Living Like A Hummingbird
You've heard of this theory before. It's been floating around for ages. Some call it "Time Dissonance," but the idea is simple. Tortoises take life slowly and live a really long time. Hummingbirds take life quickly, and are gone in a season. But what if each experiences the same "amount of life"? To a hummingbird, a day feels like a month. To the turtle, a day is but an hour.
On your calendar, May 15th is just another human day. You start this morning off with an early dawn. You awaken before light at 5:40 and doze briefly until the light trickles in, say 6:30am. A dark line of squalls is visible to the east and south, punctuated by frequent lightning flashes. Bowling balls echo in the distant. You get the crew up and moving and pull the hook off the bottom by 7am. Your dazed wife squints through the morning haze as she weaves out through a narrow slit between gnarly rock studded islets dead into the wind with a nice 3 foot chop – threading the needle out of North Eleuthera's Royal Harbor inlet.
You turn 90 degrees and unroll the headsail for a 3-mile scrabble to a second narrow cut which is all that shields you from the open Atlantic, 4,220 meters straight down into muted electric blues. A rain line passes over, but quickly fizzles. You release the hoochies (squid-like fishing lures) from both rods, port and starboard, as you watch the depth meter drop from 4 meters to virtual infinity.
The super computers of the National Weather Service, running the best atmospheric modeling that mankind is able to devise, say you'll have 9-11 knots of wind today from the south. If you fly your big genny head sail you should make 5+ knots and arrive well before dark in Great Abaco's Little Harbour, just over 50 miles north. This should also mean a nice, easy, downwind ride.
You've practiced genny deployment and retrieval two dozen times with your crack crew of small girls and a patient wife, but every time it's executed the blood still runs hot. Really, the girls at the other end of the roller furling line weigh less than 70 lbs a piece and can rarely get the peel off an orange without extra muscle. As long as everything goes smoothly, it's all good. But this is sailing; things go wrong like lawyers stretch the truth, every day and at most opportunities.
Sure enough, as you turn the corner behind Egg Island and cross over the abyss, the wind is nice and from the south. You let the big rag fly. It's picture-perfect clockwork, every little crayon-size hand doing the right thing at the right time. You cut the engine and slide silently into that magical carpet ride of sailing smoothly over a silken sea. Breakfast noises commence. The motion is smooth so everyone is happy and smiling. It's 7:40am.
A stack of hotcakes arrives on the table and the crew enjoy a well-earned bite. You glance to port and see sea birds ducking and swirling nearby, then racing past to check out your lures. Birds are a good sign. You pick up other hard-to-articulate clues that this is prime fishing time. The early morning, the heavy overcast, the oil sheen surface with confused swirling chop of deep underlying currents converging and rising. You are already thinking fish, when, Wham! the port pole takes a deep bow and the reel goes into chainsaw mode.
You drop your plate of cakes and dash to the rail. By the time you have the pole out you can tell this is going to be a close fight. The fish is spooling meter after meter of line off as you tighten the drag down a touch. The fight belt is wrapped around your waist from behind as other hands tab the autopilot into a full downwind angle. You want to go as slow as possible while still making the 1-2 knots it takes to keep the fish behind the boat and not seeking refuge around your props. You've just giving a first good pump of return fire when the line goes slack. He's gone. Audible groans are heard. The second loss in as many days.
You had hand-sharpened that hook this morning with the file on your Leatherman. Yesterday's loss had made you suspicious and, sure enough, the hook had been dull, but no longer. Maybe the leader parted. You start cranking it in for inspection when the starboard pole folds down hard and its reel starts smoking off 100 lb test. You're there the next instant, subconsciously avoiding the tangle of halyards and running lines with practiced steps. You get this pole out of its holder and realize this could be trouble. The fighting belt is adjusted and the dance begins. You're not one minute into this duel when the port pole goes off again, hard and screaming. Your wife sprints across the cockpit but isn't sure what do next. The fish could easily become entangled with each other so best to let that one run its course while the port side is landed.
Five minutes later our 64lb eagle-eyed fish spotter calls your catch a Barracuda based on a sliver of head shape that flashes past in the blink of an eye. Barry's are good eating in places, but not here. Forty percent chance of them being poisoned with Ciguatera. You are wasting effort, wasting tackle and wasting time.
You crank the Barry in and land him on the back step. He's pretty sizable and adorned with a double row of wicked 3/8" pincers. You need to get the hook out and him overboard quickly, but the thought of losing a finger gives you pause. You roll your Leatherman over in your hand; it suddenly feels very, very small. To short for comfort.
You dash downstairs and grab a longer pair of needle-nose. A grab, twist and jerk and the monster is free, but too dazed to flip himself back in the drink. You dance around the slippery sucker being sure to keep tender ankles well clear of the needled jaws. Then you seen an opening; a swift kick in the right place. Croc meet Barracuda. He rolls down the back steps and into the murky deep.
