We got to see one of the world’s biggest fish, skinnydippers, and a ship decorated with skulls sail out of the past- all in about 15 minutes. Mind you that was the Sunday we picked up the bird too, and there are pictures to prove most of it, so maybe we’d best start at the beginning.
I had the dawn watch. We were delivering our favorite Morris 38 from Rockland, ME back to Shelter Island, NY. About 50 miles off Portsmouth, NH, we were on course for the Cape Cod Canal when a bird flew by that gave me a big deja vu.
The first bird I look at as a pivotal figure in my life. It was another Sunday dawn watch, grey, cold, wet, and other ways completely miserable, motor sailing downwind with a full jib in 6-8 foot seas. When this big herring gull flew by, looped back and started playing with the air flowing over the sail. The bird would come in high, wingover, and falling down the sail, pirouette, and land in front of the charging boat making me yell (while taking heavy spray facefirst) “hey, you stupid bird, get out of the way!” We did this 6-8 times and it finally dawned on me that as miserable as I was, that bird was clearly playing and having a good time. The big moment for me was to realize that no matter the bad parts there was nowhere I would rather be. A’int that a good place to get to, especially at work? I’ve been watching the birds pretty close ever since.
Now here we are, years later, headed the other way on a beautifull morning, motorsailing on a starboard tack (sails set on the port side of the boat). And here comes a gull flying up our wake, cruising by, and really gets my attention when it turns and dissapears behind the jib. Reappearing between the jib and the mast, both of us are startled when the bird almost gets tangled in the stbd stays that hold the mast up. Recovering gracefully, the bird now glides close above and standing between the dodger (shelter over the companionway) and the bimini (shelter over the wheel) arms out I watch as he floats in space directly above the radar on the backstay. A moments distraction and I loose track of my new friend and sit down to starboard. Out of the corner of my eye I catch something and turn, putting up my hand defensively and TOUCHED the outstretched wing of the bird who had miscalculated by landing on the lifeline right behind me and was in the process of falling off it. Weren’t we surprised!
After some more uncertain flying around I was really surprised when the bird glided up aft and wings wide settled on the back edge of the bimini, thought about it, and stepped forward onto the canvas top. Cautiously, I rise up in the space between the dodger and the bimini and now find myself face to face with this big bird who doesn’t seem too worried about me.
Well now, maybe we should talk about it. So I start- “Jonathan Livingston Seagull I presume? How’s it going? What you doing? Tired buddy? You’re welcome to stay but you should know you might end up in New York. What’s the big bird doing?” and so on, but really only got any feedback when I made noises- whistles, meows, and growls got some funny looks. My friend quickly settled and started grooming. The bird was wet. It was particularly interesting to watch the preening of the long wing feathers. You could put your hand under the canvas and tickle without making the bird too upset. Once I reached up from behind to touch his tail, but that seemed mean and too threatening. Twice, one to port, one to starboard, different similar birds flew up our wake and traded looks with our bird, but nobody said anything except me.
Sometime later when Captain Mark came on watch we all sort of hung out for a while, took some pictures, and I hear that after about 3 1/2 hours aboard he just sort of flew away.
We usually run 3 hour watches at night and 4 hours during the day so a couple of watches later we were coming up on Cape Cod with a small problem. We would like to refuel at Sandwhich, in the canal but will not get there in time . We might, might not have enough fuel for Shelter Island and decide to duck into Provincetown, MA to make sure. Time is tight and we call ahead to find out they are just locking up but do come back for us and another boat. That is how we were leaving Provincetown Harbor, just inside the end of Cape Cod, just before sunset, Sunday, end of the summer
There is a green buoy just off the tippy tip of the cape, close inshore. Coming up to it, inside the cape, there is a green striped beach tent and a couple of hundred people partying. And yup, some of them are naked. Binoculars are busy to starboard but there is a much more urgent navigational matter now off the port bow and it is quite a time travelling sight. It looks like an armed privateer, and for the moment anyway is flying the same flag we are. We are caught close and will pass port to port, so we prepare as casually as possible. If she shows hostile we will quickly come across her stern, throw everything we have at them, then turn halfway into the wind and try to run like hell and outsail her.
Lucky for us the ship proves to be the Kuyper, the official sailing ship of the state of Delaware, engaged this evening in hauling tourists. Check out the 1600’s rig particularly the little mast at the end of the bowsprit. Check the ornaments around the stern gallery- those white things are skulls. I kind of hope they are not plastic, wouldn’t that be heresy on an old wooden ship?
Then Capt. Mark calls out “Sharks!” What? The cry is usually “whale ho!” but now off the starboard bow there are shark fins for sure. It looks like a couple but as we throw the boat out of gear and glide up we realize that it is one really really big fish.
The picture with the two fins close together is how we were confused: the small fin in front is the dorsal fin and shows the orientation of the shark. The bigger fin behind is the tail fin and this fish is so long and so flexible that when swimming it sweeps so far as to be about beside itself. The picture with the three fins shows it straight. On the right is the tail, dorsal fin in the middle (look at the distance between!) with the pectoral fins to the left and his head is past that! We are looking at 3/4 of what I think is a basking shark- along with whale shaks one of the biggest fish on the planet. Right beside it in a 38 foot boat we note it is longer than us. Temperate fish, they come north sometimes, probably more so as the water warms globally. Also check out the shoreline in the long photo, we were about 200 yds the other side of the narrow beach with the 200 partying people – who didn’t know nothing about no big fish, who, as a filter feeder probably didn’t care much about them either . We were having predinner crackers and soft stinky cheeses while our friend stained tons of copepods.
Nice night and a particularly interesting Sunday at sea, or as I like to think of it- church. I believe we arrived safely at the Shelter Island Yacht Club middle of the next day- two ferries and a rental car from home.