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The rime of this mariner is haunted by a bird on a wand

2014 November 10

The Ancient Mariner’s albatross hangs from his neck. My albatross hangs on to my wand—the one mounted on the masthead of my boat.

Back to big-bird obsessions soon. But first, a quiz. What is the most common sound in a marina, any marina, anywhere?

It’s the sound of water spraying from a hose and hitting fiberglass. Boat cleaning, more so than boat sailing or boat motoring, is obviously the preferred boating activity for many owners.

I have no quarrel with this. It’s perfectly understandable. Our boats are our pride and joy and we want them to look nice. But that’s just a small part of it. The bigger part is that boat cleaning is a rewarding pastime in its own right. No doubt that is one of the things Kenneth Grahame had in mind when he wrote the water rat’s deathless words in Wind in the Willows asserting that “there is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.”

I find some pleasure myself (occasionally) in wielding hose and brush. This is comforting non-cerebral activity, but that is not to say it doesn’t have its challenges. This form of messing about involves dealing with the mess nature has made of our boats.

Mother Nature can be a sailor’s friend, as when she gifts us with fair winds, but she does us no favors when it comes to our yen to maintain our boats in Bristol fashion. Without mentioning the disgusting stuff that grows on our boat bottoms, exhibit one in this indictment is the spider, which I nominate as one of the five most overrated creatures on the planet (the other four are all snakes), given the extravagant praise the arachnid gets for trapping and eating noxious insects.

If spiders merely consumed the insects they’d deserve the accolades, but after eating the bugs they excrete them in a black substance that penetrates fiberglass and resists any cleaning product available without a haz-mat handling license.

Spiders are unconquerable—you cannot keep them off your boat. They’re worthy of your loathing, but don’t let it get personal. If you see one scuttling across the deck after you’ve hosed down the boat, don’t take out your frustration by stepping on it. The spider will have the last laugh by dissolving into an inky blob of black stuff that may well prove indelible. 

Lovely creatures though many of them are, birds are no friends to sailors either. Take for example the barn swallows that counterintuitively infest marinas that have no agricultural structures, including the one that is home to my boat. They line up on the lifelines like tiny soldiers in formation, handsome in their spiffy dark blue and copper-colored feather uniforms, happily producing droppings that pile up in militarily uniform intervals on the rail. 

Victims of a seagull assault will dismiss my swallow woes as pitifully minor irritations. I don’t have enough space or adjectives to describe what happens to a boat when a squabble of seagulls sojourns on it. Suffice it to say the results of regular visits by these guano-producing machines can be impressive enough to cause a sailor to sell his boat and migrate to a desert.

I blamed seagulls when I visited my pride and joy on a fateful day last September and found it covered with avian excrement. I would say from stem to stern, but that wouldn’t do justice to this carpet bombing. The splatters were not just on the deck but on the mast, winches, hatches, portlights, steering wheel, binnacle, compass, mainsheet, sail cover, transom and even, mysteriously, the topsides. 

Next day, same thing. Damned seagulls! 

On the third day of the bombing campaign I was viewing the devastation when a marina neighbor told me to look aloft. There I was aghast to see a black form attached to the wind-instrument wand on the masthead. It was a cormorant. 

It was this evil fish-eater, not seagulls, that rained the appalling mess down on the deck. Compounding the offense, the cormorant had the audacity to let loose its guano bombs with its webbed toes wrapped around my five-foot high, elegantly tapered carbon fiber wand, a delicate fabrication that was not made to support six or seven pounds of bird.

Dropping from this perch some 70 feet above the deck, the excretions were blown hither and yon, explaining the widespread coverage. 

Shaking the headstay persuaded the cormorant to leave, but it always came back—again and again, haunting me. When I passed the marina on my morning run, I saw the black thing on the wand. When I encountered a fellow sailor on the street, he said, “Did you know there’s a cormorant on your wand?” When I assembled the crew for a Saturday afternoon race, the cormorant was waiting for us on the wand.

I fantasized about shooting it with a pellet gun. I’m pretty sure I could have made the shot, but it would have been politically risky. The boat’s home port is designated a “bird city,” a bird sanctuary borders the harbor and bird watchers abound. Besides, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner shot the albatross that haunted him and look how that worked out—he had to wear the carcass around his neck.

One day, as the fall equinox approached, the deck was clean. The next few days too. The cormorant was gone and I rejoiced. Then came a storm, a full-on gale, and I went to the boat on the wild night to add back-up dock lines. As I did my work, I looked aloft, and there was the black presence, firmly attached to my wand, arcing against the scudding clouds as the boat rocked on the harbor surge. 

The cormorant was back. My albatross.