When I was 21 – many years ago – I was working as a cook on charter yachts in the Caribbean and America. For a short time, I joined a strange craft called Alianora, an ancient and battered wooden sailing yacht which we were taking from Newport, Rhode Island to Florida where we were to be joined by the yacht’s owners. Though Alianora was some 80ft long and difficult to handle (I remember having to move deck chairs out of the way every time we needed to tack), there were just three of us on board: the skipper, an odd Englishman in his sixties; the mate, an American called David, who was my age, with little sailing experience but more on the ball than the skipper, and myself, supposedly there to produce the food, but in fact, as the weather deteriorated, increasingly seasick and useless.
As we approached Charleston, South Carolina, the weather suddenly worsened. The wind increased, the waves became huge, and the old boat swayed and creaked ominously. But what was worse was that it became obvious to David and I that Mike, stubborn, remote and something of a control freak (suffering, as we found out later, from the early stages of a progressive illness), didn’t know where we were or, crucially, where the entrance to the river that leads from the Atlantic Ocean to the safety of Charleston Harbor was. David tried to intervene, but Mike angrily banished him from the chart table, and an eerie, tense silence fell on the boat as it heaved remorselessly up and down over the white topped waves.
Suddenly, I saw a dolphin, then another. The pair leapt and played in front of the bow of the boat, and were soon joined by several others – I forget how many. They were, without doubt, both protecting us and leading us to the entrance of the river, and Mike, without doubt, stopped trying to navigate and simply followed them. They were the most marvelous and comforting sight you can imagine. I pinned my faith on them and feel sure that they picked up the air of fear and tension on the boat and responded to it. Even when we were finally in the calmer waters of the river, they didn’t leave us immediately. Then they were gone, but I will never forget them or what I truly believe was their practical help and guidance.