Mother Carey’s Chicken

Being in Germany now, in my home country 10,000 km away from home, I feel like on a speed dating competition. I will be here for only two weeks and friends, family and business partners are fighting for a spot in my bursting schedule. I feel very flattered, however, I feel overwhelmed and homesick, too. 

Culture Clash

Everyone has a name for me. They call me “freak”, “sailing nerd”, “outlaw” or “Cap’n Maik” or just “pirate”. And they bombard me with questions. One of them is if I see a lot of sea life. 

Mostly my first answer is disappointing:

Despite the unbelievable vastness of life in the oceans, out there on the water, most of the times we sailors see nothing. We can go days and days at the same heading covering more than 100 nautical miles per day and see nothing but water and the sky in thousand shades of blue.

Most of life we see is close to land. There will be sea turtles and fish and dolphins and all kinds of birds, but out on the ocean encounters with living creatures (besides flying fish) are rare. 

culture clash calm ocean

When I feel the disappointment of the land people I continue…

But when we have them, these rare encounters with the creatures of the blue. They are breathtaking and extremely emotional. Whales, turtles, petrels, as a man of the sea you immediately connect with them, as different from us they may be. 

They are not hostile and they are not afraid. They accept that we share the same habitat and consider us part of the family. Most of them probably never met people, because sadly enough, often this is a lethal experience for them and few live to tell the story.

culture clash loggerhead sea turtle

Sea mammals are special of course. There is an immediate and direct line of communication. They are very close to us humans.

But then there also are storm-petrels, mostly small birds of the sea that spend more than 90% of their lives on and over the oceans. Only breeding takes them to remote islands. They are true heroes, out there during any weather, enduring, tough. And curious. When they spot Seefalke they circle her for hours, circling closer and wider, higher and lower wondering what funny thing that is floating on the water. Then they come closer and start to hover over the mast top, checking out if it is a safe place to rest. 

Petrels have very weak feet. They hardly ever use them. Every landing that is not on water is a risky mission. If they break their feed, they die. On the islands they breed they have organized “runways” guarded by „flight controllers“. Amazing, huh?!

culture clash storm-petrel

But the top of the mast or the railing is a relatively safe place. They have no hurry. They circle, do some fishing, return to check it out from a different angle, take another bite and come back again. They are perfect pilots, too. They can hover in less than a meter distance with the wind howling and the boat rocking. Every navy SAR helicopter pilot would envy them. 

Did you know they got their name from Saint Peter, who was said to walk over water?

And eventually, it can be after following the boat for 100+ miles, they will take a decision and land. They will just sit there and wouldn’t be impressed by the noise of the boat, its crew or even my boat dogs. And they may sit there for a whole night. Resting spots are rare on the ocean and who would turn down a free ride? It might be the last opportunity for a while.

When I sailed from Martinique to Dominican Republic with more than 8,000 m (26,000 ft) water underneath my keel, I caught myself talking to one. He sat on my stern solar panel and would listen to me patiently. From time to time he would nod his head or shit on my solar panel as an obvious sign of disagreement. And at sunrise he would spread his wings and fly but hang around to protect my course.

I guess I AM a bit of a freaky sailing nerd. But storm-petrels are not just birds! They are the souls of fellow sailors lost at sea. They are Mother Carey’s Chicken, messengers sent by Virgin Mary to warn sailors of an upcoming storm. But they are also “oiseau du diable”, birds of the devil, “water-witches” to collect Davy Jone’s toll. 

Eventually my feathered friend would disappear with no goodbye, as it is sailors’ tradition. Relief. It wasn’t my turn yet.

And then I look up into the eyes of my confused land friends who are struggling to decide if they should call the police or a doctor, regretting they ever asked the question. So we quickly change topic and I try to pretend I fit in.

And I understand that they do not understand. 

They never will.