Skip to main content

Cruising: Birds of a Feather

One of the author’s feathered friends takes a break on the foredeck of his current boat

One of the author’s feathered friends takes a break on the foredeck of his current boat

One of the neatest things about sailing offshore is the other lifeforms we encounter. We smile when we see flying fish skimming over the surface of the sea. We cheer when dolphins leap and dance in our bow waves. We are duly reverent when mighty whales sound and spout, and continually haunted by the aerobatic gyrations of various species of pelagic birds—petrels, gannets, shearwaters and the like.

The most intimate encounters, though, are those we have with birds that have come from shore. For these creatures, of all the ones we might meet at sea, are the most like us. They do not belong there. Like us, they cannot be sustained by it, though unlike us they never choose to go offshore. They are instead driven there accidentally and therefore always refugees whenever they find us.

I remember one particularly intimate encounter with a sparrow that came aboard my old yawl, Crazy Horse, during a passage from the Azores to Spain. It circled for about an hour, hovering desperately, before finally landing in the cockpit. Unlike most such visitors, it soon took shelter under the dodger.

Though our visitor refused food and water, it did hop below as the sun went down and started exploring the cabin. I got off watch soon afterward and fell immediately into my berth. The little bird, much to my surprise, fluttered over to join me soon afterward, nestling into the crook between my neck and chin.

Dare I confess I found this pleasurable? There seemed so much companionship in it. And it tickled, too. The rational part of me, though, knew this was not good, if for no other reason than the tickling made it impossible to sleep. So I fashioned a nest from a hand towel, put the bird in it and placed them together in a warm spot on the galley counter under the bridgedeck.

I wasn’t surprised when I found the bird dead in the morning. For a wild bird, I knew, must be pretty far gone before it will ever let a human handle it. Dropping the corpse overboard, I realized this must be the fate of most shore birds blown offshore. I thought of all the shore birds I’d seen at sea. Usually, they don’t even succeed in getting aboard. They circle the rig for a while, fall farther and farther behind after each failed attempt to land and are never seen again.

Two days later, there came a more unusual guest, a Portuguese racing pigeon. I knew this because it was banded. It was also quite athletic and maneuvered confidently about the rolling, pitching maze of the rig. It landed after just two attempts and, like the sparrow, soon settled in the shelter of the dodger. Unlike the sparrow, it not only accepted water but drank a great deal, though it declined food. It made no attempt to go below during the night and in the morning was still very much alive.

I found this heartening and felt proud we had saved the pigeon’s life. Our guest drank still more water and seemed very comfortable. Then it started recycling the water it had consumed—a lot of it. The coachroof under the dodger was soon smeared white with its excrement.

This was a very different, less pleasant sort of intimacy. Should I cherish this life we’d saved, I wondered, or should I instead save my boat from being turned into a latrine?

It actually wasn’t that hard a decision. I checked the chart and saw we were now within 150 miles of Cape St. Vincent, the southwest corner of Portugal. Surely, I thought, a fully-hydrated racing pigeon with a good night’s sleep under its belt can fly that far. Confidently, I grasped the bird in my hands, stood tall on the cockpit coaming and launched it into the air.

The poor bird at once fluttered like a crippled thing and crashed into the sea. I cried out and a huge wave of guilt swept over me. Gloriously, though, the pigeon struggled free of the water. Flapping its wings furiously, it rose into the air and flew off straight toward Portugal. I stood watching it intently, heart in my mouth, until it at last disappeared over the horizon. 

June 2020

Related

Alexforbes Archangel1-1 (14)

Cape2Rio Draws to a Close

With just four boats still on their way, it has been a long road to Rio for the fleet competing in this year’s Cape2Rio. Larry Folsom’s American-flagged Balance 526 Nohri took line honors and a win in the MORCA fleet, finishing with a corrected time of 18 days, 20 hours, and 42 ...read more

_01-Steve-and-Irene-1

Close Encounters: A Star to Steer By

I first met Steve and Irene Macek in the proper way—in an anchorage full of bluewater cruising boats. This was in St. Georges, Bermuda, in the spring of 2019. Theirs, without doubt, was the most distinctive boat there—an immaculate, three-masted, double-ended Marco Polo schooner ...read more

14_01_230123_TOR_JOF_0414-2048x

The Ocean Race Leg 2 Kicks Off

After a trial by fire start to the race and only a brief stop for limited fixes, the five IMOCA 60 crews in The Ocean Race set off for Cape Town, South Africa, early on January 25. Despite arriving somewhat battered in Cabo Verde, an African island nation west of Senegal, the ...read more

Lead

Cruising: Smitten with a Wooden Boat

I was sailing down the inner channel of Marina del Rey under a beautiful red sunset when Nills, one of the crew members on my boat, pointed out an unusual and unique-looking 40-foot gaff-rigged wooden cutter tied to the end of a dock. Its classic appearance was a stark contrast ...read more

Screen-Shot-2023-01-23-at-12.03.19-PM

Racing Recap: Leg One of The Ocean Race

New to spectating The Ocean Race? Managing Editor Lydia Mullan breaks down everything you need to know to get started. ...read more

image00001

From the Editor: Keeping the Hands in Hands-On

SAIL Editor-in-Chief Wendy Mitman Clarke enjoys a sunny autumn cruise in her Peterson 34 on the Chesapeake Bay. It was late afternoon just after the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis when I climbed aboard the last boat on the schedule. I and others who review and sail boats for ...read more

P1580711

B&G Announces New Zeus S Chartplotter

B&G has long been putting out top-of-the-line electronics, but the new Zeus S Chartplotter is a new take on the best way to give sailors the exact information they need, when they need it. “So many more people sail shorthanded these days, whether as a couple or when they’re ...read more

00-LEAD-DSCF1601

Charter: Mission to Mars

In the wake of the pandemic, many sailors are seeking adventure and grabbing onto a vision of their best lives. For some, that may mean sailing across the Atlantic with the ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) while for others, it could be a yacht charter in the Caribbean. The ...read more