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Our tormentors are smaller but may be nastier than Ahab’s whale

2022 November 1

Call me Ishmael. 

I can relate to Moby-Dick’s narrator because I too have tales to tell of creatures tormenting sailors at sea.

I’ve never been threatened by a whale trying to bite my leg off, as famously experienced by crazy Captain Ahab, but I had visions of a fate nearly as awful as a crewmember on a boat crossing the Gulfstream in a winter gale.

We became surrounded by an armada of Portuguese men o’ war. Scores of the buoyant little beasts encircled the boat, each trailing long, venomous tentacles. It occurred to me that falling overboard and becoming ensnared in the tentacle web of this poisonous fleet might be fatal. I based that on my experience as a child when a man o’ war tentacle wrapped around my ankle. I told my mother I was quite sure I was going to die.

Man o’ war stings are potent enough to  kill fish and it is not unheard of that they kill humans. 

The sea state in this crossing, with the wind contrary to the current, was rather active, to put it mildly. What if an errant wave tossed a man o’ war, tentacles and all, into the cockpit?

Well, no worries on that score. The creatures are excellent sailors. While the boat was hobbyhorsing along, the men o’ war glided smoothly over the steep waves with their blue sails properly trimmed, looking like seaworthy miniatures of their namesakes, Portuguese caravels of yore. 

To avoid any hint of waxing romantic about this pseudo jellyfish, I should add that its sail, or float, is filled with carbon monoxide. No kidding. 

Still, Portuguese men o’ war are only a theoretical menace to sailors, unlike a predator that boards our boats, attacks humans ruthlessly, inflicting pain and physical and psychic injury. Such a creature is the black fly. 

I can bear witness to the evil of this man-eating insect, though I am mystified about their particularly concentrated presence in the environment of sailors. Flies that are attracted to water should be hanging out around the effluent of a malfunctioning sewage treatment plant or the foul runoff from a garbage dump, right? Instead, they favor some of the purest navigable water in the world, the pristine reaches of upper Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

As we sail through those waters, they descend on our boats for the express purpose of feeding on sailors. They do this in barbaric fashion. An entomologist compared their jaws to the jagged edge of Rambo’s survival knife, which they use to “slash and slurp,” cutting into human flesh to create a pool of blood. Then they drink the blood.

The process isn’t as messy as it sounds. The flies are small and the pools of blood are infinitesimal. But it is about as painful as it sounds. The flies will attack any exposed flesh, but they specialize in munching on ankles. A helmsperson in shorts confined to the wheel or tiller space during a fly episode faces unspeakable torture. Victims sometimes get to the point where they would probably prefer to face Captain Ahab’s monster of a nemesis rather than endure more fly bites.

There is no offense to be mounted against these malevolent insects. As for defense, bug repellent can work for a few minutes until the flies become inured to it. Then they seem to lap it up like blood.

Covering exposed skin from head to foot, say with foul weather gear, defeats most of the flies, but since fly season coincides with the peak of summer, this option is an invitation to heat stroke.

I said I could bear witness to the cruelty of these tormentors of sailors, and here it is. Once on Lake Superior, where the flies, also known as buffalo gnats, are larger than the Lake Michigan variety, one of them alit on my seaboot, penetrated the rubber and bit the top of my foot. There were witnesses to my yowling who would sign affidavits swearing it’s true.

The flies are a standard feature of the race from Chicago to Mackinac Island, much to the horror of saltwater sailors who venture inland to compete in this freshwater classic. After experiencing it years ago, SAILING’s design reviewer, the yacht designer Bob Perry, channeled a famous novel and dubbed Lake Michigan “Lord of the Flies.” 

Flies may be the most obnoxious creatures to board boats in the Mackinac race, but not the most disgusting. That title belongs to another insect, one that, oddly, is benign—the mayfly. Don’t be misled by its name. It’s not fly size; this is a big bug, an inch and a half long. It looks like a dragon, but it doesn’t bite humans. What it does is hatch by the millions, virtually simultaneously.

In a race that many will always remember as “the mayfly Mac,” the hatch occurred on a still, dark night, and sailors were at first unaware of the cloud of mayflies that rose from the water and settled on their boats. But their overwhelming presence was quickly manifested in various ways, including a crunching sound when sailors moved on deck and, in flashlight beams, masses of crushed corpses stewing in bug juice. Dawn revealed transoms black with layers of mayflies.

Boarders of a different kind visited the fleet in another long-distance freshwater race last summer. Squadrons of bats swooped and dived close to sails and rigging in the acrobatic fashion of these winged mammals, and then settled down on the boats like hitchhikers gratefully accepting a ride.

Half a dozen nestled among blocks and lines on our boat. While some people are creeped out by bats, what with their association with haunted house decor, rabies and maybe Covid, I was delighted to have them as guests. 

They are voracious insect eaters, and while they were aboard there was not a single fly to be seen.