Skip to main content

Strange things we've seen at sea

Spend as much time on the water as Tom has, and you just might wonder if you can still believe your eyes

When you’re out on the water, you don’t need to look for a ghostly pirate ship lunging upward from the waves like a fantasy from the movies. There are many weird sights at sea needing no help from Hollywood — some even stranger than fiction.

At least the bear the Neales saw in the channel didn't try to board Chez Nous.

Not my kind of sex

It was one of those perfect night passages. The ocean was calm, with gentle swells rolling in from the east, slow and easy. The moon was rising, even though the last light of the day’s warm sun still lingered. We were somewhere far off that great concave indentation of the East Coast, with the marshy shores of Georgia and South Carolina far to the west. We were making a passage north, following the straight line between Florida’s east coast and that of North Carolina, taking advantage of a good weather system and saving days by not winding through the Intracoastal Waterway or hugging the shore.

On calm nights at sea we usually eat together in the cockpit, enjoying the evening and hoping for good night watches. Mel and our daughters were below working on dinner and doing evening chores; I was on watch. Even when the light is good, you watch the radar, the horizon and the waters far out and close in. You look for other vessels, debris, unexpected cloud formations — anything that can affect your passage for the good or the bad.

After making my customary and repetitious visual rounds, I sat back and looked over the side, wondering if we would see a lot of luminous phosphorescence that night. It is so beautiful, and like a good moon, it goes far to make a black sea, always a little menacing in the back of your mind, feel friendlier. I heard an unexpected gurgle in the water. I saw a fin.

We’ve seen many fins through the years. Sometimes a shark will follow for days, or sometimes it’ll hang out around the boat in an anchorage. I don’t like them, but I long ago grew accustomed to them — sort of.

Oh, great, I thought. Just what we need for a relaxing evening dinner. A shark. But then I saw another fin, close in to the first. I looked out and saw more. More and more fins all around us. They were materializing from the black depths and seemed to be circling and following us. I kept looking and realized there were fins everywhere. Hundreds of sharks. Perhaps thousands of them. I didn’t know. I couldn’t count them, and I didn’t know how far out the fins extended — only that it was as far as I could see.

Sharks circling your boat will definitely change your plans for an afternoon swim.

I called Mel to take a look. Her face showed first awe and then a rather grim expression — perhaps reflecting mine. I know I wasn’t exactly laughing. When you’re on a boat at sea with your wife and two young daughters, and there are no other signs of humanity or civilization around, and darkness is falling, and the sea is completely empty except for hundreds or maybe thousands of sharks, and you know there couldn’t be enough “natural shark food” around under the water to feed all those sharks — you fear. I don’t know about the sharks, but I didn’t have much appetite for dinner.

As was our custom, we ate dinner in the cockpit, surrounded by our uninvited guests. Even when we stopped watching them, we’d occasionally hear a splash to remind us they were there. As the night deepened, I began checking the bilge every half hour or so and continued to do so all night long. This, I thought, was not a particularly good time to sink. We had never seen so many sharks before.

The night passed uneventfully, and dawn filled in from the east for another beautiful day — with no more sharks. Had they tired of us? Had they moved on to find a leaking boat? Had we found some mysterious spot where they simply wanted to hang out for a while? We didn’t know, but we were glad they were gone.

As soon as we got back to the coast, I started asking people about what we had seen. None of our fellow cruisers had seen anything like it, but eventually we talked to some government fisheries folk who said this was an area where certain sharks like to breed at that time of the year. We were told we had probably stumbled into a breeding frenzy, but the guy wasn’t sure. I’m not either, but I guess anything can make sense at sea. I just hope I don’t get involved in shark sex again.

The floating car

The ancient island freighter set out from Miami with a load of hope. It carried hope of the farmers that their grain would come dry, hope of the store owner that the cases of canned goods would arrive without rust, hope of the chicken farmers that the prize breeding chickens would reach the island uneaten, and hope of one islander that, when the freighter pulled alongside the quay, the brand new little car he had purchased would be aboard and unblemished.

He knew it would come perched conspicuously on the deck, because that’s the way cars came on the small freighters. He would have liked it to be covered with a tarp to protect it from the salt, but he knew this may have been asking too much for a small island freighter. “Tarps don’t do nuttin’ but blow away, mon.”

