A Rainy Sendoff For The Classic

The covered front porch of Paradise Point Marina was precious space between 6 and 7 a.m. Wednesday, when the dim young day went from damp to drizzly.In the coming days, it will be overrun with spectators tromping from the temporary bleachers to the little marina shop for coffee and honey buns. But the crowd was sparse on the morning of the final practice before the Bassmaster Classic. Only a few BASS officials, stray Alabama state troopers with plastic covers on their hats, and assorted family members bustled on the wooden deck, watching 50 trucks pulling 50 boats line up to launch the anglers.Leaned against the rail, not far from the Pepsi machine, Debbie Hamlin stood in a black leather jacket and jeans, chatting at interval with Jeanie Rollins, whose husband, Darrell Rollins, was there working to ensure all of Lowrance's guidance devices were ship-shape.Hamlin knew her husband, angler Tom Hamlin, out of Lizella, Ga., was in boat 30. He's a natural in cruddy weather, she said, fishing bare-handed in the arctic cold that abused the anglers during last week's practices. She contended that she's not much for the 4 a.m. wake-up calls to go fishing in a monsoon, but let the record show that this morning she rode for nearly an hour from their hotel in Birmingham to the launch point, to wait in the morning's rainy cool, just to see him off for practice.

 Ever since the couple married, he would tell her that it was his goal to fish a Classic. "It seemed unreachable," she said. "But it was something we could talk about." While fishing was his passion, he built a career representing hunting industry manufacturers at trade shows, and brought their son, Chad, into the business.Then he actually made a Classic, in 2003. That first tournament in New Orleans, the couple were awed just to be there. "I don't think I was ever nervous until he placed 25th and got to fish the final day," she said.He qualified for this year's Classic, his second, by finishing second in the Southern Tour."I just love his outlook," she said of his fishing tour through the Federation and local tournaments. "He felt as though he had to do all those things, like the guy who started in the mailroom and is now the C.E.O."The line of trucks kept swooping around in pairs, backing anglers' boats into the water and avoiding the muddy potholes on the way back to the highway."Where is Tom?" Jeanie Rollins asked."I think he's back there," Debbie said, pointing further back in the line, and as she did, her husband's boat swung in front of the porch. After all the wait, he saw her before she saw him. He pointed and waved to her from the deck of the boat as it was backed into Lay Lake. She noticed him and waved back. It was a warm, silent exchange.A moment passed, and the rain went from steady to intense. "Oh, lovely," Debbie said."The Star-Spangled Banner" played. With his boat stopped at the ramp, Gerald Swindle heard the familiar notes, stood on his boat and removed his hat in the downpour.Tournament director Trip Weldon called roll as he waived the boats out. Tom Hamlin's boat departed in the second wave. His wife began making her way in the rain back to the tour bus to head back to Birmingham.In his first time at the Classic, at 2003, he was just happy to compete, and acquit himself well, she said. "This time, I know I've heard him several times, 'This time I want to win it.'"And if he were to pull off that feat? Would the couple take time to celebrate, to enjoy that half-million-dollar prize?She laughed a little at the idea. "This is the busiest time of year for manufacturer reps," she said. "He's got to go back to work Monday morning."

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