Nastier than Ahab’s whale

Published on November 28th, 2022

Bill Schanen relives horrid memories in his column for Sailing magazine:


Call me Ishmael.

I can relate to Moby-Dick’s narrator because I too have tales to tell of creatures tormenting sailors at sea.

I’ve never been threatened by a whale trying to bite my leg off, as famously experienced by crazy Captain Ahab, but I had visions of a fate nearly as awful as a crewmember on a boat crossing the Gulfstream in a winter gale.

Sail GP

We became surrounded by an armada of Portuguese men o’ war. Scores of the buoyant little beasts encircled the boat, each trailing long, venomous tentacles. It occurred to me that falling overboard and becoming ensnared in the tentacle web of this poisonous fleet might be fatal. I based that on my experience as a child when a man o’ war tentacle wrapped around my ankle. I told my mother I was quite sure I was going to die.

Man o’ war stings are potent enough to kill fish and it is not unheard of that they kill humans.

The sea state in this crossing, with the wind contrary to the current, was rather active, to put it mildly. What if an errant wave tossed a man o’ war, tentacles and all, into the cockpit?

Well, no worries on that score. The creatures are excellent sailors. While the boat was hobbyhorsing along, the men o’ war glided smoothly over the steep waves with their blue sails properly trimmed, looking like seaworthy miniatures of their namesakes, Portuguese caravels of yore.

To avoid any hint of waxing romantic about this pseudo jellyfish, I should add that its sail, or float, is filled with carbon monoxide. No kidding.

Still, Portuguese men o’ war are only a theoretical menace to sailors, unlike a predator that boards our boats, attacks humans ruthlessly, inflicting pain and physical and psychic injury. Such a creature is the black fly.

I can bear witness to the evil of this man-eating insect, though I am mystified about their particularly concentrated presence in the environment of sailors. Flies that are attracted to water should be hanging out around the effluent of a malfunctioning sewage treatment plant or the foul runoff from a garbage dump, right? Instead, they favor some of the purest navigable water in the world, the pristine reaches of upper Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

As we sail through those waters, they descend on our boats for the express purpose of feeding on sailors. They do this in barbaric fashion. An entomologist compared their jaws to the jagged edge of Rambo’s survival knife, which they use to “slash and slurp,” cutting into human flesh to create a pool of blood. Then they drink the blood. – Full report

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