NO ONE APPRECIATES AN UNINVITED GUEST ON A LONG passage, especially the slithery, fang-laden type. So when my husband, Wayne, and I discovered a four-foot snake aboard our 57-foot Nordhavn, Long Ranger, we were perplexed-not to mention a little frightened.
Our trip began in West Palm Beach, Florida, en route to Nova Scotia, our summer cruising destination. On board with us was our invited guest, Dick Nolan, a Harvard professor and enthusiastic boater yearning to experience a passage. Due to weather conditions, we followed the Intracoastal Waterway to Norfolk, Virginia, and then up to New Jersey.
Wayne backed Long Rangerinto a tight dock slip at Cape May Marine in southern New Jersey. While Wayne and Dick rinsed the salt off the hull, Bill, the dock attendant, stood by, topping off our fuel tanks in preparation for the long run to Nantucket and the Bras d'Or Lakes in northern Nova Scotia. As is his routine, Wayne was giving my pot of geraniums on the cockpit counter a spray of water when he caught a glimpse of movement among the flowers.
Jumping back, he realized he was disturbing some sort of critter. "I think there's a snake or varmint here," he called out. I peered out the saloon window behind the flowerpot and saw that there was indeed a snake coiled in the soil. Wayne, who is not too fond of snakes, asked Bill, "Is this a full-service marina?"
Big burly Bill responded, "I gave up being macho a long time ago."
After hearing the news, the crews of neighboring boats crowded around us, all trying to figure out how the snake got there and how to get it off the boat, but no one volunteered to come aboard and help. (It was strictly an advisory committee.) We were all concerned that it might be a water moccasin or rattle snake.
We Didn't Hear Any Rattling
A Viking captain asked us where we had been previously. Our last dock stop had been three days before at Coinjock, a rural marina on the ICW in North Carolina. We then anchored in Mill Creek and the Sassafras River off Chesapeake Bay for the next two nights.
The captain stopped abruptly without stepping aboard, and warned us, "They have mean snakes in the Carolinas."
"We didn't hear any rattling," I said.
The committee asked for a description and identifying marks. Without putting his face too close, Wayne could see that the snake was black with a white underbelly. No one could identify the snake from that description, so the committee asked how big it was, and Wayne responded, "It looks small."
We talked about how to remove it, but Wayne didn't want to pick up the flowerpot, fearing the snake could strike him in the arms or face. It might be poisonous. First, he tried the barbeque tongs, but they weren't very long, so he looked around for an alternative and spotted the boat hook.
Extending the pole to 7 feet, Wayne carefully slid the hook underneath the snake and hoisted it out of the 10-inch pot-not an easy task, as the snake had made a little depression in the soil and was tightly coiled. As he lifted the snake, we were all surprised to see it was about 4 feet long.
The snake wrapped itself around the pole and started climbing as Wayne shook the hook over the dock. Dick sprayed water on it, hoping the force would stop the snake from climbing-not so.
By now, our snake was getting aggressive, opening its mouth, showing its fangs. The committee moved back and Bill said, "Don't release it here, it might be poisonous." Wayne finally shook the snake off the pole onto the dock, where we were able to confirm its length. (How does a 4-foot snake squeeze itself into a 10-inch flowerpot?)
The committee scattered, and we made a decision not to release the snake in the marina waters. We still did not know whether it was poisonous, and did not want to endanger marina guests. While the snake slithered on the dock, Wayne struck it several times with the boat hook, but it was still alive. He continued to strike the snake, but the tail was still moving.
The Men Were Pumped
I was shaking, but the men were pumped with adrenaline. The Viking crew came up with a knife, and Bill cut the snake's head off while Wayne pinned it to the dock. Bill flipped the snake's head into the water and slid the body off the dock, making for an appropriate burial at sea. A quick hose-down removed evidence from the dock.
We felt sad that we had to kill the snake, but we didn't want it living on our boat, and it wasn't welcome at the marina, either.
Later, we consulted our Audubon Society Field Guide, and identified the snake as a racer (Coluber constrictor): "Four feet, medium girth, scales large and smooth, satiny black, underside white. Holds head high while moving swiftly over ground; climbs trees to escape danger. Bites prey and holds on; does not constrict or poison. Caution: aggressive, will bite. Habitat: brushy areas."
Our snake displayed all those characteristics in the short time we knew him or her. Wayne carefully checked my flowerpot to determine whether the snake had brought a "friend" along, but we were relieved to find there was none.
The mystery still remains unsolved: How long had the snake been with us, and how did the snake get aboard? We don't think the snake could have been on board for more than three days-since we were last at a dock and Wayne had watered the geraniums. Could the snake have somehow crawled up our anchor chain, made its way to the cockpit and curled up in my inviting flowerpot? Scary thought.
Our slither-aboard experience proves yet again how unpredictable the cruising life can be. How grand!