Dad said we needed to head out to haul some gear that had been soaking too long, even though NOAA had posted small craft and high surf advisories. A cold front was heading toward us from the west and a big swell was running all the way up from Hurricane Leslie off Bermuda.
Dad (gripping onto the wheel as the boat pounded through the waves and the windshield was doused with spray and spume): That gear’s to the lee of Malabar, so once we get out we should be okay.
The southeast gusts of about twenty or twenty-five knots stirred up about a six-foot sea on top of the swell by the time we left the harbor entrance behind. The seas were getting their tops blow off in the gusts, and white bullets of water rattled against the windshield. I just gripped onto the bulkhead and rode Marie A. like she was an ocean-going bucking bronco.
Dad was right: The water wasn’t as rough behind Malabar, and we hauled as fast as we could. Overhead clumps of white cumulus glowing in the sun swept above torn shreds and puffs of black cloud. Now and then a downpour would gush down, and then a few moments later a beam of sun would shoot out and blue sky would appear between ice cream scoops of cloud.
Gulls and gannets and shearwaters and fulmars were still going about their business. The terns had already left to go on their amazing journeys to South America for the winter. Now and then you’d see a gull zoom sideways in a gust, or a shearwater swoop up the side of a swell, never flapping, and catapult to a near standstill to hover for a moment, then peel off and streak through a trough.
Right beside the boat, picking at flecks of stuff floating we either threw overboard or that washed off the traps as we hauled, were three Wilson’s petrels.
I’ve always wondered how such little birds—they’re like sooty long-winged sparrows—can survive out in the open ocean, but that’s where they live.
They flap their wings and tiptoe on the water surface and then duck down to peck at little shrimp and other sea creatures. The swell was still big where we were, and sometimes you’d see the little birds tap-dancing and fluttering on the side of a wave coming toward you and they looked like they would get thrown into the boat. Then the swell would sweep past them and lift the boat, and then they’d be below you in the trough, patting the water with their spindly feet and flapping like bats.
Dad (stopping the hauler to let a bruiser of a swell pass by): Did you know that stormy petrels are also called Mother Carey’s chickens?
Me (holding onto the rail): Yeah, I think I heard that before.
Dad: Know where that comes from?
Dad (starting the hauler again): It comes from Mater cara, or dear Mother, the prayer to the Virgin Mary that Portuguese and Spanish sailors used to say in weather conditions stormy petrels seem to like.
Me (watching the shadow of the trap rising up from the green depths): So it became Mother Carey instead.
Dad (nodding): Some people used to think petrels were the souls of drowned or shipwrecked sailors who came to warn other mariners of approaching storms.
I looked up at the sky. The black clouds were closing in. I looked out at the next swell rising toward us, this one even bigger than the last. I looked out at the stormy petrels waving their wings on the side of a swell as if they were sending us a signal.
Me: Looks like they got that right.
Dad (gunning the hauler): Yeah. Let’s finish this string and then get out of here.