Strange flight, the body
Held at a threshold
And never quite freed
Or quite revealed—
One wing taut with wind,
One wing concealed
Until the wind grows calm
And it shimmers in a shadow-world,
The shape of a sail, yet softer—
The drifting boat
A bird half in air,
Half in water.
The winged critter shattered the glassy surface of the Coral Sea and glided west, spooked out of the cool depths by the bow of Blue Eye cutting through a still summer’s morning. The flying fish crossed my line of sight, as I sat gazing out upon emerald waters from the increasingly small section of cockpit that offered respite from the sun, and I watched it soar gracefully over calm seas, leaving sparkling water drops in its wake, as if it were unzipping the ocean and revealing all its secrets. What a life, I thought, to be born with gills and wings and to have free rein of sea and air, as I tried to squeeze my four uninteresting land limbs into diminishing shade.
Watching the creature dance away was a pleasant sight to behold, but in and of itself this scene was by no means a remarkable one.
It wasn’t remarkable because, firstly, even twenty thousands miles into a circumnavigation I could still pass many hours of watch duty – though duty really isn’t the word for it – fixated by the rolling blue carpet laid out all around: the unique shape of each swell sweeping beneath, the whoosh of white water washing by, the “innumerable smiles of the sea” as Aeschylus would have it. From flat and calm to steep and breaking, the sea can be utterly and perpetually mesmerising, and it is surely the case that the number of lives lost to it will always be in the infancy to the amount of imaginations captivated by it. Jacque Cousteau recognised as much: “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever”.
The second reason it wasn’t remarkable, is because the flying fish to the sailor of the tropics is as the common fruit fly is to the landlubber: abundant specimens in their given habitat, almost ubiquitous in their presence if one is attentive to the matter, and who are quite liable to be found dead on your premises come an inspection. We, for instance, once awoke to find 92 deceased flying fish on deck, after a kamikaze-inspired night from Colombia’s underwater community. In short, you get used to them. And another thing they share in common with the fly is a tendency to land on humans, only with significantly less grace it has to be said. After an airborne assailant has struck you in the dark hours of the night once, it is hard to cast from your mind the possibility that another confusing thud into the side of your head might occur at any moment in the near future.
What was remarkable about the particular flying fellow that I watched gliding away from me – Australia-bound it seemed – was that he would never return to his watery world beneath. And this was not because he would land on Blue Eye’s deck either. Whilst the smaller and younger flyers are hopelessly clumsy in their aerial efforts, repeatedly failing to recognise that the sea is a moving mass requiring evasion, and thus repeatedly being unceremoniously swallowed up by an arriving swell, our antagonist was in fact swallowed up by something else altogether. Had he been given the chance I have no doubt this particular fish was of size and age enough to adroitly navigate hundreds of metres of sea surface, nipping in between the moving blue valleys with a speed and agility equalled by none. None, that is, except one.
It was with devastating accuracy that the brown booby dived down from above and yanked him from the air. I had not been alert to the company of the bird circling surreptitiously above, awaiting the moment she must have known would come. I don’t know how long ago birds figured out the opportunities afforded them by the marine-disturbing propensities of boat bows, but it is one of many instances of learned feeding techniques that they have developed. My favourite example of this is the crows of Tokyo, who have cracked the traffic light sequence as a way of safely cracking and retrieving their walnuts. (Warning: following this link to the Tokyo crow leads to a vortex of other astounding crow feats from which you may not return for some time.)
Anyway, the ocean-going booby knows that if it accompanies a boat long enough, patience will pay. And indeed as soon as our unwitting flying fish darted away from the ostensible danger of Blue Eye, it was destined only for the beaky clutches of the predator missiling down upon it. The instant she had plucked the luckless fellow from its flight path, she seamlessly pulled up from her descent into a sublime arc, simultaneously easing her head back and letting gravity feed her wriggling lunch to her. Such was the swiftness and precision with which the ocean-going bird executed this, that for a few moments I could only sit blinking stupidly, unsure if it had really just occurred, or if the heat was getting to me. It was a David Attenborough clip in real life. It was not the only time that day that I would question the presence of a winged object before my eyes, though the next one would be significantly more voluminous in both size and sound.
Before long the booby could be found circling our mast once more, threatening both the life of the next spooked flying fish with her predatory dives, and the cleanliness of Blue Eye’s deck with her digestive reliefs. I spent the rest of the morning fixated by this gliding silhouette, that would bullet down menacingly, pull up to ascend elegantly, and circle around to start again. Alas no more flying fish filled her belly that day.
