|Mick Dawson vs. sea serpents|
Mick Dawson’s book is not yet published. He is currently looking for a publisher.
Last year, Golden Gate rower
Mick Dawson was rescued on August 22nd after his row boat capsized
The 13th of June had
delivered the dramatic and desperately disappointing end to my first
attempt to row across the North Pacific in 2003, appropriately enough it
had been a Friday and, for added significance, it was the day after my
birthday. The Pacific was probably expecting to find me with a hangover;
it certainly left me with one.
Despite the infamous 13th falling on a Sunday
during my second attempt in 2004 I still viewed its’ approach with
trepidation. Not least because it would be my first day as a fully
fledged forty year old, technically middle aged if; fate and the Pacific
willing, I go on to the grand old age of eighty.
Disappointingly my birthday on the Saturday had been a miserable day. Not solely because of its significance as the gateway into my fifth decade; arguably the first decade you can’t reliably expect a gateway out of, but for more pragmatic reasons. It was dull, grey and overcast with constant drizzle and a number of time-consuming, awkward maintenance jobs cropping up which completely destroyed my rowing output. It was such an anti climax that I even put off unwrapping my, pre-stowed, ‘Birthday’ presents until a date I felt would be more suitable for celebration, perhaps crossing the international date line in the approaching couple of weeks.
The following day brought that anxiously anticipated anniversary of the ill fated 2003 voyage but despite my anxiety conditions couldn’t have been more different. The weather was mild, lengthy spells of sunshine lifted my spirits and the wind was incredibly light and from the South, which, although not helping with the rowing, was allowing me at least to make steady progress, all be-it hard earned, towards the East. On days like these the ocean took on the feeling of a huge lake with only the ripples from my steady strokes through the water disturbing the surface. Strangely, in some ways, I came to find such conditions more intimidating than the many weeks of heavy weather I’d had to cope with.
When the ocean is roaring and tumbling all around and often over you it’s as if you’re pushing your way through a wild party where there’s so much noise and activity you remain, somehow, invisible. However, when it’s totally still as far as the horizon in every direction and the only sounds being painted on this vast borderless canvas are yours, you feel infinitely more apparent and strangely vulnerable, or at least I do.
As dusk arrived that evening the setting sun created the most spectacular back drop of purple and yellow clouds and I remember thinking, despite the miserably frustrating previous day, just what amazing rewards there are to be gained simply from rowing an ocean.
Right on cue the arrival of two adult whales was trumpeted by their surfacing blast of air directly at the stern of my boat. No more than a boat length from where I sat, the huge dorsal fin, of what I’d later discover was a killer whale, had emerged from the ocean and was now, slightly lopsidedly almost alongside my boat, dwarfing the roof of my cabin. Directly behind the nearest whale a companion, of slightly smaller proportions, was similarly languishing. Neither seemed unduly interested or troubled by my presence and slowly they began to move off, along the surface, towards the embers of the retreating sunset.
On the deck of ‘Mrs D’ I was behaving in an altogether less dignified fashion, stumbling across the deck towards my cabin, not for the first time, desperately trying to locate a camera to make a record of this dramatic arrival. By that stage of the voyage I’d already encountered all manner of species of Whale, from the relatively small and inquisitive minkies to the huge and, alarmingly, equally inquisitive Sperm whales. During all of these previous experiences I’d never once felt threatened, however the surge of adrenalin when any Whale arrives is inescapable and I’d never come across any with these huge dorsal fins before; due to the darkness and my limited knowledge at the time, it wouldn’t be until later in my voyage during a separate daylight encounter that I’d be able to identify just what type of whale these two were.
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In the encroaching twilight as my two unexpected visitors continued about their business I brought the hastily retrieved camera to my eye to capture the moment as they saluted with an enormous breath and disappeared from view as finally as the departing sunset.
It was one of a host of wonderful and awe-inspiring encounters; with all manner of marine wildlife, that would consistently illuminate my exhausting progress across the North Pacific. An incident that also, I think helps illustrate the terror that gripped me only a few hours later when I had an encounter of a less welcome kind.
My glorious sunset was soon replaced by a veil of near impenetrable darkness, the cousins of the clouds which, in tandem with the sun, had helped create such a vivid back drop to my Whale visit, were now conspiring to withhold the reassuring light of the stars and what remained of that months moon. Following my course, now visible only as a lighted compass heading, my boat and I continued to draw our way, one stroke at a time, across the greatest ocean in the world, the only illumination a circular twilight created by the single white navigation light just above my head directly behind me on the bow of the boat.
