished for marlin with artificial lures and there were very few lures even available on the market. These were mostly restricted to Japanese feather jigs and metal spoons of various sizes. Hence marlin fishing was entirely dependent on one catching sufficient fresh bait, which fortunately was usually available in those days.
By 9 o’clock they had caught sufficient bait and decided to head out into the deeper blue water. I do recall as a child that there was a very basic depth sounder on White Otter, but I am not sure when this was first fitted, but certainly it was there in the 1970’s. With the blue water close in to the drop off Pat decided to put baits out right away and troll slowly out. Since baits were usually rigged using the New Zealand ‘reverse rig’ technique trolling had to be very slow.
They had only just completed the set-up, the time was 9:15 am when there was an explosive strike on the soli (torpedo) trolled down the centre on the 130-lb rod. Bob, who was on strike leapt into the fighting chair full of excitement and the hook was set. The rod bent double, and the old Penn Senator screamed as the fish tore off in anger then rocketed out of the water to gasps from all around. Pat was the only one to have seen a mako before, and that was in a book.
The fight ensued with much sweat and effort; they were all still finding their feet with this big game fishing game. Pat, who had started this business only the year before, by his own admission knew very little about big game fishing. He would read every book available and practice rigging techniques and knot tying at home. After a few hours of hard graft, the swivel finally came within reach and the mate Nasiri grabbed it eagerly. He was a wonderful character with a badly pock-marked face from smallpox, great sense of humour and totally fearless. The other crewman of course was Kadi who was the helmsman of White Otter for around 35 years or more.
Pat rammed home the flying gaff and all hell broke loose, the mako shot out of the water over the transom trying to reach Bob in the fighting chair. Pat took a turn of the gaff rope around the stern cleat to prevent the shark from coming any further on board whilst Tony Clifford wielded the baseball bat trying to force the mako back overboard. Poor Bob with his ankles behind his ears was shouting, “Take it away, take it away!” Of course, I am omitting the inevitable expletives that may have accompanied these words.
The shark then slipped back overboard but now the gaff rope was not long enough for it to reach the water, so something had to give. When we say flying gaff, it was a pathetic example of one and not one that you would usually use on a fish of this size. But of course, they had never come across anything like this before. Inevitably the gaff straightened out and the shark raced off still attached to Bob who was now saying, “I don’t want this brute anymore!” But of course, the others were never going to let him give up on it and they kept up some friendly teasing and every now and again pouring buckets of cold seawater over him.
In the meantime, Pat together with Nasiri and Tony took the gaff down into the engine room where they wedged it in to the mountings and bent it back into a semblance of a gaff once more. After a further hour or more the fish was again brought alongside where Pat yet again slammed home the gaff. The mako shark predictably objected vehemently and the now slightly softer gaff straightened out yet again.
So, it was back down into the engine room with only two persons required this time to bend the gaff back into shape. Considering this very ineffective piece of essential equipment Pat called my mother on the radio for her to ask Dougie Hinde to bring out a spare gaff with his boat Membe II. Dougie was a deaf as a post so there was little point of calling him on the radio or trying to phone if indeed that even worked.
But before Dougie was able to reach them a now very exhausted Bob managed to bring the mako back within reach of the trace. They had been fighting this fish for 7½ hours by this point and it was approaching 5pm. Yet again Pat gaffed the shark and although it was definitely tiring it was also clear that the now rather softened gaff was not going to hold much longer, and Nasiri had had enough of these shenanigans. Before anybody could stop him, he had jumped overboard with a rope that he whipped around the shark’s tail and was back in the boat almost before anyone knew what had happened saying, “Bwana, there’s your fish.”
Nasiri did admit some years later that what he now knew about mako sharks he couldn’t believe he had actually done that.
At the time I was very young, but I remember the next phase of the story very clearly indeed. As they were returning to Shimoni discussion began as to what flag to fly for this incredible catch. As we all know a shark flag is yellow on a black background but everyone on board was adamant that a special flag was needed to celebrate such an incredible catch. Liz Coverdale had a very smart beach towel with her that had yellow, red, and blue stripes and everyone’s eyes lit up. Whether Liz had much choice in the matter is unclear but, in any case, it was ceremonially cut up and a yellow, red, and blue flag was hoisted proudly aloft. For many years we used that same flag and the remainder of the towel for mako shark flags.
As White Otter entered the harbour, I recall seeing the spray and thrashing behind the boat as she towed the shark in tail first. The only place that they could land it was at Dougie Hinde’s slipway but there was no way that the dinghy could tow the shark into the beach. So instead, Nasiri brought ashore a long rope and handed the end to the eager crowd waiting to set eyes on this monster with the other end attached to the shark. The entire community was there, nobody had seen anything like it before. With cries of “Harambee, Harambee, Harambee!” the crowd hauled the shark up onto the slipway. An old man from the village picked me up and sat me on the roof of my father’s Land Rover where I had a grandstand view. Once on land it continued to jump scattering people in all directions until it was finally subdued with an axe.
Of course, we had no scales to weigh a fish of that size, so it had to be put into the back of the long wheelbase Land Rover and taken into Mombasa where it was weighed at Bamburi Cement Factory. It had caused quite a stir on the Likoni Ferry, the coxswain refusing to move the ferry until he had had a good look at it himself. Once in Mombasa traffic police had to ask them to move along because they were causing a traffic jam whilst Dad was in the bank. Everyone, including the police it should be said were stopping to look at this amazing fish.
Well, that is the history of how the colours of the mako flag came to be and there is no right or wrong way up. And for many years to come mako sharks were always known as the ‘jumpy’ sharks.
With a lifetime spent working on and with the ocean I have developed a deep love and empathy for all things fishy. After more than 30 years as a professional charter captain and a doctorate in fisheries biology i shall be writing and various subjects associated with marlin fishing and fisheries in general.
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