An unexpected guest

An unpromising start to our passage back to Florida

Chris and I figured we’d pretty much have the boat to ourselves for a couple of days when we set off from the Bahamas. We’d been watching the weather for a week, finally saw a window to make the crossing to Florida. So even though it was pouring rain, we slipped our dock lines and set out.

“Nice,” Chris commented, as the rain pelted down. But the wind was behind us, just as predicted, so we put out the jib (which we can do from inside the cockpit, thankfully) and we were on our way, holding about five knots, which for us, is pretty good.

Five hours later the rain started to let up little, then finally stopped. We unzipped the wind screen to get a good look at the clouds, and to our surprise, a big bird swooped out of the sky and made straight for our bow.

“What’s he doing?” I asked Chris.

“Hitching a ride, I think.”

What the heck is that?

Sure enough, the bird hovered over our anchor for a minute then settled onto the curved bar of steel which keeps our mighty Rocna from setting—or not setting—upside down. A perfect perch for a bird. Or it would be for a bird without webbed feet.

“What is that?” Chris asked.

I was at a loss. I’d never seen anything quite like it. It was a big bird, almost two feet tall, dark brown with a lighter brown belly, a long, sharp beak. And bright yellow webbed feet.

I kept expecting him to fall off as he teetered there, the boat rolling in seas that were building as we left the shelter of the Berry Islands and entered the Northwest Providence Channel. But he was unconcerned by the motion, settled into preening. And preening. And preening. With his long beak, he could reach the end of his tail, no problem.

How can he hang on with those feet, I wondered. Then he stood on one foot and scratched the back of his head with the other. Oh.

Only later was I able to look him up online and determine that he was an immature brown booby. These birds are widespread in the waters off Florida and “commute” and forage at low heights all seasons of the year.

This one gave a whole new meaning to “commute.” When he’d finished preening, I thought he’d fly off, but instead he sat there, looking around. He was fascinated by the jib, watched it closely.

What I couldn’t do with wings like that, he may have been thinking, or, two points to starboard and you’ll get much better lift.

Surely he’ll leave at dusk, I thought, but as darkness fell, we were too busy paying attention to all the ships heading in and out of Freeport to keep an eye on him. And it was overcast and dark all night. We could hardly see the sails, never mind something perched on the bow.

Sunrise at sea

I was on watch when the sun began to rise the next morning, and I couldn’t wait to see if he was still with us. No, I thought, then maybe. As it got lighter, I could make out something on the anchor, but it wasn’t the same shape as our bird. It looked much fatter, and it didn’t have a head. Then I realized that he was sleeping, with his head tucked under his wing, fluffed up against the cold night air.

He woke when the sun reached him, looked around, preened a little more, spread his wings wide—I mean really wide: he had a wingspan of at least three feet. And then he just stepped off the anchor and skimmed away over the water.

Where am I, I imagined him thinking. What am I doing here?

I’ll admit that I sometimes wonder the same thing.


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