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t was a sunny, placid midNovember’s day, year 2008, on the water near the middle Florida Keys. The lazy seas were flat as glass, and it was the calm before an approaching cold front. Motoring his exquisitely maintained classic sailboat, a 1963 Alberg 35 named Marion J, Captain Jon Engel had left Key Largo and was heading along the southern side of the island chain to Key West. He was traveling in tandem with another sailboat that had two people and one canine onboard. Their wakes were a smooth ripple as they passed over clear, Sargassoflecked seas. As the long day wore on, Jon mopped his brow and eyed the charts, wondering if he’d ever see a breeze. He loved sailing, and, for nearly 40 years, has singlehanded Marion J to an interesting variety of ports. Jon eyed the shimmering horizon and noticed what looked like dark specks emerging from the distance. The specks became a massive, black swarm that augured straight toward Marion J. (Now would be the perfect time to cue in that eerie theme music from the Twilight Zone.) It was a cloud of black birds. Jon laughed to himself when a single bird clumsily landed on his boom gallows. It was big and ungainly looking. The creature cocked its naked, red face to stare at Jon while it indelicately pooped on deck. Recoiling, the sailor wrinkled his nose. Before he knew it, several birds winged onto his bow. They took up a lot of space; each bird averaged about two-and-a-half feet tall with a nearly six-foot wingspan. The afternoon’s tranquility was no more. Jon retrieved his camera, took a photo and then called some friends on his cell phone to relay the strange situation. Jon’s amusement quickly turned to dismay as more birds besieged his boat. Not only did they copiously defecate after flapping onboard, but they vomited stomach acids and the rotting contents of their crops as well. Resolute, clinging to Marion J’s tiller and keeping her away from the dangerous shoals to starboard, Jon fought an encroaching nausea. He wondered if his diesel could outrun them. “They were ugly and they stank! They were buzzards,” Jon told me later when he was safe, and clean again, on shore. “You know, they were those vultures that you see on the side of the road eating dead things.” By now, the vulture detritus was so thick that it was

70 November 2014


Bummed Out by Buzzards By Rebecca Burg

squishing between Jon’s bare toes. The vultures were literally landing on top of each other, filling every available space. A traditional turkey vulture behavior is pooping on their own feet to cool off when they are overheated. They were definitely overheated. Jon’s biggest concern was the notion of catching some “bird disease.” Like his unwanted visitors, Jon also lost the contents of his stomach. The boat he’d been traveling with had fled and was no help at all. The beleaguered Marion J was alone. The camera had been tossed below and hatches were closed. Increasingly desperate, Jon called Sea Tow and was informed that “we don’t do birds.” All Jon wanted was a hand. He needed someone to steer Marion J, keeping her away from the nearby shallows, so he could attempt to clear the mound of birds from the bow and access the anchor. There were so many vultures vomiting and flapping, weakly jostling for space, that the deck was inaccessible. With the tow service unwilling to render aid, Jon tried to contact the FWC. He presumed that the wildlife threatening the safety of his vessel would be within their range of public duty. The airwaves were silent. The FWC did not respond, either choosing not to contend with a vessel in danger, or they did not hear Jon’s pleas. Attempts were made to push the pyramiding vultures away with the boat’s cleaning brush. Hissing and scrabbling, they ignored Jon and just kept coming. He struggled with a ceaseless nausea from the eye-stinging stench. His dinghy, towed behind Marion J, resembled a “Mount Everest” of vultures. It was a wonder that the hapless dinghy didn’t flip over. A lone power vessel altered course and veered toward Marion J. Waving his

arms, Jon pleaded for assistance, but the vessel ignored his entreaties as it casually circled a few times so its passengers could take photos. After that, the vessel raced away. “I guess they didn’t understand English,” Jon surmised later on, shaking his head. Buried in a mass of stinking, rubbery-headed birds, still trying to helm Marion J, Jon had lost hope until the VHF crackled with an inquiry from the Coast Guard. They had heard his attempts to contact the FWC and asked if Marion J was issuing a “mayday.” Jon tried to explain the awkward situation. The stalwart sailor didn’t feel as if he was at mayday status, yet. At a loss, he described his serious bird problem and told them, “I don’t know what to do. I just need help.” Soon, a Coast Guard vessel appeared. Processing the bizarre sight, noting that Jon was unhurt, the amazed crew had lined up and was taking photographs. Refocusing their attentions, Jon asked if they possessed a water cannon. The Coast Guard boat did and its crew scrambled to action. However, instead of being conveniently pushed away, the vultures hunched against the water cannon’s spray, their talons digging in and clinging tightly. Later, Jon would find millions of claw holes in the fabric of his dodger. The water added to the thick, foul stew coating him and his boat. It was getting late and Jon still had no solution for his dilemma. However, as Marion J motored closer to the shoreline, the birds began taking flight toward it. After assuring that there was nothing else to be done, the Coast Guard powered away. Steering closer to land succeeded in encouraging the vultures to gradually vacate Marion J. Emptied stomach still heaving, Jon hastily detoured into Bahia Honda and anchored. The deck and rigging were finally free of hissing, puking birds. Using a rope and bucket to scoop seawater, it took Jon three hours to sluice the odiferous soup from Marion J’s decks. He eventually made it to Key West and suffered no subsequent ill effect. He did, however, continue to find feathers everywhere. This strange encounter has happened to fishing boats and seems to occur during the calms before a cold front. The soaring types of birds, vultures and hawks, lose their thermals over the water, and in the struggle to make it to dry land, they’ll end up on the nearest structures, including boats.

Southwinds November 2014  
Southwinds November 2014