So it isn’t clear whether — had he been in Miami and had a say in the matter — he would have been entirely unhappy when the stevedores, ever mindful of finding extra space to cram in extra stuff, decided to store a huge inflatable tender on top of the car. This was an old tender with a soft bottom. It would make a good tarp. It was “mostly” inflated, so it drooped a little. It was destined to go to a privately owned island, and the captain knew it would be off-loaded before the car’s new owner ever saw the car or had a clue about using the big inflatable to “protect” it on the windy passage. True, the captain could have ordered the crew to let the air out of the inflatable — it would have taken much less space this way. But the new inflatable owner, a man prone to giving tips, wanted it to arrive ready to go, and he wanted to know that it still held air.

The captain probably also had in mind the numerous spots of soft metal down in the bilge, some covered with cement and some showing signs of serious seepage. The hull of his ship, like so many others that he had known, was of such a state of affairs that a large inflated tender, ready to go, was always something to be desired. He had even surreptitiously checked the numbers on the plate tacked to the battered transom and found that it could more than amply accommodate a load far greater than the combined weight of his crew. He had it lashed to the car’s roof, right side up. If the freighter sank, all he’d have to do was cut the ropes.

During the trip a cold front came through a little earlier — and much stronger — than expected. The strong northwest winds quickly humped up the ocean into crazy breaking seas mean and high enough to make any captain and crew smile in smug self-congratulation at having a car-top tender ready to go.

The ship rolled mightily in the waves, with all the weight on deck. Even when the captain tried to bring her bow into the sea, she rolled. More and more she rolled, until it seemed as though she were deliberately trying to shake off all that extra weight heaped over the deck hatches, instead of under them where it belonged. In retrospect, it would have been better to have chained the car to the deck, but this could have scarred the bright new car on even a good day, and especially so if there were any shifting on a bad day. So there was very little paint scarring on the car as the old freighter, with unmistakable intent, took a wicked roll and, as strands of rope popped in the winds, ridded itself of the car — and, of course, the inflatable tied to its top.

The captain and crew watched in silence as the winds bore it away southeastward, bobbing on the waves, demurely revealing from time to time the gleaming car tied snugly underneath.

We didn’t see this ourselves, so I’m not positive it’s true, especially the details. But for months, during one of our early winters in the Bahamas, we heard reports from cruisers and Bahamians of a car suspended underneath an old inflatable, floating about the islands. And the explanation drifting about the island bars and beaches was generally as told above, although you have to use some imagination to fill in the details. I don’t know what the ultimate finder/keeper did. I assume he cut the ropes and let the car plummet to the bottom. A good old inflatable is a nice find, even without its outboard.

Flying buoys

Mel and I were headed across Chesapeake Bay one hot and steamy day to the Cape Charles area. Here, we could anchor in waters fresh from the Atlantic, swim off a beach and enjoy the summer. The Bay has what we call a “big ship channel” winding much of its length, with enough depth for large container ships, tankers, cruise liners and military vessels. It was as we were approaching this channel that we saw a large round float. It was around 2 feet in diameter and looked like one of the floats used to hold up nets in the ocean. You see them bobbing freely at times, having broken loose from their nets during storms.

But this float was very different. It was speeding through the water against the current. It was going so fast that it was throwing up spray and making a wake. It was going much too fast for our 41-foot ketch to keep pace, not that we wanted to get too close. There was no visible explanation for what we were witnessing.

Was it a submarine that had snagged the line from a float? Hardly likely, because the depths there were too shallow for a typical sub to be fully submerged, making that speed and not disturbing the surface of the water. Besides, U.S. subs, so far as we know, don’t usually operate submerged running up the Bay. Was it some sort of scientific or military experiment? This is always possible, but if so it presented considerable danger to small vessels, and it would surely have been announced and monitored from above. There were no other surface vessels or planes in sight.

Was it a huge and unusually fast fish swimming up the Bay, trapped by a line hanging from the buoy? This, to us, was the most likely explanation. I could only think as we watched the float speed northward that I’d hate to meet up with a fish or shark that big and that strong. The float raced out of sight. We never saw it again and we never heard an explanation.

The gas tank in the sky

Once, while anchored behind a remote island in the Bahamas, we noticed a strange glow through the hatch as we were eating dinner. It looked, much to my alarm, like a kerosene lantern flickering out on deck. But we didn’t have any kerosene lanterns on deck.

We quickly went up and saw that the glow was coming from the sky. It pulsated and moved with unearthly colors, like nothing we had ever seen before. It was beautiful but also a little frightening, because we couldn’t imagine what was causing it. We thought of the northern lights. We had seen pictures of this phenomenon, but this didn’t look like any of those pictures. And besides, we were anchored at around 23.5 degrees north latitude. Our daughters, very young at this time, spontaneously and naturally sat down before the mast and began singing “Amazing Grace” as they looked up. I’ll never forget the moment.

