By Phyllis Bicknell Carroll
It had been a stormy, windy October night but, as the sun rose, the winds lessened to a perfect sailing day, sunny and bright. A good breeze enabled us to move our 32-foot Pearson sailboat, Flyway, right along about two miles off the New Jersey coast. Because we were avid sailors who often spent months aboard our craft, we had added several additions to it for comfort. My husband Dave had designed and built a padded seat which fitted over the threshold of the hatchway at the top of the ladder leading to our cabin below. Then we wired the controls for the autopilot to the cabin ceiling in easy reach of anyone sitting on that seat. Thus, once the course was set, one could sit in comfort under the sprayhood (a shelter) out of the sun, rain or wind, watching through the windshield while steering with the autopilot. Later, when Dave’s Uncle Gene (who had loved our boat) died and left us a small inheritance, we decided to honor him by using it to add a major comfort. We had a custom-built enclosure fitted to Flyway’s cockpit, screens for summer and lightly tinted non- glare clear plastic panels for cooler or stormy weather. One other detail is needed to picture this story. When Dave sat in his command seat, to his left was a wide flat area where we placed the navigation charts in their plastic cases.
On that day we had the clear panels in place but had opened wide the port leeward panel. This was located aft of the cabin so was just slightly behind Dave’s seat. At midday, Dave stood up to let me descend the ladder to our galley to prepare our lunch, then resumed his seat. Our underway lunch often was a simple one of cheese, pepperoni, crackers and fruit. I first prepared Dave’s plate and passed it up to him, which, as usual, he placed on top of the charts to his left. As I started to make mine, Dave suddenly whispered, “Phyl, we have a visitor. Creep up here and see!” Dave spread his legs so I could climb up the ladder and see out the open panel. There on the lifeline sat one very tired little sparrow. Surprised to see a land bird so far offshore, we figured perhaps the earlier strong winds had carried him out to sea where there was nowhere to land and rest. We were heading south for the winter so very few other boaters were still out. As that little bird recovered from his exhaustion, he perked up and started to study us intently. He seemed to be especially interested in the few crumbs scattered around Dave’s lunch. So very slowly and calmly Dave took a cracker and slid his hand closer to the outer edge nearer to the sparrow and crushed that cracker into small crumbs. Then slowly slid his hand back, never raising it up. Our visitor ruffled his feathers but did not leave. He was intrigued by those cracker crumbs and must have been very hungry. We could almost feel his battle between fleeing or eating. We both remained still, willing him to eat. He studied us with utmost intensity, then made his move. The crumbs had won. He flew into our cockpit, still with his attention on both us and the cracker crumbs. Once he started to eat and we remained still, he began to relax. Not only did he relax his vigil, he even seemed to enjoy himself. He watched everything. As he satisfied his hunger, his attention was drawn to our ship’s wheel. It was slowly moving up and down to accommodate the action of wind and waves on our steady course. Suddenly our guest took flight, not to leave as we had expected, but back into our enclosed cockpit. To our surprise he had perched himself on one of the spokes running from the wheel’s outer rim to its hub and was riding it up and down like a kid on an amusement park ride! He was even chirping while doing that. … Perhaps it reminded him of a tree branch waving in the breeze. That little sparrow had lost all fear of us. He came back for more crumbs and, even landed on Dave’s outstretched arm lying on the charts and then ran down it to his lunch.
Then off again to really explore our cockpit, including going into the open storage bin along the sides where we kept winch handles and such. At one point we imagined he thought to settle in one as he came out to search for suitable nesting material but none was available in our cockpit. With both Dave and I crowded into the hatchway to the cabin watching our visitor, there was no danger of him being trapped below so we just watched the little fellow enjoy his unexpected lunch visit aboard our Flyway. Eventually he decided to leave our company and had no problem finding the opening out to the lifeline where he had originally perched. …We had one more surprise in store for us. Instead of just taking off, the little sparrow circled our yacht twice chirping all the while as if he were thanking us for his delightful time aboard our boat.
I’ll admit that I have written about this event very anthropomorphically (attributing human feelings to animals or inanimate things), but that was the charm of that unusual occurrence. Even if that little sparrow did not really feel the joy I ascribed to him, the pleasure he gave us in thinking that he did as we watched his antics, was a wonderful adventure. At the very least, he was rested and fed before he winged his way ashore.