Understandably on a high after the excitement brought on by my unexpected guests and eager to build on what was a reasonable day’s progress, I decided to continue rowing well into the night before cooking my evening meal, principally to gain as many miles as possible, then row into the early hours before sleeping just ahead of day break. About three hours into my plans and with the ocean still a flat calm, I noticed some frantic activity beneath the hull of my boat.
This was by no means an unusual or alarming occurrence as darkness invariably seemed to signal dinner time for somebody in the ocean, if not me. Curious, I pulled in both my oars and prepared to spectate on what I presumed was someone else’s supper.
It’s worth explaining at this stage that due to the fact that it had been a long, hot and exhausting days’ work, I’d, quite naturally, reduced my clothing to the bare minimum to avoid chafe and over heating. In fact most of the day I’d been rowing naked and, even several hours into the night, I’d only resorted to a single short sleeved surfing top to maintain my dignity and body heat. As I’m sure you can imagine this partial state of undress only served to intensify my feelings of vulnerability when, looking into the ocean directly alongside my boat, a shape, not unlike a very large snake swam by.
The creature was at least two meters long and as thick at its middle as an anaconda. I couldn’t believe my eyes and at first put it down to a trick of the poor light, until I saw, only moments later, another of these creatures swim by, then another followed by another, all just below the surface of the water, menacingly, within touching distance. It appeared my dimly lit rowing boat had somehow become the focal point for a large group of predators that had seemingly leapt from the pages of an ancient mariners’ drunken tale.
I had by this stage of the voyage attracted a motley crew of glum looking fish beneath the hull of ‘Mrs D,’ who I had come too described as my ‘tenants.’ They’d apparently, though as it turned out rather mistakenly, seen the shadow of the hull as a safe haven from the many and varied predators of the North Pacific and, in fairness to them, up to that point they’d been proved right. However the arrival of these terrifying serpents must have come as an even greater shock to them than it did to me, because for the next five or ten minutes I watched, ‘secure’ from the deck of my rowing boat, within arms length of them as they decimated my tenants and presumably any other unfortunate passer by they stumbled upon.
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It was an incredible sight, they were without doubt the most aggressive predators I’d ever seen at sea, or on land for that matter, moving like lightening bolts through the water they hit their helpless prey and engulfed then like boa constrictors, their whole bodies folding into a seething knot on impact. It was as awe inspiring as the emergence of the whales earlier in the evening but with a far greater sense of menace.
On the deck of Mrs D in the partial darkness, I still couldn’t convince myself of what I was seeing. They appeared to be large conger eels, probably as many as seven or eight of them, but I was a thousand miles off the coast of Japan and with many hundreds of meters of ocean beneath me. Surely conger eels didn’t roam the ocean in predatory groups like this. As the last of my tenants received their eviction orders the activity in the water reduced and the sightings beneath and around my boat diminished before finally ending.
I am not embarrassed to admit the whole encounter had left me slightly unnerved, the episode had come as a complete shock certainly beyond any of my previous experiences and then as now I couldn’t fully explain what I’d seen. I sat back on the rowing seat looking out into the darkness hoping to locate these unusual assassins to identify them once and for all when, to my horror, little more than an oars length away, I saw one of these creatures, head raised eighteen inches out of the water staring directly back at me out of the darkness. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and to compound my mounting terror when I looked to my left two more of them were, likewise, elevated above the surface of the ocean, their gaze intently fixed on me, one no more than a couple of meters away.
In the inky darkness all I could clearly see were the red eyes of these creatures reflected together with what seemed like the tip of their noses in the dim glow given off by my navigation light. Their heads, about the size of a small dog appeared, as far as I could make out, reptilian; for a few seconds I even tried to convince myself I was looking at turtles, they appeared so similar facially. Only the grey outline of their coiled bodies just beneath the surface of the water and there sudden rapid movements confirming to me that these were indeed the same creatures who’d so ably disposed of my tenants.
Then just as I thought this growing nightmare couldn’t get any worse………… They began to hiss. My initial and somewhat inadequate response to this burgeoning crisis, having found myself a thousand miles out to sea, naked, alone and surrounded by what looked like a host of giant sea serpents, was to say out loud, “You are F…ng joking,” hardly the wittiest or comments but it seemed appropriate at the time.