The VHF was alive with comments and thoughts. In those days before cell phones and satellite phones, the VHF was like island drums. Most communication in the out islands was done by VHF, and it was like a big party line with anyone who wished listening in. The Bahamians were concerned, as were the cruisers. Even the oldest islander had never seen anything like this before. One well-known and respected Bahamian soothed the local populace with an explanation on channel 16:

“The Americans shot up one of those space rockets today and, you know, they always drop off the gas tank after they get way up into the sky and that’s what we’re seeing … it’s that gas tank burning up in the sky.”

Consumed by curiosity and growing concern, I tried to raise the Coast Guard on the single-sideband. We had been experiencing much interference that day and I was unable to raise them either in Miami or Norfolk, Va., or any other of the usual frequencies.

Finally, I got a voice from New Orleans on the Coast Guard frequency. I told the guy where we were and what we were seeing and asked him if anything was going on that we should know about. Puzzled, he asked me to stand by so he could check it out. A short time later, he came back up and said, with some surprise, that we were watching an extremely rare occurrence of the northern lights, visible even at that latitude. We heard news stories later confirming it. Apparently this happens from time to time. But it was a first for us and obviously for everybody else around. We were very happy for a good SSB set that night. It gave us an answer, some peace of mind, and a better night’s sleep.

Who looks strange to whom?

If you’ve done the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, you know about that unique narrow stretch known as the A&P Cut. It was dredged out to connect the Pungo River on its south end to the Alligator River on its north end. The Alligator River is very remote and its shores, with a few exceptions, seem very wild. The A&P cuts through swamp and wilderness, particularly at its northern end. Rotten tree stumps and deadheads line its banks. We like to try to look back into the swamp trees as we pass, sticking carefully to the middle of the channel. Even using binoculars, we can’t see far beyond the shore because of the density of the forest and foliage.

A cardinal rule of traversing the A&P (also true of most other sections of the ICW) is to keep a very careful watch ahead. Trees and stumps are continuously breaking loose from the shore. It isn’t unusual to see one of these, mammoth in size, barely visible above the waterline. Sometimes, unfortunately, they’re just below the water. They can hole a boat and easily tear off rudders and running gear.

The log we saw ahead one early, misty morning seemed to be moving. There is usually current in the cut, caused by wind, but this log was moving toward the side, across our bow. I’ve seen dogs swimming in areas like this; usually they’re hunting dogs. I’ve also seen deer. If they’re being chased by a dog, deer will swim across a creek or even a river to escape. So I assumed it was a large dog or a very weird-looking deer. I sped up to see. I was wrong.

As we closed with the unidentified moving object, it turned its head toward us with the look of unmistakable displeasure. It was a very large bear. It was simply crossing the cut and wasn’t at all happy to see us in its neighborhood. Of course, it could never climb up the sides of our boat (or so I told our daughters), but it didn’t want to anyway. It reached shore, lumbered up to the edge of the tree line, turned around and gave us an ugly look, then its huge mass disappeared into the swamp.

I’ll never forget that irate bear, turning around to scowl at Chez Nous. The memory of that bear, along with the many gators we’ve seen while cruising, always makes me wonder about the folks who anchor in out-of-the-way places and go ashore to walk their dogs.

Footprints on the deck

It was 5 a.m. and still very dark in our remote anchorage in the wilds of Georgia. The river rushed past our hull, its exceptionally strong current making gurgling and swishing noises as eddies spun out from around the boat.

A distinct splash near our stern awakened me. Our stateroom is in the stern, so I heard it well. My first groggy thought was that it might have been a porpoise come to play. They often do. But then I heard strange sounds coming from outside, around the aft area of the boat. I couldn’t be sure exactly what the sounds came from, and I certainly didn’t know what the sounds were. But they sounded like something scraping and strongly rattling metal.

Maybe it’s a bird, I thought. After all, what else could it be? Birds often light on a boat, (particularly herons) to make a fuss and make a mess. So I thought maybe a bird had landed on the lifelines or maybe the mizzen boom. Either of these could make the noise I was hearing, I tried to assure myself. But I really didn’t think so. There was too much noise for that assumption, and it didn’t seem to be coming from the mast. It seemed much lower down. But, again, it simply had to be a bird.

