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The Midnight Dolphin

At sea, gannets and dolphins seem to have overlapping territories, one in the air and the other below in the water. Gannets are huge sea-birds with a wing-span of almost two meters. Brilliantly white with black tips on the wings, they have yellow heads with sharp long grey beaks. They fish like terns and dive from up to sixty meters height straight into the sea, catch and swallow their prey and pop up to the surface again looking around with a proud expression – I caught it – didn’t I!

Lisa and I sail during the summers on board ketch SIRI in the North Atlantic Ocean.
We were sailing from Inverness, Scotland to Farsund, Norway a distance of 350 nautical miles. We normally make this passage in 50 – 60 hours but now late in August the nights are dark and long and the North Sea can be pretty violent as we approach autumn.

We sailed through a flock of fishing gannets and felt the electricity or tension that indicates the presence of dolphins. We heard them breathe and cough but Lisa saw them first, they swam in groups of four; two on the starboard side and two on the port side. A dolphin is between two and three meters long and the back is dark grey and the belly has a yellowish colour. They held the same speed as we when suddenly they overtook us and the pairs met under the bowsprit like circus-artists and changed places. With Lisa on deck the mothers arrived with their children and she got the impression that the cows wanted to show her their calves and that she as the woman on-board would have the good taste to admire their offspring. They wanted to play and dialogue and interact with us, that was for sure.

The second evening Lisa came up to me in the cockpit and said:
“We got a gale-warning on the Navtex.”
“Shit! When will it come? What direction? What strength?”
“From the north, Gale Beaufort 8, it will be over us in six hours.”
“It’s similar to last year’s crossing, let’s follow the same procedures. We start with a decent dinner.
“That is a good excuse for an extra meal, skipper?!”
“We are here for pleasure - not for performance or endurance, dearest!”
“OK, skipper, let’s have dinner!”

We followed our mental check-list. We had a big hot casserole with lamb, cabbage and potatoes. Lisa prepared sandwiches and tea in thermos-flasks for the hours to come and we put on extra underwear, yes long-johns in August. We put on harnesses and safety-jacks. We reefed the main-sail and changed to a smaller jib and controlled stays and sheets.

Towards night the wind increased and the waves started to grow. During the dark hours I take longer watches. I have better night-vision and I stand the sea better. Around midnight I felt that the dolphins had arrived again. I could not hear them because of the screaming gale and the breaking waves but I sensed them and suddenly I saw their fins cut through the waters. The night was very dramatic with a full moon and torn clouds that swept by and huge seas with froth and huge white brims that hit the sides of our ship. Perhaps it was imagination but I knew that the dolphins were there to tell me what I already knew; that our ship is strong and solid and that she has survived much worse storms than this gale. And that the North Sea might be awful – but not tonight.

The Magic Moment arrived up to windward. The moon shone through a huge mountain of water and a dolphin swam through the wave with a halo of moon-shine and green bubbles of air streaming after the dorsal fin. The dolphin sent me a message:

“Don’t worry, skipper! This is how we have it out here – it’s not dangerous. This wind is normal. You will learn to enjoy it.”
The big dolphin disappeared not to return but the magic stayed with me all night.

The shark-callers of Indonesia say they communicate with the sharks at “the point where humans and animals meet”. A Greek sculpture shows a boy riding on a dolphin and stories abound where dolphins saved sailors from drowning. During this crossing the dolphins took the initiative and several times contacted us onboard our ship.
The empathy of the midnight dolphin opened me to the miracle of affinities between man and dolphin and offered serenity during my night-watch

Lisa took over at dawn and with the rising sun the wind died down. The gale had forced us more to the south than we had planned and we were closer to Denmark than to Norway. Lisa changed the course while I slept and steered us northwards to reach Norway.
We arrived in Farsund a day later than estimated and found a berth close to the fishing boats. Jan, the fisherman, stopped by:

“I see you are back, skipper. Did you have it hard out there?”
“We sailed from Inverness a few days ago, not too hard for the ship but Lisa and I, we are a bit tired.”
“I have some crabs, would you like to have a bucket?
“Oh yes please. Thank you Jan! That is a warm welcome to Norway.”

After all the docking chores, before falling into sleep, I sent thoughts of gratitude to the midnight dolphin:
“You were right – we are safe in harbor now. See you soon!”