Rescue at Night


Sept 16
Hanalei Bay to San Francisco
Day 6

Noon HST position: 34.15.60N by 158.44.30W
Miles since last noon: 110
Total miles of passage: 762
Avg. Miles per Day: 127
Course: N and NNW
Sail: Headsails poled with main sheeted in easy on a quartering breeze
Speed: 4 and 5
Wind: SSE10, then SW7
Sky: Mostly clear with cumulus; squalls overnight
Waves: Mixed to 3 feet; large train from NW to 10; 12 sec period
Bar: 1017
Air Temperature: 84 degrees
Sea Temperature: 77 degrees

Wind veered into the SW overnight. Thinking it might, I started my sleep cycle early and rose at 3am to make the necessary sail and course changes.

I noted from the hatch the full moon, half past its zenith, and the approach of a rain squall.

When I climbed into the cockpit well, my right foot just missed stepping on a ball of hair rolling around down there like a tumbleweed. Balls of hair being rare aboard, this sighting surprised me.

By headlamp, the ball turned out to be a small bird, a storm petrel that had fallen into the well and could not extract itself.

Like many pelagics, storm petrels spend their lives on the wing at sea. Land is, as Safina says of the Albatross, “a necessary inconvenience” and is visited only for breeding and hatching young. Thus, a storm petrel’s legs are mostly useless. The bird can’t walk ashore and attempting to do so on a rolling boat while simultaneously reaching for flight is what was producing the tumbleweed effect.

With some misgivings I very gently wrapped my hand around its body from above. But the bird fought not at all nor made any move to bite. Likely we were each other’s first alien contact.

Being still only half awake and unused to such visits, I utterly failed to do a proper identification. But working backward from the photo and memory, I’d say it was a Leach’s Storm Petrel, largely because the white rump was not a dominant feature; also the tail appeared to be forked and the longish legs were not long enough to protrude from behind the tail.

The bird had left a quantity of scat in the cockpit admirable for a body of its size and was disheveled, but appeared unhurt. In my hand it gave the impression of being weightless and fragile as a handful of straw. Its legs were motionless, jet black and cold as they rested against my fingers; its beak, tubenose obvious, no larger than pencil lead.

Think on it. This creature, which has all the heft of a paper airplane, can ably maneuver in the worst of ocean weathers. Thus the name.

I placed it on top of the dinghy. It looked up and around but didn’t twitch a wing. Oh, duh…the dinghy is under the sails and the rigging. I moved it to the top of the windward solar panel and faced it SW. Bat-like it was gone into the night.

In the morning I noted a dusty smudge twenty-feet up the port backstay. Storm petrels will often follow behind Mo at night. They use the phosphorescent glow, produced by small, water-borne animals that collide with the hull or are tossed in the wake, to make hunting easier. I can only guess that this bird misjudged one of Mo’s rolls. I have a few stubbed toes to show how easy that can be.



White Tailed Tropic birds at play in the rigging today.


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