The deck of Chez Nous is about 4.5 feet above the water and the hull is sheer. Nothing or no one could swim out in that cold water, deal with all that current and climb aboard … I hoped. Then the scraping, rattling noise grew quiet. But next, we heard the padding of feet as something heavy walked along the deck. This was getting serious. We figured we were imagining things. We hoped we were imagining things. I thought of opening the hatch to see what was going on, but I quickly decided against that.

As daylight spread across the marshes, we cautiously went on deck. Clearly visible in the dew were tracks of an animal. Had we accidentally picked up an extraordinarily large stowaway cat at the last marina stop several days ago? We’ve heard of boats that have had this experience. Could we have picked up a mammoth rat at that marina? If it were a cat or a rat that big, we were in serious trouble. But what about the splashing and rattling I’d heard? We had to consider all the facts. Rats do swim, but no rat I’ve ever seen — or hope to see — would make that much noise.

We spent the day going into every conceivable space on the deck (and there are many on Chez Nous) looking for whatever it was — at least for clues. But we found no droppings, no hairs, no litter — nothing was amiss. And always, as we searched, the thought lurked. What if we find something? What do we do then?

Mel hit the library. We keep a good supply of resource books aboard, including the Audubon Field Guides with descriptions of many animals and pictures of what their tracks look like. Our tracks had been made on a dewy deck and weren’t very clear, but one of the possibilities was that of an otter. It could also have been a very large opossum. They swim (I am told) and climb, but I’d never heard of one swimming that far out and climbing on a boat. The opossum tracks in the book looked very different than what we had on our deck. Could it have been a raccoon? The tracks on deck reminded me a little of the tracks I’ve seen many times on mud banks at low tide, but not on my boat and hardly that large.

I still couldn’t figure out how it got aboard, whatever it was. It could have climbed up the anchor chain, but I had heard the splash and first noises astern. Then I saw the way. Our dinghy lift/swim platform is hydraulically operated. There’s a ram and a large moving support structure that begins just above the waterline. Something very agile, strong and fairly intelligent must have climbed up here. That would explain how whatever it was got aboard.

We didn’t see or hear any more of the creature and we saw no clues of anyone else aboard but us. And if something’s on your boat it’s gotta at least leave droppings — or use the head. And I hadn’t noticed anything unusual using the head. So we assume it plunged back in the water when it heard us rumbling around below. Mel says she thought she heard the anchor chain rattling, like it may have jumped off the bow.

We still don’t know what was there. But there’s an aspect to this that I think is important. Suppose I had gone out on deck at around 2 or 3 o’clock that morning, as I sometimes do to, well, look around. Suppose that thing had been aboard at the time and I had seen it. Suppose it had seen me. Would it have been scared and come after me? Would it have been scared and jumped over? Would I have been so startled that I jumped in the river? And if I had, what would I have done if I’d found that he’d jumped over, too? We’ll never know.

What the sands hide

As you pass Georgia’s Jekyll Island while traveling the ICW, you’ll see a beautiful sandy beach on the edge of an inlet where the Atlantic waters race to and from St. Andrew Sound. The channel is deep close to the beach, but as you head toward the ocean, breaking waves tell the tale of shoals very close to the surface and very close to your course.

On almost any day, you’ll see tourists and local residents enjoying this beach. They watch the fast currents ripping by, sun themselves, wade and walk on the sand. Some seem to not notice the strange apparition that’s among them. The top part of a mast and the booms of a commercial shrimp boat stick awkwardly out of the sand as though planted there as a joke by some giant. But it was no joke when this shrimper went aground a few years ago at the edge of the channel.

There's an entire shrimp boat beneath this rigging on Jekyll Island.

It quickly became stuck in the sand and then flooded, never to move again. Within months, the sand of the beach began to overtake the vessel as the beach built into the channel. Soon the hull was covered, then the deck and wheelhouse, then much of the lower parts of the mast. The beach continued to build out so that now the boat lies entombed beneath the beach, far from the water’s edge, with only its mast to show. As people walk about it, many don’t realize they’re walking over the deck, hold and cabins where men once lived and worked. They don’t realize they’re walking over a ship’s grave.

In many places along the East Coast and in other parts of the world, sands shift with storms and changing currents to reveal ghostly wrecks from the past, to show them to us as a reminder and then recover them for another storm, another time.

* * *

When you’re out on the water, look around as you should. What you see may be mundane. Or it may be eerie, weird, scary, unusual — not what you’d expect to see through the sterile science of your radar.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.