RETRIEVING SPACE JUNK IN MID-ATLANTIC

          The rhumb line San Juan, Puerto Rico to Horta in the Azores runs about 2,400 miles or about a 3-week trip for New Chance, my North American 40. The Fleming self steering gear left little for Chuck Adams, Mike Stoughton and myself to do except to make sure we didn’t get run over, make minor course and sail changes to optimize boat speed, take care of minor maintenance and discuss worldly issues over a cup of grog.

          The sail across the North Atlantic in April-May is straightforward: head north from Puerto Rico on a beam reach until the trade winds disappear at about 30 north, motor across the doldrums until the westerly begins to blow, then head for Horta. 1997 weather was a mite lighter than usual which forced us to burn most of our diesel before picking up a decent breeze out of the west. Seas were quite flat, the breeze generally under 15 knots, which made for a super-relaxing trip. A ‘Hollywood cruise’, as Mike put it.

          To break up a monotonous day I like to chase down anything I see floating. The first item we came across turned out to be a one meter diameter bright red plastic ball, a float, I presume from either a large fishing net or long liner’s gear that had broken away. Our trophy was securely tied to the stern railing as we again picked up speed.

A couple of days later I noticed a pole way off to starboard with a small radar reflector at the top end. My crew, not salvage inclined, did their best to talk me out of once again changing course, slowing the boat down, then struggle with whatever it was. I ignored them as usual. We bore down on the long pole, I hooked it with the gaff, and hauled it aboard. Obviously a long liner’s marker, it had a 12-inch diameter by two foot long foam float through which ran a pole about three meters long. The float was totally covered with barnacles. The crew didn’t stop bitching for a second: I messed up the deck; if we keep stopping the boat we’d never get to Horta, and on and on. Sticking to tradition of the sea, I ignored the buggers

I called to Chuck, who was below, to hand up a big pot and a sharp knife, which he did not without a deathly grimace on his face. Both he and Mike watched as I cut off the barnacles and tossed them into the pot. With artistic flourish I took my time while I stripped the float clean. I then dipped a bucket into the sea, rinsed the barnacles off, left the pot half full of salt water, headed below and set it on the stove

When the barnacles began to boil the crew could take it no longer. “What the hell you making skip?” I piped back with, “Mates, I have a true delicacy coming up. Fresh mussels in the skips original French sauce.” To which Mike retorts, “Mussels, those things are barnacles skip!” I gave him a “same thing” shrug and continued to stir the concoction that smelled worse and worse the more it boiled. I got the crew to open the cockpit dining table then passed out three deep plates as I continued to stir the pot. 

Every time I glanced at the crew I noticed their lips tight and their noses wrinkled. I put on a show of adding condiments and seasoning followed by a serious of Yummay’s. The troops knew not what to do or even think. They just about died when I announced, “Suppers ready”, and headed up into the cockpit with my steaming pot.  

Cooked, the barnacles had popped out of their shells and turned dark brown. That plus the stink made me gag. I let the drama draw out while I stirred the pot, then filled their bowls. I wish I had a photo of the look on their faces. I poured it on with, ‘Mates, this’ll make real men out you’ and ‘you’ll remember this meal for years’. I ran down for eating utensils came back up and I swear, these guys were about to gag. Suddenly, with a quick motion, I emptied their plates into the pot and tossed the lot over the side. Never had a crew been more relieved. They even started breathing again. These two guys are really a super crew. I am convinced they were ready to eat the barnacles if they had to. 

Days later I saw a strange looking object afloat about 300 meters off our port bow on a flat glassy sea. Up on the bow I ordered a coarse change until we headed right for it. The boat slowed as we approached but we were going too fast as we passed it. We circled and came in dead slow. The two guys never stopped bitching about wasting time, that it was only trash, and more. Ignoring them, I fished for it with a long pole, convinced 100% it was genuine ‘space junk’, and something NASA would be happy to have returned.  

Made of heavy glass and with electrical leads sticking out of it, it barely floated. I had no doubt that we had hit the mother lode of space debris. I pried at it with the pole, trying to turn it over while the crew harassed me constantly. I was sure we’d be famous when we hit land with this marvel. Chuck, tired of my dilly-dallying came up, grabbed the pole and flipped it over. The damned thing was an old TV tube!

© William A. Butler, 2004