In January, my husband and I took a long cruise around South America. At about 7 p.m. on Feb 20, a night and a day’s sail from Puerto Madryn and heading SE to the Falkland Islands, my husband was in the shower and I was gazing from our balcony at the empty Argentine Sea. Suddenly I noticed what looked like an upright whale, standing on its tail. Breaching? Practicing its ballet moves? Why didn’t it move? I got out my not-great binoculars and stared at the thing.
Looked like a single black sail, torn, with a mast a few feet higher than it. Lurching? If a wreck, why was it leaning along rather cleverly in the heavy wind? Was that a person clinging to the line, counterweighing the sail? Then it looked like two sails. Impossible to tell. I think we were about 300 miles from Argentina; I know we were about 180 miles NW of the Falklands. Any windsurfer out there would be in serious trouble. But was it anything other than a weird wreck? If a wreck, why hadn’t it sunk?
The Captain of the cruise ship was usually chatty, cheerfully announcing things several times a day, like “You see these rocks here; this is not the Horn” and “Dolphins on the Starboard side.” So as we left the lone black sailing thing in our wake, I expected to hear some kind of explanation. None came. Five minutes passed, and I decided to call someone. What if I were a windsurfer near death from cold and exhaustion, and a cruise ship chugged merrily by without even radioing hello? I would be very discouraged.
I checked out my options on the cabin telephone. Messages, Housekeeping, Room Service … I opted for Passenger Services and got the usual harried yet bored individual. I stammered that I saw a Thing, a black sail-like Thing, way out to sea…. The dude said he’d tell the Captain right away. So I hung up. Beat of 10, and a call came from the head of Passenger Services. Could I describe the thing my husband saw? I said I saw it, and it looked like two black sails or a whale standing on its toes.
Five minutes later, a tall and flustered Aussie, second or third Mate or something, burst into the cabin and straight through onto our deck, introducing himself as he ran. Would I hurry up and show him what I saw? I said it was long gone, behind us. He grabbed our phone, punched some numbers and gabbled, apparently to the Bridge. The captain had already turned the ship around (!), and they told him to take me to the other side of the ship. The Mate grabbed my hand and we ran across the barky to the other side. He grabbed a steward in the hallway with his other hand, telling him to watch us as we broke and entered the nearest cabin.
We had turned around, and I hadn’t felt it in the slightest. There, right in front of us, was the sailboat. The black sails were now dark blue, with a logo, and there was a sailor on it. “Is that what you saw?” asked the mate, rather superfluously. I was greatly relieved that I had really seen something, if people were going to go turning giant cruise ships around on a dime. They might have thrown me overboard if I’d seen nothing at all. Mate got on and off the phone and told me, while running away again, that the captain said he’d been in radio contact with the sailor. He was fine, an Irishman going “Around Alone,” headed from France to New Zealand…. I didn’t have the bandwidth to find out if they meant the “Around Alone” race, or if the sailor was just alone and going around.
Anyway, I felt very proud and special for no good reason other than being vaguely involved in a momentarily interesting event. It was impressive how quickly the Captain had turned our great big wallowing cruise ship around; yet unsettling that no one on his watch, nor any of the other passengers, noticed or cared about the lone black sail. As Keanu Reeves's character says in the movie “River's Edge” (1986), “I didn’t think I’d be the only one to call.”
Past travels with a trusty camera; current work on James E. Brewton Foundation research and memoir
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