OCEAN CITY -- By 90 minutes past noon, the main deck lounge was tranquil. A dozen fishermen napped. A few more joked quietly by the galley counter, their words no more than mumbles over the rumble of triple diesels deep in the hull.
A trio of anglers from Ohio kept a station on the stern deck, where the motion of a large boat in a seaway is somewhat dampened, and a northern gannet rose and fell across the wake as the O.C. Princess headed back toward the docks.
Coolers, buckets and bags held the catch of the day -- mackerel and spiny dogfish, small sharks.
A few minutes before, Capt. Monty Hawkins had come on the intercom and said he was calling it a day. The bags, buckets and coolers were not full, but then mackerel fishing can be like that -- a frenzy one day and just enough action to keep one interested the next.
Heck, it can be like that from hour to hour.
Six and a half hours earlier, with a dozen and a half fishermen aboard, Hawkins had eased the O.C. Princess away from the Shantytown pier in West Ocean City.
On many days, the Princess would have been but one among several head boats heading from back bay docks to the channel. Last Thursday, only the Princess headed offshore.
The weather was unsettled. A storm was building below Norfolk, Va., and the Delmarva forecast was for rain and wind building by afternoon.
"I'm not sure what we might be in for today," Hawkins said in the pilothouse, his eyes scanning the channel and the breakwaters to the south-southeast and then returning to the array of tachometers, temperature gauges and radar. "But whatever it is -- short of a gale or worse -- we should be able to handle it."
The O.C. Princess, an addition to the Ocean City head boat fleet last year, has the look of a boat that can handle "whatever it is," and with three turbo diesels, there is power to burn.
Lumpy was the word going around the main deck lounge as the Princess worked through the inlet, but soon the big boat was pTC running at more than 21 knots and taking the ocean swells in a gentle pattern.
Our first stop, Hawkins said, would be over a ledge where he had had success the day before. The ledge, Hawkins said, marked a break in water temperature, with the seaward side running several degrees colder than the inshore edge.
That temperature break, he reasoned, should hold a good mark of fish. A light breeze would keep us from drifting away from them too fast.
As Hawkins slowed and then stopped the boat over the ledge, fishermen hurried to spots they had staked out along the rail -- each carefully chosen as soon as the anglers had come aboard.
The preferred position is the transom, where there is a wide stern deck, room to move and good stability. The next best positions are the aft quarter rails, and the positions get somewhat worse as you work forward along the main cabin.
Hawkins was right on the first count, as almost everybody aboard brought up a few fish almost as soon at the hooks went down. But the breeze and the current were a little too strong and we were soon away from the fish, and the Princess was throttling up to find another mark. And then another, and another and another.
While Hawkins was searching for fish, a young man named Dan Swain was working some wizardry in the galley, serving ham and eggs, scrapple, sandwiches, coffee and soft drinks. While Swain was cooking, fishermen were donning foul-weather gear. The wind was up a bit at midmorning and it had started to rain.
On another day, commercial fishermen would have been out dragging for mackerel. Other head boats would have been working schools of fish. The specter of bad weather had kept them in, and Hawkins had had his eye on the radar and his ear on the weather band throughout the morning.
On another day we might have gone farther abroad. But Thursday it was wise to stay 10 or so miles from shore and be able to make a quick -- homeward should the weather deteriorate.
By noon the rain had stopped. By 1 p.m. it had started again. For a while it seemed the clouds might break and the sun shine through.
In the main deck lounge, a round fellow in a Safari Club International hat, sated after several trips to the galley, had produced a duck call early in the morning and had trumpeted our arrival at each mark. "Here it is, boys," he would say and bleat da-da-da-dat-da-daa on the call, "this is where we fill the coolers."
Anglers would parade from the main deck lounge to the rail, drop their lines and jig their fluorescent orange and white baits up and down. At two marks most everyone caught several fish.
At the others, well, mackerel fishing can be like that.
* Weather permitting, the O.C. Princess will run daily trips for mackerel for several more weeks. For rates or more information, call (800) 457-6650.