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The best and worst things about singlehanded sailing Shoo Fly, Don't Bother Me -- a cruising anecdote


I almost didn't launch my boat in 2002. A family medical emergency occurred in May and by the time I had a good enough handle on things to even think about putting my boat in the water it was the end of July. The season was so far gone I questioned whether I should just write it off. The cruise I had planned -- from Lake Huron to the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway -- was definitely out. The best I would be able to manage was 10 days or so of harbor hopping along Michigan's Lake Huron coast. But I needed the escape. So I launched on August 1 and one hectic week later cast off.

The first two days were perfect -- warm, sunny days tempered by the Lake Huron water and cool, starry nights; favorable winds and following seas; and no bugs. August in Michigan and no bugs? Talk about perfect. I speculated it was a result of the measures being taken to combat the West Nile virus which, at that time, had been detected in 16 counties in the state.

But on the third day, everything changed.

It began with the flies. I didn't really notice them at first. Sitting in my cabin engrossed in a book, I mindlessly brushed them from the top of the can of Coke I was sipping and shook my arm or leg when I felt one crawling on my skin. It wasn't until two flies landed and began copulating on the page I was reading that I started paying attention. I looked around the cabin and saw they were everywhere -- on the headliner, bulkheads, counters, and every other horizontal and vertical surface.

As I surveyed the scene, I unthinkingly took a swig of Coke. Did I feel something besides liquid going down my throat? Nah. I convinced myself it was only my imagination. I noted that when flies landed on my legs they seemed to target the scrapes on my shins. "Do flies lay eggs in open wounds on living flesh?" I wondered. I pictured maggots worming their way under my skin and the emaciated bodies of roadkill. I didn't know flies could mate in flight, but do now. So much for the pretensions of the Mile High Club.

I enjoy observing and experiencing nature but do have my limits. I put the screens on the hatches and grabbed my flyswatter. What followed can only be described as a massacre. Trapped inside, the flies were at my mercy. Soon, bodies of the dead littered the cabin sole, settee cushions, galley counter, and table.

There was, of course, a learning curve. A pacifist by nature, I had little experience or training in the art of hunting and killing and therefore had to learn on the fly (so to speak). I learned that squashing a fly on the headliner can leave an unsightly blood stain. But that was a price I was willing to pay. I learned that a fly struck by a glancing blow may look dead but only be stunned and unless a coup de grace is administered it will rise again like the Phoenix or the prop of David Blaine's magic trick (the one where he appears to resurrect a dead fly). I learned how to bait flies that had become wary. Remembering they were attracted to the scrapes on my shins, I patiently sat in wait, legs extended in front of me, flyswatter in hand. I learned that flies are cannibalistic. Their fallen brethren seemed to be as attractive to them as my legs so I left some of their corpses as lures. I learned that when it was dark these flies tended to alight on the headliner. If I left the cabin lights off for a while before going to bed, the flies which had managed to escape my earlier efforts at annihilation became easy prey.

Alas, despite my best efforts, I was never totally successful. I was awakened each morning by a buzzing near my head that was not produced by my alarm clock or the overconsumption of beer. The few flies that had managed to survive my assault were like roosters in a barnyard, announcing the dawn and defeating any attempt to sleep in.

And with each new day, a fresh contingent of flies replaced those that had preceded them to Nirvana. I began to feel like Sisyphus condemned to pushing the rock up the hill for eternity.

It may have been a coincidence but I wouldn't be surprised to discover the flies were a harbinger of a drastic change in the weather. Less than 48 hours after they first appeared, thunderstorms producing heavy rain driven by winds gusting to 60 mph pummeled the coast. Fortunately, I made port and was secure in a marina before the first one hit. But I heard two distress calls on Channel 16 that evening and a couple of days later met a sailor, docked at a marina 20 miles north at the time, whose boat had been struck by lightning which blew a hole in his shore power cord and fried all his electronics.

The unsettled weather -- and the flies -- continued. I was able, however, to safely scoot from harbor to harbor during the lulls and have a good time playing tourist. The fly in the ointment was that the date I had to return to work was fast approaching. (You know how time flies when you're having fun.) I doubted I could come up with an excuse for being late that would fly. My boss wouldn't fly off the handle if I didn't show up when I was supposed to but he might just tell me to go fly a kite. I couldn't afford to fly in the face of the potential consequences so I delayed as long as possible at my final port of call, then set a course as the crow flies, and headed for home.

Copyright 2004
David Guenther

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