Pole #1 is still waiting. In the interim, your patient wife, who cares nothing for fishing, has been hand pulling a foot of line at a time and reeling it up, not knowing how to "make the handle work" by tightening the drag. No worries, fish #3 is still on the line.
With the boat going slowly along at 2-3 knots and the belt already in place it's an easy transition. This guy has been fighting now for some minutes but still has plenty of punch. It's 'gain a yard, lose two' for a while until he starts to tire. These aren't stupid fish. By angling right and left in quick arcs they do their best to leverage your forward speed against you. It feels like you are dragging a sheet of plywood through the water. The pressure is immense; you are soaked to the bone from the rain squalls, chilled and cramping.
Your twin eagle-eyed spotters are focused and intent. They are following the line into the dark waters hunting for any sign of color or shape. Then he leaps! A huge Mahi Mahi bull comes full out of the water, turns a flip and flashes fury in his neon blue back and vibrant yellow-green skin. That's mahi skin color code for "Whoever is doing this is going to pay!" The spotters are elated.
Yard by yard he tires. At last you're making 10 feet for every one lost. He leaps again and again, then dances a jig on his tail while thrashing his head against the surface like a boxer being pinned against the corner. Wife #1 has already retrieved the fish tub; your first ever fish was dropped in the cockpit, but the blood bath was astonishing and turned rank hours later in the tropical sun. Now, experience as your guide, you welcome incoming guests straight into a 18 gallon Rubbermaid tub and slap the lid on. And sit on its top for good measure.
Up comes the Mahi with a last explosion of thrashing. The moment he arcs over the gunwale you realize getting him into the tub is pointless; he's way too big. This isn't the first time and the crew knows the punt routine. You drop him on the step, seize the tub lid and pin him against the engine firewall.
Was that a wind shift?
He's gasping for breath, eyes roll. The fish bonker is handed to you handle first; a few good whacks find their way home. Then the knife does its work and the blood pours down the scuppers beckoning the men in gray suits. You wait a long time, until his color shifts through metallic silver, then back to green and yellow. Mr. Mahi's now in fishy heaven. It's 8:22am. The weather geeks are just settling into their cubicles.
A momentary lull, then a wind shift of 40 degrees and a howl in your ears jerks you awake to the world you still inhabit. A dark squall line pricked with white caps is bearing down on the starboard side. Visibility drops in moments from 1-2 miles to a quarter mile, a wall of rain hammers into you. The boat surges ahead, her big genny straining with each gust.
Squall walls are usually very quick, passing in minute or two. You turn again to run downwind, allowing your boat speed to take the teeth out of the wind that the rigging is now resisting. The boat lunges forward. Nine knots, ten. Your wind meter is tracking up, like a stock on the rise. Seventeen knots, apparent, 19, 20, 22. This is insane! The highest you have seen the genny withstand before is 22, and now we are seeing 29 apparent wind, meaning the wind is nearly 40 knots if you were standing still.
The boat is now in space-launch mode surfing down the squall's building swell. Spray is exploding through the 20,000 pin holes in the tramp as we fly off a wave and crash into another. You keep telling yourself, 'it will pass, it will pass'. But no. Now you are sailing so fast you're riding the squall line like a surfer on a wave. You need to turn across it to let it pass, but that would increase the apparent wind that the sail is feeling up to 35 knots, more than doubling the pressure. You could release the sheet (line holding the tip of the sail) to allow it to flog like a flag and reduce the load, but in this wind that could flail the sail to shreds in an explosive, violent minute.
Getting the genny down requires all hands on deck but the thought of taking your 12 year old daughter out in the maelstrom to man the halyard runs a cold wet chill down your spine. You feel mortally torn.
Then the patient wife pipes in; the one that didn't know how to reel in a fish. "Hey, can't you use the little headsail as a shield, then pull the big one in when the wind isn't pushing on it so hard?"
Brilliant. You can't believe you married that lucky. You unroll the headsail from the cockpit to where all the lines lead and sheet it home. The genny is visibly relaxed, but the wind is a steady 20+ knots. You turn a little upwind and winds soften a touch as the wall passes. The waves, newly born, quickly die and the ride starts smooths out. You marshal forces and drop the genny in one smooth concert of teamwork,the 12 year old tied on a short tether at the base of the mast, expertly dropping the kevlar-laced halyard with a smooth, measured release.
As your crew scrambles back to safety, you pin the living room-sized sail to the tramp and wrap it quickly with bungees. The boat falls off a large swell and 600 gallons of water explodes upward through the tramp, your shorts and your torso with the force of a fire hose. It's warm and salty.
The winds taper off. You raise the main and head sails, now reaching in the boat's sweet spot, 15 knots of wind at 90 degrees on the beam. The rain builds and you open your tanks to drink in the bounty. The Mahi Mahi is waiting, folded into the tub and ready for processing, but the adrenaline is still a little too thick for surgical work. It's 9:30am and the geeks at the National Weather Service are just settling down to their second cup of Joe.
