October 27, 2016   Benjamin Harter

From the November 2001 issue of 48° North by Fran Fisher

snakefhBefore our cruise my husband Dwight and I, like all novice passage makers, concerned ourselves with equipping our boat against all the things that the book-writing experts and cruising magazines warned us about; dangerous storms and heavy seas, crew overboard, dense fog and shipping.  We read seriously and widely since our plan was to sail our Fisher 30, We Three, from Seattle south to the Panama Canal, then through the Canal and into the Caribbean, a journey of over 5,000 nautical miles.

Our voyage was a success.  We survived a few minor storms, we steered clear of freighters and neither of us ever fell overboard.  But the one thing that no article, no book, no lecture, no experienced cruiser ever warned us about, nor did we prepare for, was snakes.

Punta Mala means “bad point” in Spanish and the Punta Mala that we had to pass before turning north toward the Panama Canal deserves its reputation for adverse currents.  In order to round the point during slack tide, we had to leave our Benao anchorage at 2:30 a.m., so that afternoon we were in the v-berth trying to grab some extra sleep.

We were well prepared and had a successful voyage. But there was one thing that no article, no book, no lecture, no experienced cruiser ever warned us about, nor did we prepare for…

Fran Fisher

It was hot, it was humid and we were too restless to sleep but we knew that we wouldn’t be at our best rounding Punta Mala without our nap.  Reading trashy novels usually acts like a sleeping pill for us so Dwight reached up to get one from the bookcase just over my head.  In a strange tone of voice I’d never heard from him, he said “Get up, hurry.”  Glancing at him over the top of my book, I saw that he was sitting far back in the corner and staring directly over my head.  I looked up and there, extending out about 6 inches from the edge of the bookcase, was the head and neck of a brown snake.  It stared back at Dwight, its little forked tongue rapidly flicking in and out, in and out.  I don’t remember getting up.  One second I was lying down looking above my head and the next second I was upright, standing far away from the v-berth.  No speeding bullet is faster than a 63-year-old woman launching herself out of a snake’s way.

“Get the long handled pliers,”  Dwight said, not taking his eyes off our serpent.  I ran to the tool box, grabbed the water-pump pliers and, for some reason, a hammer.  During the few seconds it took me to return with the tools, Dwight had judiciously placed a plump pillow over his unclad lap, not knowing where that critter might end up.  He always likes to cover all his bases — and a few other things.

I didn’t want to get in the way and couldn’t bear to watch so I waited well away from the v-berth still holding the hammer after handing water pump pliers to Dwight.  All was quiet except for the repeated clicking sound of the pliers as he tried to catch the snake between its jaws.  Finally succeeding, Dwight threw the 2-1/2 foot monster on the cabin sole and I smashed its head with the hammer.

We’d seen too many poisonous sea snakes in our cruise down the west coast and were concerned that the ship’s cat, a very good hunter with an appetite for wild game, would start chewing on our snake.  We had no idea what kind it was, friend or foe, and not caring, we immediately threw the corpse overboard, not even thinking about taking a photo for posterity.   We just wanted that thing off the boat.   

After our hearts stopped pounding, we radioed the other boats in the anchorage, wanting to share the afternoon’s excitement, looking for comfort and trying to get some answers from other cruisers.  Where did that snake come from?  How did it get in the bookcase?  Do snakes travel in herds? Could there be another one on board?

We had cleaned out the bookcase only three days earlier in Golfito, Costa Rica, and  we hadn’t been in a marina or at a dock for well over two months. There was no way that snake could have been on board for very long.  We all came to the conclusion that the snake, swimming by, must have climbed up the anchor chain, slithered across the deck to the open port and stopped for a rest in a nice, quiet, shady bookcase.  It could have happened that way    fellow cruisers found a snake underneath their dinghy on the foredeck.

Not only did we get lots of comfort and some answers from the other boats in our anchorage, we were also rechristened with a new boat name. From that day forward, whenever Emily and Christopher from the cruising boat Daedalus saw We Three they’d say, “Look Mommy, look Daddy, there’s the snake boat.”

Storms or freighters? Man overboard or dense fog?  Phooey!  If we ever become experts, we’ll be sure to warn potential cruisers to prepare for the real dangers out there.