Here’s a romantic story from last year that we haven’t had time to tell until now - the incredible adventures of “46” - an unusually well travelled shipmate of ours.
Soon after joining our ship in Cork early in July and heading out to the deep waters of the Porcupine Seabight, a racing pigeon turned up on board. Nothing too unusual, as we have quite often seen pigeons on ships in the North Sea, but this one was soon joined by a second bird. The new arrival, a handsome, creamy-brown bird, was very tame and would happily walk up to us in the hope of food. But he seemed a little fussy: biscuit crumbs were turned down and he disappeared to seek better fare somewhere at the back of the ship.
During the night, one of our colleagues caught the bird, wrote down its ring numbers and found the owner’s telephone number in a small canister on the bird’s leg. So the next day Mick called the number and discovered that his owner lived in North Wales! The pigeon was named “46”, from the last two digits of his ring number. He was the owner's favourite and had been released in northern France for a two-bird race the day before he turned up on board. While 46’s opponent arrived home after only a day on the wing, 46 had obviously taken a wrong turn and flown too far west. Fortunately for him, our ship saved him from a watery grave. We learned that his favourite food was rice, so we went scrounging some from the galley staff and soon 46 was greedily stuffing himself. While the other pigeon left on the same day it arrived, 46 had no such intentions. Over the next few days he became a rather pampered guest, with several of the crew feeding him. He became quite a fixture on the heli-deck where he received a constant flow of visitors.
A few days later a whole flock of racing pigeons turned up! 46 took to the air to make a few circuits around the ship with them, but then quickly returned to his new home on the deck to defend his adopted home territory, with its food and water supplies. All but two of the new arrivals disappeared overnight, but it appeared that 46 had fallen in love with one of the newcomers, and from the next day on he became inseparable from his new paramour. Apparently his missus was patiently waiting for him back home, but here he was having a fling in the exotic setting of an ocean cruise. The two birds stuck closely together, happily sharing the food and the water, but shunning the unfortunate third pigeon that was not allowed to spoil the lovers’ exclusive access to rice and clean fresh water.
After some two weeks, one of our support ships was bound for port in southern Ireland, so we asked if we could get a passage ashore for 46. We got permission from the captains of both ships, and arranged for his release before the ship docked, so there were no issues regarding the import of live animals. Now everything was lined up, we had only to catch the birds. We found two boxes and positioned them on the deck with a bit of rice inside, in the naive hope the birds would just walk in. Of course, 46 had no intention of quitting the cruise with his new lover. As the time of his transport’s departure got ever closer, we made desperate efforts to catch him. It all turned into something of a slapstick comedy, with two or three folk trying to herd the pigeons, while another couple of guys holding coats like matador’s capes tried to look nonchalant as they waited to pounce. Even our colleague who had caught him before failed. 46 would let us get close and then just fly away to sit on the highest mast and look down at us disdainfully. As soon as 46 and his friend showed signs of remaining up the mast, the third pigeon landed on deck, and hopped happily into the box and started eating. So the rejected bird got the passage ashore and the two lovers stayed on board. They seemed to know what was going on and wouldn’t come down from the mast until the supply boat had left. What would his wife think if she knew he was such a naughty boy! 46 and his bird settled back down to their illicit affair, but from that day on they distrusted anybody coming too close. Perhaps some of the magic had gone from their blissful cruise?
The two lovers enjoyed their life of luxury for another week or so. Then, just as the weather was set to worsen with strong easterly winds forecast, 46 and his friend disappeared. Word soon spread and it seemed that everyone on board was asking if we knew what had happened to our (un!)faithful mascot 46. We hoped for the best, but feared that the offshore winds would have carried the pair even further out to sea.
A couple of weeks later we got an email from the owner’s daughter saying that 46 had turned up on the Isles of Scilly! What happened to his friend we’ll never know, but 46 had made it to land and was now being looked after by an old lady, who was hoping to organise a passage for him on the ferry to Penzance. It all felt a bit like déjà-vu, especially as we didn’t hear any more news for several weeks afterwards. 46 apparently still had no intention of going home to his wife and work.
We went off for our 5-week break and the day we re-joined the ship in early September, we learnt that 46 had finally arrived back home. His Scillonian hostess had put him on the ferry and from there he was taken by lorry to northern England and released to fly the last stretch home by himself. So nearly eight weeks after being released in northern France, 46 finally made it home! A little thinner than when he left, but no doubt with many tales to tell his loft-mates! How many pigeons can say that they went on a cruise for a few weeks, had a holiday in the Scillies and took a ferry home. But what his missus said, and what he told her when he got back home, we’ll never know!
Home at last! Last four photos courtesy of Sharon Robinson.