Lift on a Wave, Passegiatta, Driftwood…and now By Lifting Winds Forgot. There’s a common denominator at work in these stories: encounters at sea with dolphins and whales.
And there’s a story behind the stories, a “true story” – if you will. One worth sharing. So, here goes.
It’s May, 1998, and Awaken and I are northbound from Florida to Maine. This was Awaken v1, by the by, a Pacific Seacraft Crealock 34, a very well made though quite cramped cruising sailboat. I had crossed Florida from Ft Myers to Port St Lucie via the Okeechobee Waterway, a series of locks, rivers and (lake) Okeechobee that bisects Florida just north of a line between Ft Lauderdale/Ft Myers. It’s a sparsely – by Florida standards, anyway – developed waterway, with modest homes lining the waterway east of Ft Myers for a way, then an abrupt transition to agricultural land, and even more primitive stretches as you near the middle of the state near the SW corner of the lake. Not quite the Everglades, the area is still full of dangerous wildlife, particularly reptiles. Alligators are common along the shore, as are snakes, especially water moccasins.
A few weeks before crossing, a boy was playing with friends along the shore and jumped in the water. He surfaced a half minute later covered in water moccasins, and managed to warn his friends not to come to his aid before disappearing. Police divers recovered his body – with hundreds of bites all over his body. Motoring along the waterway, this was driven home again and again when I watched moccasins swimming along the surface. They’re everywhere in southern waterways, and I’ve seen them in brackish water, too. Not to be trifled with, I guess I’m saying.
Anyway, there are a few locks along the way, difficult to work when short-handed, and there’s a small marina/restaurant at Moore Haven as a halfway point overnight. You do not want to anchor out around these parts, as snakes have no trouble coming up anchor lines/chains. Crossing the lake is a riot (boring as hell, too), with only a very narrow channel appropriate for sailboats, and requiring complete attention. Get out of the channel and you find very shallow water, sometimes just 3-4 feet, meaning it’s easy to run aground. In years with bad drought conditions, the entire crossing is closed due to shallow water.
Stuart/Port St Lucie, on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, is where you jump off into the Atlantic after the Okeechobee passage. More houses line the passage out to the St Lucie Inlet, and the inlet itself is a real barnburner. Prevailing offshore currents oppose winds here almost all the time, and the inlet is fairly shallow, which on many days causes a nasty swell in the narrow channel. On the afternoon of my last trip through there, breaking waves and 25+ knot gusts greeted me; it was not fun. Once through I set a NNE course and plowed on into the afternoon.
First visitor of the trip joined me about five miles offshore: a tiger shark. I guessed he was about 10-12 feet long, and he hung around for a half hour or so, maybe 20 feet off the starboard quarter. He was benign in the end, probably thought Awaken was a fishing vessel of some sort and maybe he could grab an easy snack, but falling overboard would have been interesting.
Two days later I ducked into Savannah, Georgia and berthed at the Hyatt there. A fun spot, Savannah is kind of like New Orleans along the river near downtown, and there’s another benefit of docking at the hotel: room service! You’re technically a hotel guest there, so call at two in the morning for a late dinner. Not many places where you can do that, but in the end why bother? Savannah offers so much more. I ran into a CNN news crew (really cute reporter, btw) and was interviewed for a segment about sailing and the ICW she was working on.
Anyway, I left a few days later, and set a course from the mouth of the Savannah River/Tybee Lighthouse for Beaufort, North Carolina, a 300 mile, two day trip. Sailboats can’t just point and go, however; they depend on wind and the apparent angle of the wind determines the course you can set, and that day I had to head well offshore, almost due east. I was about 60 miles offshore by the time the sun slipped below the horizon, and it was about that time I had one of the most amazing encounters at sea I’ve ever experienced.
Yes, a pod of dolphins showed up about that time. Not at all unusual, as those of you who’ve been at sea on a sailboat understand, but these guys were different, they were upset. They were swimming along slapping their ‘tails’ and being very vocal about it, too. One or two kept jumping ahead of the bow, like they wanted me to turn back, and they kept at it ’til darkness fell. They broke off after that and were gone. At least I think they left, but who knows. What I do remember was one who kept near the boat during all this had a crescent shaped scar over his/her left eye.
Around one in the morning I picked up an urgent weather warning via SSB that a fast moving squall line was moving rapidly from west to east, and was expected to hit the Charleston area quite soon (I was then about 70 miles due east of Charleston); I figured the weather would hit between 0400 and 0430 and went about getting the deck squared away, preparing for heavy weather. By 0330 I could just pick up the leading edge of the line on radar, but a look due west revealed lightning everywhere along the leading edge of the front.
Radar is such a cool tool. You can pick up ships, even very small boats, at ranges up to 36 miles off, but the most striking side benefit is the ability to watch storm clouds and rain, measure their intensity, direction of movement…and any passages through or between cells that may develop. Not this time, however; this front was a solid moving wall, and it was closing-in fast. I could pinpoint the leading edge exactly, too. A mixed blessing…knowing exactly when you’re going to get slammed when far offshore.
So I was watching the lighting, then listening to the thunder as it drew near, and when the leading edge was still a few miles off I turned into the storm, having decided to take it bow-on. Sails lashed down, I motored into the squall line, and when it hit the force knocked Awaken down on her beam. I was wearing a harness of course, but damn near slid down through the rail into the sea. Kind of rough moment, then Awaken picked herself up and (thankfully) the engine was still chugging along (thank you, Yanmar). I got her settled down and continued through the storm, which as it turned out was only a few miles thick.
When I broke out of the wind and rain what I saw was one of the most shocking things I’d ever seen in my life, so let me paint you a picture of that moment.
First, the storm had simply blown the seas flat, and the ‘backside’ of the storm was remarkably calm. So, the air was very warm, the seas flat, and the sun was just coming up. But the skies were a strange pewter-green color, the water too, like nothing I’d run into before. And all around me, white waterspouts, at least five of them. So a green sky with writhing white tornados, say five of them, the closest maybe a quarter mile off, and now I’m trying to pick a line between them.
Then that dolphin was there, beside me in a way, about ten feet off and swimming along calmly, looking at me. I could see the scar over the eye and was a little shocked. Then the rest of the pod was there, literally surrounding the boat, and they swam along beside me until I was clear of the waterspouts. I turned off the motor and raised sail, set the wind-vane and resumed course for Beaufort, and the dolphins swam beside me most of that morning. At one point I went to the rail and laid there, leaning out, holding my hand out as they danced there.
The one with the scar came close, looked at me, and I could tell she was thinking about letting me touch her – but no, she never did. But we looked at one another for quite a while, long enough for me to feel some sort of connection to her. I think that’s why I keep writing about that moment, too. It was important to me. Still is.
So. What was it all about?
I think they were warning me the night before. Warning me not to go forward into the night, perhaps? And when they came back? Maybe they thought the spouts would harm me, that they could help me if I went overboard?
Who knows; I sure don’t. We ascribe human actions and motivations to all kinds of unknowable encounters like this, but I know what I felt then (and continue to feel) about what happened out there, and I guess those feelings work their way into my stories.
So, as Forrest Gump said, that’s all I’ve got say about that.
Adios, and we’ll see you next time.