As noon and the end of my six-hour morning watch approached, James emerged from the forecabin, groggy from sleep. Squinting out into the bright cockpit he grunted, “Looks hot”, to which I apologetically nodded, and he set about lathering himself in sun cream and gathering items of distraction to get through the awaiting afternoon of tropical heat. With no small degree of relief I scuttled down into the shaded saloon to make lunch, leaving James at the mercy of the sun blazing down on the cockpit a few hundred miles from the Australian coast.
* * *
At about 1pm I sat down to send some emails from our satellite phone. A message from some Australian friends, cruisers themselves, advised us we ought to notify Australian Border Control that we were approaching the Torres Strait, the narrow, reef-ridden stretch of water between Papua New Guinea and Australia.
At about 1.20pm I begrudgingly hit send on a perfunctory email informing the authorities of our innocent intentions to sail close to, but not actually to, Australian territory, omitting to mention – as tempting as it was – that not visiting their country was a decision we’d taken largely so as to avoid dealing with such pedantic and paranoid red tape in the first place. We went sailing to get away from all that, I thought to myself haughtily.
And 15 minutes later, at roughly 1.35pm, from my newly adopted prone position in the forecabin, I heard James yelling animatedly. Alarmed, I hurriedly hopped through the forehatch (there is, by the way, little better way to feel nautical than to hop up and down hatches), and was met by the thundering noise of an engine that for a terrifying second I thought belonged to a ship on course to resoundingly obliterate us. Then, for the second time that day, a flying object suddenly appeared in my line of vision, but rather than a dainty booby it was instead a not-insignificantly sized aeroplane flying at little more than a hundred metres above Blue Eye’s mast. There was just time enough to read Australian Border Force written on its flank, before it tore off to the horizon with the roar of a thousand crashing waves, leaving two very furrowed faces behind.
If we were perplexed by the presence of the plane, one can only imagine our horror when over the VHF radio crackled “Blue Eye, Blue Eye, this is Australian Border Control”. Faces furrowed further as we looked at one another to check that we’d each heard it right. In the few minutes since the flyby, we had decided it merely coincidental that this visit had occurred so soon after I sent that email. I hadn’t included our position in it, and we simply couldn’t believe we would be found so quickly amongst the vastness of the Coral Sea.
And yet, they knew our name.
The implications of this – and I still find it frightening – are that it took merely fifteen minutes for somebody in Australia to receive and read an email, for them to relay that information to a plane that one can only assume was already airborne, and for the pilot to scour an area the size of the United Kingdom until it came upon a small, blue sloop headed for the Torres Strait. This is no doubt impressive, but it is also deeply unnerving. It was as if we’d got hold of them and said: We have illegal things. Come quick.
Upon pulling ourselves together James responded to the omniscient forces of Australian paranoia, finding the man on the other end of the radio to be pleasant and harmless. He gave our last port of call, next destination, and details of crew on board, but refrained from mentioning that we found the intrusion to disgrace the sanctity of sailing, that the nice man should feel very much ashamed of himself, and that we felt altogether justified in our decision to avoid their country. We were the flying fish to their booby, and we felt oddly violated. What’s more is this was not the last we’d see of them either, as two further flyovers were deemed necessary once we were through the Torres Strait, to ensure we really were just passing by. So low were these flyovers that we became familiar with each of the seventeen nostril hairs in the pilots nose, and it was a relief when we at last made it into the scarcely patrolled waters of Indonesia, where only pirates might bother us.
I don’t know if I can emphasise how abnormal all this was. Up until that moment – as is almost always the case in the Pacific – the world was an utterly empty space save for the sun, the sea, and our little boat bobbing between the two. From Panama to New Zealand, some nine thousand miles of ocean, only twice did we see boats on the horizon during all our time at sea, and not once did we sight an aeroplane. This is not so much due to light traffic in the area, as it is merely the sheer size of that ocean. Seeing so much as a coconut drift by would count as an event in the Pacific, and that seldom happened. (But when it did you would often find a bird precariously and amusingly balanced atop it.) And so to witness a booby swoop down and catch a flying fish, in an unsettling foretelling of an event that would occur to us that very afternoon, is to have a particularly remarkable view from the cockpit that day in the Pacific Ocean.