KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii — He stepped off the boat, amid great applause, with a cramp in a shoulder and another in a leg. But he wore a smile as wide as the horizon.
His wife, wearing a more worried look, was among the first to congratulate a man who had just spent 4 1/2 hours fighting a marlin he called "the toughest-fighting fish I had ever landed."
She gave the man a hug and a kiss.
Sam Spinello is 67, going on about 50. Having successfully won an epic battle Friday off the scenic Kona coast, in the waning hours of the fourth and final day of the 43rd Hawaiian International Billfish Tournament, Spinello disembarked as far and away the event's most popular angler.
But as the Pacific blue marlin was hoisted onto the scale at Kailua Pier, it was Spinello who wore a worried look. The marlin, though it possessed the strength of a creature twice its size, weighed in at a surprisingly meager 269 pounds.
Since it did not meet the minimum weight of 300 pounds, it was disqualified and Spinello, who with Mark Pfeiffer represented the Malibu Marlin Club, finished with zero points for his effort. The fish would have had to beat a 482.5-pounder brought in only hours earlier by a team from Kenya to have earned enough points to win one of the oldest and most prestigious tournaments in the world.
That it failed to qualify was proof that you can't judge a fish by its fight; but then you can't judge the courage of an angler by his age.
"The New York Fire Dept. kept us going," said Spinello, who was fishing aboard the Ho'okele with Capt. Guy Terwilliger. "Those guys didn't quit and neither did we."
The Malibu team--one of four Southern California teams competing in the event--dedicated its effort to the New York firefighters, having befriended one of them on the flight to Hawaii.
Spinello and Pfeiffer, if nothing else, provided high drama to an affair that had for three days played out dreadfully slow, with only 12 blue marlin tagged and set free, earning only release points.
On the final day, conditions improved and the star of the show--a marlin exceeding 300 pounds--finally decided to show. It materialized in a blur off the stern of the Lady Dee, devouring a large trolling lure and taking off in a series of mad leaps and sizzling runs.
"The reel just started screaming--it took probably 500 yards and was jumping quite a bit," said angler Glenn Reece of the Malindi Sea Fishing Club of Kenya. "I just sat back in the fighting chair and kept my fingers crossed."
The fish, which was subdued in only 42 minutes, was estimated by the crew to weigh slightly over 300 pounds, so it was brought in. Even the Reeces--with Glenn was his father, Bob, and son, Robert--looked surprised to see the 482.5-pound reading.
Aware that their lead was tenuous, they went back out to try to catch another.
It turned out they didn't need to as Spinello's was the only fish that would surpass the qualifying 300 pounds. The Kenya team earned the 482 points for the weight of the fish, plus bonus points for the largest fish of the day and largest of the tournament. Its 682 1/2 points easily won the event.
There was a bright spot for the Southern California entries, from a standings aspect. Marylin Stephens of the King Harbor Marlin Club in Redondo Beach caught both of her team's marlin, smaller fish that were tagged and released. For that she was awarded the top Wahine angler and her team was honored for a fifth-place finish.