At this stage it also became apparent to me that sitting within striking distance of these curious, highly efficient and presumably hungry predators was not the wisest course of action to pursue, especially naked. So slowly and under the constant gaze of my visitors I stood up and stepped over my oars: which were now strapped across the deck of Mrs D conveniently hurdle like, and made my way cautiously, from the rowing position towards the perceived safety of the cabin entrance at the back of the boat. I don’t think that I had ever been more acutely aware of the possible consequences of falling overboard into the sea as I gingerly, one deliberate step at a time, made my way along the rolling deck of my rowing boat.
In response my visitors repeatedly hissed and occasionally shifted position, like amphibious ‘mere cats,’ disappearing beneath the surface and then a split second later reappearing nearby, in that same erect menacing stance. I never saw more than three of them out of the water at the same time but I could see the grey body flash of others swimming rapidly beneath the boat either side, so I knew there were still a large number around me.
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The short distance of deck that constituted the area between the rowing position and the cabin; which I normally would cover in a couple of effortless bounds, had now become a much more challenging and altogether different proposition, especially baring in mind my rather unfortunate state of undress. Anxious not to over excite my guests, something the lack of clothing would guarantee under different circumstances, I was moving as slowly and deliberately as possible. However ocean rowing boats are not the most stable of platforms even in the lightest of conditions and to my heightened senses Mrs D now seemed as stable and secure as a lumberjacks tumbling log.
As always in the more tense moments of the voyage I tried, despite the rising sense of dread, to maintain my sense of humour, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of my predicament shaking my head in disbelief at the situation I’d found myself in, although not, I might add, so hard as it to make the boat rock any more. Let’s face it if making your way naked, in near pitch black darkness, along the unstable deck of a rowing boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by what seems like a school of sea serpents doesn’t make you laugh then it’s going to scare you rigid.
Eventually however and somewhat relieved, I managed to reach the cabin entrance unmolested. I promptly stepped into a pair of ‘protective’ adidas running shorts, which, although unquestionably inadequate for the job at hand, substantially reduced my feelings of vulnerability. Confidence and dignity restored to some extent and with the sanctuary of the ‘lockable’ cabin directly behind me I retrieved a torch and a diving knife with which to locate and confront my tormentors. The laughably small diving knife, more ‘Swiss Army’ than ‘Croc’ Dundee,’ equally as inadequate as the running shorts but strangely, just as reassuring.
For their part my visitors continued to surround me, appearing above the surface in ones, twos and threes, if anything growing bolder all the time emphasizing their presence with those disturbing hisses or a sudden burst of activity on the surface of the water.
After several minutes of this increasingly alarming activity I was mightily relieved to discover that shinning a torch light directly at the creatures seemed to discourage their advances. Every time the beam struck one of them it would reposition itself just outside the fall of the light and by repeating this action I eventually managed to create a circular ‘Serpent free’ zone around the boat, at least on the surface.
I was enormously relieved to see their reaction to this and for the first time since they’d emerged above the surface of the water, obviously focused on me, I felt that I might be able to prevent them coming on board the boat. It certainly seemed a better option than the diving knife and it also left me with some shred of dignity not having to retreat to the locked confines of my tiny cabin for refuge.
After what must have been thirty of forty minutes of this bizarre maritime Mexican stand off, my tormentors, who were increasingly reluctant to be caught in the torch light, finally and thankfully departed. Perhaps they tired of me or simply went in search of less troublesome and more recognisable prey, either way they disappeared as suddenly as they’d appeared, much, I have to say, to my relief.
On the deck of my boat, where despite every sinew in my body telling me to get into the cabin I’d managed to remain for the duration of the encounter, I decided, in light of recent events, to reassess my plans to row into the night. “I could make the mileage up tomorrow.” Instead I settled for cooking and eating a meal from the protective confines of my cabin, fully clothed. Nakedness had lost its novelty and the deck area where I usually cooked and ate had strangely limited appeal. I then decided to have an uncharacteristically early night ‘safe’ in the confines of my cabin from anything else the sleepy Pacific Ocean had to offer, at least for that night.
Would my unwelcome visitors, whatever they were, have slithered on board if I’d not discovered their aversion to torch light? They were certainly large and aggressive enough to do just that but who knows? One thing’s for sure if they’d returned for desert that night they’d have had to work out how to unlock my cabin door and unzip my sleeping bag before I went back on the menu.
Ocean Rowing Society
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