Sitting huddled in my waterproofs, tucked behind the low cabin , my sea boots braced against the opposite cockpit seat, listening to the wind slowly piping up. A wind already strong, already a reef in the main, already cold salty spray rattling from time to time on the back of my orange hood. I thrust my hands deeper in my jacket pockets to keep them warm against the cold of the wind. I sat on the windward side of the cockpit, the high side, the port side, as we lurched over the crest of the waves before sliding swiftly into the troughs, dark and unseen in the velvety black of the ocean, sometime after midnight three days from the nearest shore. I was alone on deck, harnessed to a strong point, a thick stainless ring bolted to the mizzen mast. The old timber boat lurched hard and unsteadily over a big one, foam racing down the lower leeward deck and I knew it was time to reef the headsail. I looked over the coaming, felt the salty sting of the strong wet wind in my face, and pulled myself up. But just to my knees. The boat was a bit active to chance standing. I reset the autopilot so we were running before the wind, eased out the sails till we were sliding slowly and comfortably down the waves. I crawled down the side deck, moving the harness from strong point to strong point until I sat on the bowsprit, my legs either side, dangling over the rushing sea. I had already eased the halyard so the front of the sail was slack and manageable. I unhooked the base of the sail from the end of the bowsprit and pulled the sail down hand over hand until the reefing cringle could be hooked back on. All the while the huge ocean swells passed under the yacht, at first lifting the stern and pushing the boat forward, and then sliding under the bow in a flurry of foam, the warm water rising up my sea boots as the crest passed beneath. All around green phosphorescence glowed in the spray and broken water.
I wrapped the foot of the sail in the reefing ties, retied the sheets , re-tightened the halyard and crawled back to the cockpit. Sitting on the starboard side I winched in the sail as I reset the auto pilot, till we were once again heading north-east on a close reach. I was leaning over the coaming on the low side, checking the set of the sails and watching the green starboard running light reflecting from the troubled sea, when I noticed our passenger. “How long have you been there?” I said softly. There, inches from my face, was a small brown bird huddled in the corner between the cabin and the coaming. A land bird, here in a wild night hundreds of miles from any tree to rest in.
He looked up at me, frightened eyes taking me in, exhausted beyond moving even in the face of danger. I wanted to pick him up and place him inside the coaming, where it was dryer and safe from the green swirling water that sometimes rushed down the side deck when the yacht lurched to a large sea. But I was frightened he would panic, and with his last ounce of strength launch himself into the night where there was no other place of refuge. So I gently moved away, and after making a few a slow scans of the horizon to see if there were any other ships, huddled back behind the teak cabin trying to stay dry and safe.
An hour went by and I checked the stowaway. He was still there. He didn’t look up this time. I checked in another hour. Still there. Where had he come from and where was he going? Was the sea full of these birds at this time of year migrating to who knows where? Perhaps. To read in books of these amazing journeys is one thing, to see this tiny bird huddled exhausted on my deck on a wild night on the deep ocean was another.
There are no landmarks out here. Just the brilliant stars and the restless sea, the spray and the wind, the moving hills of water. One can only imagine what it must be like, tiny and frail, buffeted by the wind, driven by nothing more than the conviction that you have to go on, have to find the distant shore where everything will be ok again. The arriving would have to be really worth the journey. That philosophy flew in the face of my lifetime conviction that arriving was nowhere near as important as the journey, as the travelling, as the sights and scents, as the breeze on one’s skin and the soft spiritual and physical caresses of fellow travellers.
I checked one last time before I shook awake the next watch, but he was gone. I dearly hoped he had rested and then flown off into the night. But he could have just as likely been washed overboard. I hope he had some luck. We all need it.