Weird Stuff About the Ocean

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Whale Eye / Credit: Roxanna Bikadoroff

Weird Stuff About the Ocean will be a random post, on the rare occasion that I have a wifi signal and there is nothing to repair aboard Flying Fish.

Today’s post even has a connection to the Holidays. From Nell Greenfieldboyce at NPR comes the story of a giant blue whale eyeball being gifted to the Animal Eyeball Lab at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

The eye, floating in a jar of preservative for 30 years, was part of a private collection that needed a new home. The Animal Eyeball Lab had some 50,000 specimens in their collection but nothing like this.

A beleaguered Postal Service carrier this week delivered a soggy white box wrapped in duct tape to the University. When the staff opened the package at the lab and beheld the dripping gray mass one scientist said, “It’s the best Christmas ever!”

NPR’s report is embedded here: https://www.npr.org/player/embed/572299263/573046527

Piracy: Then and Now

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The public wharf at Portobelo, Panamá with two local boats, Benedicion por Dios (Blessed by God) and Pirates

In an outdoor bar on the historic waterfront of Portobelo, Panamá I watch as a sailor shuffles out of his dinghy and slumps into a seat at a table next to mine. A waiter is quick to bring him a steaming mug of coffee. As the sailor shovels his seventh spoonful of sugar into the cup I ask, “Tough passage?”

“You could say that,” he says, in a thick eastern European accent.

“A few weeks ago I was boarded by 20 guys in three go-fast boats 35 miles offshore between the Nicaraguan coast and the island of Providencia. They ransacked my sailboat, in the middle of the day, taking everything of value—money, computers, electronics. They wanted drugs, which of course I didn’t have. I’m just a guy from Poland sailing my boat in the Caribbean.”

He is Jarek Glistak, a singlehanded sailor aboard the 44-foot sloop Draga (Darling).

After a terrifying hour looting the boat the pirates gave him back a laptop and portable GPS so that he could navigate to land. He reported the incident to Colombian officials upon his arrival in Providencia.

Sailors’ stories are sometimes just that—tall tales. But there is an organization called The Caribbean Safety and Security Net (CSSN) that monitors incidents such as these and their reports confirmed the details of this event happening in the disputed waters off the Honduras/Nicaragua border about six weeks ago. In fact, CSSN reports that there were four other incidents of piracy this year alone in this remote area of the Caribbean.

Jarek has finally made his way to Portobelo as he tries to reorganize his life. He said he is “scarred” from the attack but thankful that he was left with his Darling, and his life.

Portobelo has a rich history of piracy that dates back to the 1500s when this port was the transshipment center for the gold, silver, and precious jewels looted by the Spaniards from the New World.

Sir Francis Drake was considered one of the most ruthless privateers to prey upon the treasure galleons in Portobelo’s harbor. He was slave trader who went on to be a famed circumnavigator and knighted by Queen Elizabeth I. To the Spaniards he was simply a cold-blooded pirate known as “The Dragon.”

He was 55 when he died. The official cause of death was dysentery. Drake was interred in a lead casket that was dumped into the bay at Portobelo. There is speculation that he may have still been breathing when the coffin went overboard.

No trace of the lead coffin has ever been found but it is likely somewhere in the vicinity of where Flying Fish lays at anchor tonight in Bahia de Portobelo.

A Wild Ride

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A sailing passage can be like a small-scale version of life. There is joy and hardship, wonder and despair. It was only eight days from Key West to Panamá aboard Flying Fish, but it seemed like forever–and that is a good thing. How many more times will two brothers sail together with a father who introduced them to this world?

Each of us knew that this passage south would be a test. None of us realized how close this test came to be the final exam. There was a sweeping low pressure system that dropped deeper into the Caribbean than was forecast and it brought with it gale force winds and huge disoriented seas. We could not outrun this storm. Torrential rain and breaking waves shut down our temperamental navigation system. An electrical fault in the ship’s generator filled the cabin of Flying Fish with smoke from burning wires. Our landfall at Bocas del Toro, Panamá, at 1AM in a shrieking squall with zero visibility through an unmarked channel, was nothing but by the grace of God.

Selective memory usually means bad things that happen are forgotten and good things are retained. On this passage we took such a beating that those moments of wonder and joy are returning more slowly. The takeaway is (after two days of solid sleep), that despite this first passage nearly terminating in a catastrophic end, I have never felt more alive.

I remember a short period of time off the northwestern coast of Cuba when the winds moderated at sunset and we were able to tune in the radio to a baseball game between the Havana Industriales and the Vegueros of Pinar del Río. Our stomachs even tolerated a Cuban Cerveza Cristal and some salted peanuts in the shell.  In the Yucatán Channel, the fishing rod bent double and brother Bob pulled in a bull dolphin (mahi) which he then cooked into one of the best meals of the passage. And on one evening watch off Nicaragua’s Miskito Coast, during the intense black of night that precedes a moonrise, we sailed through a massive school of our namesake flying fish. Illuminated by the green glow of the starboard running light and their own bioluminescence, the flying fish exploded away from the hull of the boat like a fuselage of fireworks. Watching this with Dad at my side I asked, “Is this a dream?” The question was immediately answered with a thud to the back of my head. A flying fish had miscalculated its airspace.

These are the memories we keep. To be able to share them with family is an extraordinary privilege. I am stronger today because of these eight days together on Flying Fish. In life, and on this sailing passage to Panamá, my brother and my father have always had my back.