Gray. Everywhere. The sky, the water, gray, no horizon, just more gray. The sun had just set and the only reason I knew that was that the gray was shading darker. Only the distant lights of the cottages and condos scattered along the receding line of beach to the east gave any dimension to this gray cocoon.
Slaaatt...thump! Slaaatt...thump! The mainsail was unrhythmically dealing with the chop of the Gulf. With not a hint of a breeze it felt free to move to its own beat. Beneath me the single cylinder Yanmar droned on with it's all too rhythmic thumping tune. I was more motoring than motorsailing, ever hopeful that a breeze will eventually appear.
This was not how I had visualized this trip. I was a few hours into a single-handed sail from Fort Myers Beach to Key West. To avoid navigating the reef lined Northwest Channel at night I left my dock in the afternoon to ensure an (hopefully) uneventful arrival about 24 hours later with plenty of daylight. Plus, I do enjoy night sails, especially moonless ones, envisioning a brisk broad reach under a sparkled canopy of stars.
With the slating of the sail, the droning of the diesel, and a general feeling of uneasiness, I had to ask myself why was I was out here at night, in a small boat, alone, and miles from shore. Surely there were other pastimes that didn't require the time and expense of maintaining a sailboat, and not having to listen to the drone of that diesel!
I was sailing Oriana, my 26' cutter. She's Herreshoff-ish, built in Noank, CT in 1985 with an overbuilt fiberglass hull and way too much brightwork for a boat now berthed in Florida. She was a prototype, a blend of Fish class stern with a Goldeneye bow and was the only hull built to that design. I'd been sailing her, mostly single handed, for several years, including a recent trip from Maine to Florida, so I knew her pretty well. Her full keel and cutter rig made her a pleasure to sail. With the autopilot in command, it allows me the freedom to do other boat chores or simply sit back and observe.
So, there I was sitting in the cockpit, observing, mostly the darkening grayness and wondering why was I out here, listening to the droning, and slating, and missing a night of sleep? Then,100 yards or so off the stern, I saw something, a disturbance in the water. As it got closer I could see phosphorescent streaks heading towards me. A scene from a WW II movie flashed before me: torpedoes incoming!
Of course I wasn't being attacked, it was a pod of bottlenose dolphin. They darted under and around Oriana, lighting up the waters, but mostly they enjoyed frolicking in her bow wave. Since George, the autopilot, had the helm I was free to go forward and catch the action.
One of the benefits of sailing solo is that no one is there to observe and suggest that what you are doing might not be in your best interest. I locked my legs around the bowsprit while grasping the forestay with one hand I swung under the bowsprit to put my fingers in the slipstream just above the glowing dolphins. That might not be the smartest thing for a solo sailor to do considering...well, you can imagine the consequences.
What a show! The dolphins, casting an eerie blueish green aura, were awash with bioluminescence. One would glide gracefully under me, glancing up with a ghostly grin,. They rode the bow wave at such an angle to maintain eye contact, sliding just beyond my outstretched fingertips. Every few minutes one would dart off and another would quickly take its place. While I looked into their luminous eyes I could sense, what? Intelligence, playfulness, whatever, it was another being, obviously enjoying this encounter tonight.
After a time, all too short, maybe a half hour, they departed, leaving behind fading glowing wakes. As they left the main stopped it's slating as a nice onshore breeze immediately began to fill in behind them. I retreated back to the cockpit and secured the engine. Ah, silence! I quickly trimmed the main, raised the yankee and staysail and we were off, sailing! And yes, it was a brisk broad reach and after a bit, stars found their way through the fading grayness. We had the proverbial bone in our teeth, and we were streaking due south leaving behind our own foaming blue-green streak.
Then there was no question. This is why we sail!
Steve Brookman after a career as an airline pilot is now enjoying the retired life in Blue Hill, Maine with his wife, Susan. He builds small boats uses them on occasion, paints watercolors and egg tempera mostly in the winter, and still has time to volunteer.