Thursday, April 19, 2012

Any Port in a Storm

Tuesday, April 17 - Day 9

Today should have been a day of elation, because we reached the halfway point on our route. I put two celebratory beers in the fridge (we've had no alcohol since leaving Nuevo Vallarta), one each for Patrick and I to have when we got off our first watch. However, by the time I went to bed, my heart was full of grief and regret, and my celebratory beer remained in the fridge.

As we were sailing this evening, we noticed a swallow trying to land on Silhouette. 650 miles from Costa Rica, 800 miles from the Galapagos, this petite visitor from land was trying to perch on our sailboat! It seemed to be having a difficult time landing in all the wind (at first, it was attempting to land on the spreaders), but the swallow finally managed to settle itself on a lifeline.

After a time, the wind completely died. As we noticed huge storm clouds ahead of us---which may or may not have been squalls---we secured the sails and started the engine. As we started motoring, the swallow flew off. We were going too fast. We knew the tiny bird must be exhausted and was looking for a place to rest. How it got so far from land, we do not know: Maybe it hitched a ride on a passing freighter? Or perhaps this is actually part of the swallow migration route and it got separated from its tribe? That scenario seems unlikely, since swallows are so diminutive, they have to eat (proportional to their size) Herculean amounts to keep their metabolisms going. We have seen very few insects at sea and none at all, since the first day of this passage.

Patrick said, "Slow the engine down. We're not in a hurry;" and so I slowed the engine to see if the swallow would return to Silhouette. From inside the cabin, Patrick suddenly saw the bird land on the boomvang. A minute later, it had flown in an open port and was perched on the lip of the port light, which overhung the settee in our salon! For some reason, we were both cheered by the plucky bird's appearance. Patrick talked softly to it. "We're all sailors here," he assured the little bird, "we'll help you out." After a few minutes, we went outside to adjust our course, and when we came back down below, the swallow was gone. No, not gone! It had just moved to the top of a speaker which was mounted in a corner, creating a small triangular cave. The corner cave must have been the closest thing on the boat resembling the protection of a swallow's nest.

I knew the little bird needed to eat if it was ever to make it to land. Even though that seemed an impossibility, given the distances involved, I was rooting for the swallow and wanted to help it. I knew it wouldn't peck at bread crumbs like a common house sparrow. Swallows in nature catch insects on the wing. This swallow probably wouldn't eat anything we tried to feed it, but I shredded some chicken into tiny pieces because at least that was protein. Swallows aren't used to pecking, so I dangled a tiny piece of shredded chicken in front of the bird to see if it would open its mouth. I tried to keep a respectable distance from the bird so as not to startle it, but perhaps my hand motion was too sudden. The bird started off its perch, flew into the V-berth, and then flew out the open companionway. My face dropped to the floor as I watched it go.

The little swallow returned one more time. It flew under the dodger and landed on top of the winch handle for the mainsail winch. I was on deck at the time and froze in place, hoping the bird would find its way through the companionway and back down below. However, the swallow didn't make its first attempt and flew off.

Moments later, a torrential downpour began. Although feathers are (among other things), Nature's waterproofing, the size of the bird seemed inconsequential in the face of the huge streams of water pouring out of the sky. I wondered whether the bird would eventually get weighed down or simply fall exhausted, its efforts spent, to the sea surface, where it would surely quickly be overwhelmed by waves. The swallow probably would not have made it either way; however, at least on Silhouette, it would have died in a warm place, surrounded by traveling companions. I had a heavy heart at the thought of the little swallow dying alone at sea and felt responsible for scaring it off.

After the rainstorm, night had fallen, and we resumed sailing in the fresh wind. We left the spreader lights on long after we'd gotten underway, hoping they would help the swallow find the boat again. We finally had to shut them off, because they were interfering with our ability to see ahead. The little bird never returned.

Nature is more resilient than we know, and perhaps the swallow flew 650 or 800 miles to the nearest land, with only sea spray and pluck to survive on. More likely though, like so many valiant ships of the wind, its status is Lost At Sea.

(Posted at sea, via Ham Radio)

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