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Bird Onboard

by Ellis W. Merschoff

Sea Gypsy was pulling nicely in a stiff southerly breeze, making close to her hull speed at 6 knots. The early autumn light seemed to carry the shoreline colors out onto the Bay, emphasizing that summer was indeed over.

"What is that squeaking?" asked Sherry, as she settled in on an easterly course toward the Craighill Channel front light.
"Just the wheel," I replied. "It has been making some noise off and on for a while now." I replied.

"No, it sounds like  a . . . eeeech!" screamed Sherry at sudden appearance of a bird. A female goldfinch. (We looked it up later.)

Sherry squirmed away from the wheel, trying to keep her distance from the chirping hitchhiker perched on the taffrail. Unhelpfully, the bird hopped to her shoulder, eliciting another outburst. Fortunately, the goldfinch quickly made a second short hop to the binnacle mounted on the wheel  pedestal.  Now that we could keep an eye on her, our guest was less frightening. Soon, my wife  Sherry, our guest Diane, and I started to become more comfortable with our unlikely  visitor. Now, this is different, we all agreed. Even the bird seemed to be surprised by the  turn of events.

We were eastbound out of Rock Creek on the  Patapsco River, about a mile from the nearest land and headed toward the eastern shore--a long way if you happen to be a tired goldfinch. We were taking  advantage of a beautiful early fall afternoon to introduce our friend Diane to the joys of  sailing on the Chesapeake Bay. Who knew that "Birdie" would make it a  foursome. Our plan was to sail across the Bay and back, leaving enough of our route undecided to allow selection of the fastest point of sail. Speed rather than destination determined our course.

Sherry, a talented but demanding helmsman, decided she wanted more distance between herself and our new friend Birdie, who remained perched on the binnacle. So, very slowly, I pressed a finger against Birdie's legs, and she politely accepted the perch. Hmm, could this be an escaped pet enjoying recently won freedom? I eased her up onto the  companionway hatch, broke out some peanut butter crackers, a bottle cap full of water, and set up a small birdie buffet.

Things were settling in nicely.  We were making 6 knots on a starboard reach with about a 2-foot chop, occasionally taking spray over the bow. However, near-catastrophe awaited. A particularly heavy bump knocked Birdie loose. She skidded  across the fiberglass, then launched into the stiff breeze. In no time, the wind had whipped her well behind us.  Relative to the boat, Birdie was almost stationary flying as hard as she could into the substantial wind created by the combined true wind and Sea  Gypsy's speed. We cheered Birdie on as if the goldfinch could understand and take heart from our good intentions. From the way she flew, it was clear she understood that the unlikely shelter of Sea Gypsy was the best she would find this far out in the Bay.

Finally, after a heroic effort, Birdie made the taffrail again, tired but safe. This time, I settled her down on the coiled jib sheet, in Diane's lee. Here, she continued her buffet of peanut  butter and water in relative safety. Before long, however, we noticed how quickly peanut butter goes  through a goldfinch. Birdie was fouling my jib sheet. I suggested a  new name for our foul fowl, Jib Sheet.  Fortunately Sherry and Diane simply ignored me, so Birdie remained Birdie.

As we passed the Craighill Channel front light, we noted the new lighthouse owners were out that day, no doubt working on their endless list of improvements.  They too had a  beautiful day with a building wind and sea.  I recalled from the article about their project  inChesapeake Bay Magazinethat days when the wind and waves picked up made it  particularly challenging getting back into their rubber dingy.  Today was going to be one  of those days.

We decided to run north for awhile, then jibe around to a port reach and head back to Rock Creek. Easing to a run went well, but the confusion and line handling of a jibe in a stiff breeze sent Birdie into the air again. This time, with substantially less relative wind, Birdie easily regained her perch on the cushion next to Diane and resumed her bird chow and water feast.

We were heading west, back toward the Patapsco River in the middle of what the tug captains call the flats, a shallow shortcut for tugs and barges transiting between  Baltimore and points north passing close to Hart-Miller island and North Point. I noticed an outbound tug pushing two barges rigged end to end headed toward us--or so I thought. As navigator and communicator, I told Sherry I would raise him on Channel 13 and inform him of our intention to hold our course and pass down his port side. We were still making 6-plus  knots, so getting well clear before he passed would not be a problem. Sherry said she  thought he was actually inbound, we were behind him, and therefore not an issue to him.   I was convinced he was headed towards us not away, so I raised him on the VHF.

 "Eastbound Tug and barge on the flats, this is the sailboat off your port bow," I said into the mike. The response came back garbled: "This is . . . I am . . . bound."  Undeterred, I  continued "Captain, my intentions are to hold my course and pass down your port side. Sea Gypsy out."

As we continued on our course it became painfully apparent that Sherry had been right. In my defense, it was pretty hazy, but in the  end the lesson was clear: Trust the helmsman.

As we continued back into the Patapsco River and adjusted our course to sail closer to the wind, we noticed another sailboat slightly downwind matching our course and setting up an impromptu race.  Not to be outdone, I winched in the jib sheet, which markedly increased our heel angle and sent Birdie skyward one more time. This time the relative wind was too much, and Birdie touched the water at least once in a futile attempt to  regain her perch on Sea Gypsy.  Although Sherry and Diane were focused on Birdie, I was  focused on the race and oblivious to Birdie's plight. It took them some time to get the crew's priorities realigned. Once they had, I abandoned the race, releasing the main and jib sheets to allow our guest once again to find refuge aboard Sea Gypsy.  While I have been accused of taking racing way to seriously, I have never before seen it literally in terms of  life or death.

After the near-tragedy of losing our new friend, we decided to dowse the sails and motor back into Rock Creek. I gently eased Birdie below, so the commotion wouldn't send her off again. Surprisingly, she was just fine with going below and cheerfully took  up residence on the forward V-berth.

Once Sea Gypsy was safely docked at her slip, I  secured the diesel and welcomed the silence as only a sailor does. With the clatter of the  diesel gone, Birdie heard the familiar sounds of land and flew out of the cabin. She  alighted briefly on Diane's arm and then took off into the trees that line the creek. There, she paused and sang us her song.  She was probably singing for her mate, or for the  simple joy of being back in a familiar place, but I like to think she was thanking us for the  ride. Like stepping into Heraclitus's river, you never sail the same Chesapeake Bay twice. And that day's Chesapeake was particularly rich in lessons about determination, trust and priorities.

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