A Dolphin Is a Man's Best Friend

Ron Karpinski 1990


A raging sea can toss a forty-foot sloop like a cork.  Caught out in the open, a man's best chance is to head for land. He can only hope that help is under way.

In early June, six brave souls boarded the "Phllyra" in Athens and embarked on a two-week tour of the Greek Isles.  In late spring, the winds of the Aegean are fickle, at best.  On a good day, nine and a half knots could be reached; but most speeds hovered between four and seven knots.

Shifting winds required constant changes to the rigging.  Scrambling on deck, the crew attacked the lines and winches.  After a few days, we could tack a course, raise and lower the jib, or reef the mainsail, and look respectable at it.

On the morning of the sixth day, we left the safety of a small cove and headed for open water.  Calm seas stretched across the channel, bringing a smooth five knots; but, as we rounded the tip of the island, the wind picked up.

At first, a stiff gust of wind in the sails brought smiles all around.  Then whitecaps began to show in the crests of the waves, and the sea turned choppy.  With the mainsail and jib up, the wind had us heeling at forty-five degrees.

To play it safe, we donned life vests, reefed the main, and switched to the storm jib; but the wind kept getting stronger, so we dropped the jib completely.

Finally, the seas became too rough to sail at all.  According to the Beaufort Wind Scale, the storm had reached a force ten gale.  Down came the mainsail.  We turned on the motor and huddled around the helm, strapped to the taffrail.

With the bow slamming into eight-foot swells, we set course for Amorgos, the nearest port.  The small four-cylinder engine strained to make any headway.  After pitching and rolling for two long hours, we approached the tiny island from the north.

Skirting the coast, we slowly edged toward the narrow inlet into port; but strong currents forced the boat toward the rocky shore, only fifty yards to our right.  Ahead, a spit of land jutted out through the haze.  We were headed straight for it.

The captain went below to consult the charts.  Suddenly, two bottle-nosed dolphins sprang in the air twenty feet to starboard and swam in a straight line next to the boat. They paralleled our course, always staying between us and the rocks.

Twice, they veered closer, as though to warn of the peril ahead or nudge us away from the rocks.  At least, that is how it seemed.  This much is fact: as soon as the captain spun the helm to port, and the danger passed, the dolphins vanished.


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