The clouds lighten and the gusts continue to drop. Boat speed falls to 6 knots, then 5 then the mid-4s. The wind begins to shift to the south. All hands on deck and up goes the genny again.
You break out the measuring tape to document the patiently waiting fish specimen. Forty-three inches from bull snout to razor sharp tail. The flashing fillet knife does its work and, 15 minutes later, pounds of pale flesh are in Ziplocs in the fridge.
The sun emerges and suddenly it's hotter than hot. The rain is cooked off in the decks in minutes and all the windows are open to the softening breezes. You are soaked through and through to the bone and beyond. There are towering thunderheads building again to the west, but you take a risk and change into dry clothes anyway. Your hands start to assume normal texture. You find yourself famished and roving the kitchen for stray scraps. It's 11:40am. The geeks are emailing each other about lunch plans: Mexican or Chinese take-out today?
Now the wind is virtually gone. You grit your teeth and fire up an engine. The sounds and the smell of the exhaust, borne by the slight following breeze straight into the cockpit suck the joy out of the ride. You're making headway, but it's costing you dearly. The genny is laying limp, like a sheet on a clothesline.
High clouds obscure the sun again and you see lightning in the gray under-shadow of the cloud banks to the west. Strain as you might, it's impossible to determine if they are shifting your way or not. A dark shadow falls and you see the top of a monstrous anvil-headed cloud that has been swept overhead, casting a hue of dread over the tranquil waters.
Then you feel a breath on your cheek and see a line of rippled water headed your way. The breeze is back and shifts to the side. The sails fill and the engine goes silent. Everyone relaxes.
The crew make hungry sounds, so you dig out a ham and whip up some quesadillas. Lessons are finished and the ride is slow and smooth, mostly in the 4 knot range. More clouds, then sun, a sprinkle. Lightning flashes in the distance, a few impressive bolts arc to find relief on the gray ridges of Great Abaco, just visible in the distance to the west.
The wind backs you and the main is now bouncing around in the swell making a terrible racket as the boom slams left and then right. Preventers help, but it's still a clang fest. You wait for a lull, then drop it while running downwind; it's just about a mess, but quick work by the crew gets it doused in time. You have now changed sail configurations 9 times. It's 2:30pm and the weather geeks are back from lunch and feeling sleepy, like a tortoise.
Under massive genny alone you now ghost along in a gentle cross swell. The crew have long since finished school work and out comes the favorite board game, Sorry! Little sister scores one win and then a second. She is triumphant in her victory, bouncing, dancing and yelling. Oldest sister sulks and glares. A third game and little sister is left out, second sister taking her place.
Then little sister hits on the plan, "scratch my back for winning luck!" she coos with a beaming smile. Older sister groans. You scratch the sacred back. On your next turn, with one of your pieces 2 spaces from Home and one still in Start, you draw two 2s back-to-back and then a 4-backward. "See?!" little sis exclaims, "Scratch for winning luck!" Older sister moans and pretends to throw up. It's 3:40pm. The geeks are checking their stock performances on the day and making last minute trades.
You ghost along now, hour after hour, with no connections to time or space. The sea slips by, distant land changes like the hour hand on a clock in second grade. You do some math and conclude you will arrive under sail after 7pm; before dark but it will be close. You elect to keep sailing, and save the diesel for your entrance through the cut at Little Harbour.
Dense clouds have blocked the sun again and the light takes on a metallic gray hue. Sea birds appear, spinning and dashing over the surface. You get that tingling sensation at the back of your neck again. Fish are at hand. But, it's still warm and the thought of landing and cleaning another monster just sounds too daunting. You yawn and turn back to your book. The kids listen to stories.
The radio crackles and you hear another boat calling a boat you know, a boat with kids. Everyone clusters around the transceiver as you call in a message which the first boat relays to your friends. They are waiting where you intend to anchor. Joyous bouncing ensues. It's 5:30pm and the geeks are stuck in traffic on the homeward commute.
It's dinner time but no one seems hungry yet. Lightning flashes again in the west and north, but seems to be bearing away. Time winds on, chapter after chapter of your Bronté book marches by. It's 6:40pm.
Eventually the cut from the ocean to the lagoon behind clears. The crew douses the genny and you motor through the gap. Your friends are visible now at anchor and your own crew is out in force, hollering their lungs out. You motor a circle around them exchanging greetings and news. You drop the hook and settle in for the night. Out comes the fresh catch and you enjoy a fantastic dinner of Mahi salad in the soft breezes of a falling night. The air is nearly still now, but pregnant with humidity, the warm sea radiating energy skyward.
Thunder rolls from north to south as the crew is tucked in. You stand in the cockpit for twenty minutes watching the billowing heads march northward, pitch dark until flashed with fingers of fire.
You collapse into your berth aching and exhausted as thunder rolls overhead like boulders through your mind. A month of emotions in twelve and a half hours of sailing.
"Is this how a hummingbird feels at the end of each day?" you wonder. And you smile.