Three Men And A Bird
We were sailing offshore on a coastal passage from St Augustine, Florida to Sag Harbor, NY, aboard ALYAN. She was carrying two genoas each poled out like a butterfly before a fresh breeze in the Gulf Stream. I’d been working on the boat all winter in Florida, and now with the help of two friends, we were bringing her back up to her home port.
We left on Friday May 9th 2003 just 24 hours after the crew, Jim Smyth and George Pharaoh, arrived at the airport. Some “superstitious” people believe it is bad luck to begin a passage on a Friday. This, however, was not really an ocean passage, because we were sailing along a single coast. Therefore, I maintained there was no reason to fear bad luck. Additionally, my friend, Alan Rosenthal and my father both assured us a good trip. So I was satisfied that we were sufficiently blessed.
We were escaping a heat wave in Florida and enjoying fair winds and following seas. We had provisions for a month even though we only expected to be at sea for a week, and we had a freshly caught Mahi Mahi in the icebox. It couldn’t really get much better as offshore sailing goes. Then out of nowhere we were inundated by a massive swarm of flies. We were south of Cape Hatteras and 70 miles out to sea and so were these flies. Jim and George set about trying to kill them. After several hours they got about three between them. These flies were fast, biting, and everywhere. They were all over the hull, especially the transom and had infiltrated down below. Jim said “When you lie down in your berth don’t look up, because you will see hundreds of them on the overhead above you.” The flies stayed that night and began to look light unwanted guests that were not going to leave.
We were sailing along North of Cape Hatteras and still swatting at flies the next day when we sighted a little songbird. “Its probably going to land on the boat.” one of the guys said. Undoubtedly I thought. I’ve seen many little song birds out at sea that were exhausted and had to land on the boat, despite their fear of humans. Once a little bird even crawled under my sleeping bag in the “V”-berth for comfort but expired from exhaustion – I think. Well, sure enough this little bird landed on the rail and fluffed up its feathers to stay warm. It flitted about now and then but kept returning to ALYAN.
“It’s catching flies!” Jim exclaimed. “Look at its beak.”
We looked closely and sure enough the bird was catching and eating flies each time it went flitting about. Well I tell you, I would have bet everything I owned that there was no way this tiny little bird could eat all the flies that were stowed away aboard the ALYAN. But after a couple of hours I wasn’t so sure. The more flies this bird ate the more energy it gained. It knew flies, and caught them on the wing. After watching for a couple of hours we figured this bird was going to weight 40 lbs before it was finished.
The little bird became increasingly friendly as well. It was down right jubilant. Soon it was landing on us. It was all over us. Each time it landed on George it would chirp and sometimes it preened his fleece. I attributed it to the fact the he was wearing the same colors and appeared like a mother bird. He had on his yellow foul weather pants, a gray fleece and dark sunglasses. The bird had a yellow breast with black streaks, black mascara, a yellow-green head and green back. Small white patches were visible on its tail under the top feathers, and its beak was sharp straight and narrow. Feeling a little jealous that the bird only chirped when it landed on George I mimicked its chirp back to it. Blow me down if it didn’t flit over onto my shoulder and give me a little kiss on the eyelash. I had the bird book out trying to identify it when the bird landed on its picture in the open book. I appreciated the help and found it to be a prairie warbler. The book stated that it did not actually live on the prairie and was an insectivore. It appeared that this little critter went from staring death in the face to finding the smorgasbord of its life.
It was hard to take our eyes off our new friend as it went about decimating the flies and visiting with us. Everyone was happy, the vibe was good – why it was a party. We were careful not to sit or step on our small friend, as it was always somewhere new. It found its way into every cabin, cabinet and compartment that was open. The flies at the upper end of the gene pool got wind of what was happening and started hiding. The bird attempted to coax them out with various techniques. We joked that the boat would be found with nothing but our bones left and an eighty-pound warbler. We thought, no one is going to believe this story.
Eventually all the flies were gone, but the warbler still looked hungry. It had even eaten a moth. Jim and George put out some fish for it but it hopped on and over it without even taking notice that it was food. So I called for some cheese. A nice individually wrapped piece of American cheese. I held it out to no avail at first. I rested my hand on my leg with the cheese between my fingers, and wasn’t looking when suddenly I felt a little tugging at the cheese. Well, the warbler set about gorging itself with cheese. It had cheese stuck all over its beak and there were little beak marks all into the cheese. Finally it started looking full and its eyelids became heavy.
It was near the end of cocktail hour and George and I went on deck to change sails, while Jim went below to start dinner. Jim had some trouble keeping a cast iron pan on top of stove. I fished it out from behind the stove for him. I really just keep the heavy pan in the oven for ballast and didn’t expect Jim was going to cook with it. I think it slid off the back of the stove twice while we were putting up a smaller headsail. At one point Jim opened the oven door, and to our horror the warbler flew right into the preheated oven. We thought our little friend was cooked as it lingered on the lower rack, but luckily the oven was not yet too hot and it flew back out. Between the sails going up and down and the mayhem in the galley “Timmy” (that’s what George named the warbler) disappeared.
George and I expected that Timmy had left us. Jim however speculated that he had gone off to a quiet place somewhere in the boat. None of us saw him for the rest of the night. When I came on watch the next morning Jim and George informed me that Timmy came out of hiding after sunrise, flew around a little, landed on top of Jim’s head and then flew away. There were some fishing trawlers in sight so we speculated that Timmy went to feast on their flies. Perhaps he wasn’t lost at sea but actually lived from boat to boat.
We saw dolphins about 20 basking sharks, and whales spouting on the horizon during our passage, but nothing was quite as remarkable as the little prairie warbler we know as Timmy.