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This Side Up
One good turn deserves surrender
John Howell

I can’t tell you why he’s “Jake” or, for that matter, how I should know that it is a “he.”

Jake was outraged that I should want to get on my boat. From his perch on the stainless steel piping on the bow pulpit, he screeched; his streamlined body and black-capped head throbbing with each defiant cry. He was sounding the alarm.

As I drew closer, I released an oar and waved my fist above my head, shaking it. I was convinced Jake would take to the air and join the other terns on patrol in the Bay. His wings unfolded and, for an instant, I thought I had won the showdown. But he stood his ground – my boat, mind you – and continued his shrill complaint.

It didn’t subside as I climbed aboard and started untying the deer netting draped across the boom, designed to discourage just such visitors as Jake. Jake watched and protested.

Finally, when I was no further than three feet away, he took wing. But he wasn’t finished with me. He swooped down, wheeled around, and alighted on the stern rail. He ratcheted up the protestations, pumping up and down. He was mad. Very mad.

“Jake,” I said, naming him to make it personal, “this is my boat. It’s time for you to go.”

I hadn’t said anything to him up to that point, so perhaps my voice caught him by surprise. For an instant, the shrieking stopped and he seemed to be giving the statement consideration, but just for an instant.

I waved my arms, trying to look as threatening as possible.

“Go on, get out of here.”

Jake didn’t like it. I was the trespasser.

He beat his wings to look bigger, incessantly yelling.

“Jake,” I reasoned, “you can stay there, as long as you crap over the side.”

He didn’t calm down. I went about preparing to cast off. With the lines released, I returned to the cockpit and the tiller. Jake saw me coming and went aerial.

He was worked up. Not only had I invaded his space, but now I was moving his hangout from its appointed location.

With the boat under way, he kept pace, winging ahead, and then wheeling back to come even with my head. Jake was no more than two feet away when he started his aerobatics. He swung in circles, aiming directly for my head before veering upward, and then dive-bombing. I was under attack. With one hand on the tiller, I raised the other arm, ready to swat Jake if he went for my eyes. He kept yakking. This was getting annoying. I offered him the opportunity to hangout – coexist – but he just wanted me off the boat.

Then Jake called in reinforcements.

Another tern joined him. Was this Mrs. Jake? She was just as belligerent. I was faced with two fighters, swooping in and back around the boat. They escalated the protest. But the farther I got from the mooring, the less frequent were the attacks. Then Jake and his sidekick were gone. I had my boat back.

I headed toward Conimicut Light. There were plenty of gulls and terns. They kept their distance, paying no heed to my passing. I wondered if Jake found another boat, perhaps the dark hulled ketch moored off the north side of Conimicut beach.

But I was hoping for too much.

On return to my mooring, I heard a now familiar cry. There he was, perched with his friend on the gunwales of my dinghy, furious that I should be disturbing this new sanctuary. The same fuss started up once more, complete with the dive-bombing raids. They kept it up as I secured the boat, retied the netting and closed the cabin hatch. They had left me a couple of deposits in the dinghy; friendly little reminders of their visit.

As I was pulling on the oars, the sudden angry chattering stopped. I looked up to the bow of my boat. There was Jake, back at his station on the bow pulpit.

“Are you happy now?”

Jake looked triumphant. He didn’t as much as flinch as I waved good-bye…or was I waving surrender?

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