Night watches can be lonesome affairs for some. There they sit by themselves in the dark with only the pale illumination from the wind instruments and the radar to navigate around the cockpit, where anything beyond their outstretched hand is nothing but an ebony blur. Imagine driving a car through a prairie wheat field, racing over hill and dale with your eyes closed, your eyes blacked out and you may start to appreciate the feeling of what it is like sailing hard and fast over a dark, moonless sea.
I’m often asked, “what do you do with all your spare time at sea?” “Especially at night?” “All night!” A question which is usually followed by, “I just couldn’t sit there all night and do nothing.”
When I hear this it’s hard not to laugh. For me, night watches can be the best part of voyaging. I’m a loner by nature so the solitude of night watches fits my soul like a comfy pair of slippers and fleecy housecoat. Some of the strangest and most thrilling things I have witnessed at sea, has occurred on my night watches. Once in a lifetime sights, sounds and visitations which are entirely my own that no others in the world will witness.
Experiences which are uniquely my own that will never be repeated in the exact same way. Simple, but profoundly fascinating things such as two opposing waves cresting together then exploding in a bio-luminescent eruption of neon blue light and water. A shooting star streaking over the masthead only to perish in the sea to the west. Dolphins and whales come to boats at night to play, as do flying fish and flocks of Storm Petrels, red pouched Frigates and Blue Footed Boobies come to hunt by the navigation lights, or perhaps to simply rest upon the deck.
I rarely read or write at night. I will listen to music or a distant radio station on the Ham radio but more often than not, I will just sit and think introspective thoughts, or musings often inspired by my Maiatla world that surrounds me. It can be fine entertainment and it is rarely disappointing.
This night I was sitting in the command chair behind the helm with the automatic pilot doing all the driving. The sails were set to make the most of the fresh, following breeze and we were clipping along nicely. The top of the dodger was open as I had unzipped it to let the bracing breeze blow through. It was a cloudless night with the heavens alight with far too many stars even for the most vivid of imaginations. As the boat rolled this way and that with the rhythm of the sea, the mastheads and light scribed and arc through the heavens. As I gazed aloft contemplating the origins of the universe, the constellations above were suddenly blackened out. The stars vanished, but just for an instant then they reappeared right where they had been. As I continued to watch, the stars, a small sections of the sky repeatedly vanished only to instantly reappear.
I was tired so it took my foggy brain several moments to focus then comprehend what was happening. The fork-tailed creature was well over a meter (3.2 feet) long and wider again by half with its black wings stretched out from its sides. The frigate bird made several passes around the mast-heads and around the boat. I first assumed that he was hunting, using the glow of the navigation lights up on the bow to spot fish near the surface. However, this bird did not seem to hover over the boat as if wanting to hunt, this bird’s focus appeared to be on the top of my masts. After several more passes it became clear that the frigate had selected my mizzen mast as a roasting spot. He was attempting to land, perhaps for a siesta, which would make sense as the Mexican mainland lay just five short miles to the east, and it was late.
Now amused, I intently watched as the bird made its final approach and with landing gears out and wings back stroking, the bird attempted to settle but just when his webbed feet found its footing, I heard the thud and I believe I saw feathers fly as the bird was viciously catapulted off to the port side. Undeterred, the bird circled around for a second attempt at landing but at the last moment, there was a thump and wings again whipped about in an effort to regain control as it was once more ruthlessly cast aside.
I sat there for about 20 minutes while this stupid bird made several more attempts to land atop of my mizzen mast without success. Finally, the majestic frigate bird had enough of Maiatla’s rejections, battering’s and bruising’s so it flew away into the dark night never to return. Although I felt the bird’s pain I could not help but chuckle a little as I had been wondering how much abuse the bird would put up with before it gave up attempting to fly through the spinning blades of my wind generator. In this wind the saber-like, black carbon fiber blades were nothing more than a blur. The dammed bird was lucky it wasn’t decapitated.
I returned to thinking about everything, then nothing at all, that is until the dolphins decided to come for a visit.
Some of other SV Maiatla bird encounters.