Cruising: Birds of a Feather

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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

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