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March 12, 2003
The Fresh Conch Adventure (Guest Appearance By Bill McNeely)

You must understand that I have no patience whatsoever, and therefore have never been much of a fisherman. I will be happy to cook and eat almost any kind of seafood, though (I stay away from pickled herring - there are just a lot of other things I prefer). A girlfriend once took me to dinner with her family who were serving fish. She said she was sure that was all right, as she'd never seen me order anything but fish in restaurants. True enough.

Curt and Allie, by contrast, fish constantly on Force Five. And on their dinghy. And pretty much anywhere they can throw a line in. And with a speargun when snorkeling. And if they can just reach over and grab one, that might be best of all. If you think I'm kidding about that, keep reading.

We were anchored back at Culebrita, and I was lounging with a cold beer in a floating pool chair thing. Life is tough when you're cruising. The sun was out, the afternoon wearing on, the water warm and clear. Curt was snorkeling to see if he could find anything to shoot with the spear gun. Allie was "reading" in the cockpit, but I suspect she was catching a nap, too. Curt came up next to me in the water.

"Look at this," he said, holding up a shell. "There's a whole bunch of these down there on the sand on the bottom. Can you eat them? I think you can."

"A conch! Sure, you can eat them all right. I never have," I told him, "but I've heard that if you do them right, they make lots of good stuff. Do you have a cookbook for this stuff? You can eat them, but I'm not sure what you do with them."

"We have a South African seafood cookbook - it came with the boat!" Curt told me. "They eat everything in South Africa," he said, bringing on some chilling visions in my mind. "I'm sure it has something about how to cook them." He swam to the boat, and put the conch up in the cockpit, then pulled his mask back on and dove for more.

If you haven't checked your on-line encyclopedia yet, let me tell you that "conch" is pronounced "konk," with a short O. The final "ch" is hard. It's a nickname given to natives of Key West, Florida, but these conchs were members of the snail family, and they live in salt water. You've seen their beautiful, spiral shells, about 10" long, light brown or bleached white outside, and pointed at one end. The opening runs the length of the shell, narrow and glistening pink inside, and looks like - well, whatever opening you know of that's 6" or 7" long, narrow, and glistening pink inside. In Hawaii, they blow on the empty shell like a horn to announce the start of events. I have a friend in Dana Point who does this, too. They are anything but an endangered species. Like most members of the snail family, they like making more conchs, and have been very successful in the warm waters of the Spanish Virgins.

Curt popped half a dozen more into the cockpit in two quick dives to the bottom about 12' below the water. One of the conchs realized that it was no longer on the bottom of the cove, and began moving around the cockpit, thumping its shell on the sole. That awakened Allie, who jumped up, looked around, and then looked at me floating in the chair. Her eyes were huge, and the look on her face said she thought these strange creatures now inhabiting the boat were about to grab her, drag her back into the water, and devour her.

Curt flopped back onto the swim step, and asked her to get the South African fish cookbook. After a few minutes study, he said, "Oh, yeah! You have to clean them, get them out of the shell, then …" He started rummaging through a lazarette for a hammer and a long screwdriver, and began driving a hole into one end of the shell. After a conch or two, he had the technique down, and was disgorging conch meat pretty fast. Allie got a cutting board, and began cutting up the tasty parts, tossing the scraps overboard. Finishing the last shell, Curt had earned a drink, and we popped a bottle of wine. I left my floating perch, and rejoined the main boat crew as we for a glass of wine. Curt had a pressure cooker out, and asked for propane for the stove as we poured him a glass.

Conch and other ingredients went into the pressure cooker, and Curt sealed the lid and put it on. The conch shells, which, cleaned up, brought a few dollars each from tourists in gift shops, went back overboard. They were too big to haul around, too much work to clean, we had no ready market, and, most important, we were in this for the protein.

"Don't ask me to make this again," Curt warned us as his personal conch stew creation simmered in the pressure cooker. "I have no idea what I put in it, or how to duplicate it. If it's no good, we'll just throw it overboard. I won't be hurt." But when he cracked the lid on the cooker, we were surrounded by a wonderful aroma.

"It sure smells good," I said. "Let's try it." After a couple bites, Curt grinned widely and looked at Allie.

"I think I did it!" he said. "This is pretty great! I just can't make it again!" We all laughed and dug in to the first and only batch ever of Culebrita Conch Stew.

A few days later, we anchored in Sun Bay, a beautiful beachy cove on the island of Vieques. A great spot, with few other boats, marred only by a truck blaring music on shore. "Have I told you how much that pisses me off?" Curt asked me after a few hours.

We had all complained to each other about the loud music, but we were more concerned about the way the boat rode at anchor. The seas had clocked around to the south, and we were taking them on our quarter, the boat's bow more easterly with the wind. This made the boat roll much more than we liked while anchored. After much discussion, we tried setting a stern anchor with the dinghy to pull our bow into the waves. Curt told me that their dinghy had no keel, and the wind would just blow it around, keeping us from getting the stern hook where we wanted. Tim the Tool Man and I both would have argued that the sheer power of the outboard would overcome that. But Curt was right - we tried setting the stern hook several times, and as we did, we pulled the chain on the bow anchor around, but the boat returned to its uncomfortable spot. The dinghy blew around with the big boat and the wind at the end of the stern line, just like the last kid in a playground chain of "Crack the Whip."

Allie finally came up with a toggle arrangement off the bow anchor that did get us into the seas and made things comfortable. When I'd seen this done, it usually pulled up the bow anchor, but it was working now. Like me, Curt believes firmly in diving the anchor whenever possible to make sure it's dug in right, and he did.

"Bill," he called coming up out of the water, "All that with the stern anchor did have one great effect! You've put us right over a huge conch field! Ready for fresh conch again?"

"You bet!" I called. "Get 'em!"

"How do you open them? asked Allie. "It's my turn this time!" It took a few, but she finally got the technique, holding the shell on the cockpit sole with her left foot, while banging a hole with screwdriver and hammer. "I'm making conch fritters," she said. "I found the recipe, and I want to try it."

Conch fritters for dinner, fresh as could be. "These rock!" Curt smiled at her. "You did great!" And she had. Like fried clams only better, and with a little of that Caribbean hot sauce for dipping, they were really a delicacy.

I've seen things since recommending the conch salad, conch fritters, and such at shoreside restaurants, but I know I will never have conch that good again. And I will never have it and not think of those nights on Force Five, when we ate seafood Curt just reached over and grabbed with his hand.

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