First Offshore Passage: Solitude and Companionship

Our first day out from New Orleans found us in the company of barges, fishing boats, and ships. We opened a number of bridges, waving gaily at the bridge tenders as we passed through. On our second day, heading out into the Gulf of Mexico, vessels became fewer until Brian noted the last ship on the horizon during his Friday night watch.

Our crew included a couple of special additions: Brian’s sister, Kem, who flew down from Seattle to make our maiden passage with us, and our cat, Prussia, who flew down as well and will be cruising with us for the duration. So our little world included four humans, one feline, a teddy bear named “Frankie,” and Brian’s infamous Mardi Gras snake. As the passage wore on, we became goofy with lack of sleep and assigned silly names to each other, including Wheezy (me, with a cold), Queezy (Kem), Barfy (Prussia), Nappy (Barry), and Happy (Brian).

All day Saturday, we had complete solitude. The sky was blue and clear and the sun shone brightly. We all commented on the blueness of the water, hanging out over the stern to enjoy the deep azure color. Every few minutes, I’d scan the horizon in a circle, but there was nothing to see but water and sky.

That evening, a tiny black and brown bird circled the boat. Fearlessly, he landed on the lifeline. Then he discovered the windbreak provided by the dodger, so he moved into the cockpit. I was down below and snapped a bunch of photos when he landed at the top of the companionway. But he got bolder, and then — oh, no! — he was inside the boat, sitting on the nav station.

All I could think of was bird poop on Brian’s computer, so I went to shoo him back out. But he was confused and flew over my head and into the main cabin, where he circled and flapped. He found the entrance to the v-berth and started zooming around our bed, zipping over my head a second time when I tried to capture him. He ended up in the head and finally came to light on the floor under the toilet. Got him! Cupping him carefully in one hand (gotta have one hand for the boat), I carried him up to the cockpit and freed him.

You may be wondering, where was kitty during all this? Well, of the four humans, only Kem experienced much seasick queasiness. But our feline companion had a much rougher time of it. After barfing all over our bed the first night, she’d found a tiny but stable hidey-hole in a locker and hadn’t come out again. She was completely unaware that a tasty little bird had flown within just a few feet of her, and probably too queasy to enjoy it anyway.

Our little bird refused to leave the boat and was joined by two others. Darkness fell, and they huddled under the dodger all night. Sadly, by morning, all three had simply laid down and died. The guys gave them a burial at sea while Kem and I were sleeping — if I’d been awake, I’d have played Amazing Grace for them on the harmonica or something.

Sunday evening’s companions were much more cheerful — a school of bottlenose dolphins! One caught our attention by doing a back flip out of a wave beside the cockpit. Then they were everywhere, their sleek streamlined silver bodies surfing and leaping on all sides. Kem and I stood on the bow, and we could actually see them under the water, riding our bow wave like underwater surfers. Groups of three or four would come up beside us, zooming by in perfect formation. When a particularly big wave came up from astern, several of them would surf in it, leaping out of the wave crest in the blue-white moonlight.

I never saw the dolphins depart. I watched them for a half an hour, until my frequent yawns ran together into one continuous yawn. I went below and climbed into the v-berth to sleep. The last thing I heard as I was drifting off was the high-pitched clicking of the dolphins, chattering with each other on the other side of the hull.