Learning to Fly in Frederiksted, St. Croix

By Craig Johnson, USN (Retired)

For: Sea Stories


Mahi-mahi a.k.a. Dolphin

The Diamond TWR-1, a small, torpedo-weapons-recovery vessel belonging to the United States Navy, and Skippered by a Chief, had just arrived in Frederiksted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands. This was a port that she visited often in the late sixties, and its crew had many friends on the island.

I had duty the first day with two other sailors. We spent the morning doing some minor maintenance around the boat, and now the three of us were having lunch in the galley. Three days prior, Chief Daniels sitting in a chair on the fantail using a saltwater fishing pole with a jury rigged harness and had caught a bull dolphin. Don’t worry, this is not the mammal commonly known as a “dolphin.” Instead, this is a beautiful, colorful and delicious fish, otherwise known as Mahi-mahi. These typically average less than 20 pounds. This guy, now packing the fridge, was a monster, tipping the scale at nearly fifty pounds.

As scrumptious as fresh caught Mahi-mahi is, after several straight meals of it, we were complaining that we would like something different to eat. After some discussion we decided that we would go diving for fresh langoustine (also known as scampi and Dublin Bay prawns or spiny lobster) for dinner since, as usual for this part of the planet, it was a beautiful sunny day.

Aboard the Diamond we had a 14′ sailboat that we used as a work boat.  We utilized the little vessel for a variety of functions. Most often, we used it to chip paint off the hull…And then repaint. As any sailor will tell you, this is a never ending process. By the time you get around to where you started, it’s time to chip and paint again.

There were also times this sailboat lent itself to be used for fun. Today was going to be fun! We were going to get sailing lessons later in the day. But first, we planned to row it out about 50 yards from the Diamond, to a spot our local friends had shown us. This spot was the perfect place to find the langoustine we were craving.

The water is so clear around the island of St. Croix that if you throw a quarter into the water, you can see the sun reflect off of it as it rests on the bottom, 35 feet below. The spot where we were going to dive for our dinner was only about 10 feet deep, so we could actually see the lobsters right from the surface. All we had to do was just dive in and grab ‘em.

St. Croix snorkeling

Snorkeling for spiny lobster

All we needed for gear were dive masks, snorkels, fins, and gloves to protect our hands from the spines. These items were part of the gear we used every day in our work on the Diamond. The dive masks, snorkels, and fins we used when we had to go in the water to recover weapons. The gloves were to protect our hands from little, needle-like, broken strands of wire that formed tiny hooks that were shed from wire rope, which we often needed to handle.

Around 1400 hours, we lowered the sailboat into the water. It took us about another 15 minutes or so to gather everything else we needed and place it in the boat.  My shipmate, now fishing partner and I climbed in and rowed the sail boat over to the spot we were going to dive and he dropped the anchor.  One of us was going to stay with boat while the other one dove.  After one of us had collected some lobsters on his dive we would change places so the second sailor could dive and collect any remaining lobsters still needed. We always had one person stay with boat in case something happened. We are all aware of Murphy’s Law, and the “Buddy System” is always good for safety.

I was elected to dive first. After wetting the fins to make it easier to slip my feet into them, I strapped them on. Then, I took my mask and dipped in the water and then drained it so it would not fog up during my dive. I put my gloves on, adjusted my mask and got ready to roll over the side of the boat, Jacques-Cousteau-style.

I fell backwards from the boat into the water; my flippers pointing up to the sky, my back just a hair’s breadth away from breaching the surface of the water, when suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shadow pass under the boat that was larger than the boat itself! Thanks to this mysterious and terrifying shadow, I ended up getting a flying lesson that day.

Defying gravity, I ended up back in the boat, without any part of me, except my flippers and mask which I had wet before my dive, touched by water. I’m not ashamed to admit that Fear taught me to fly. How else can it be explained that I landed in the boat and not in the water? Some sort of levitation occurred without any mechanical assistance.

I’ve never been able to duplicate this ability to fly. However, I hold tight to the bragging rights, that at least once in my life, without the aid of feathers, balloons or propellers, I have flown!

My shipmate and I quickly decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and that another dinner of Mahi-mahi sounded good after all. It was immediately anchor aweigh! As we rowed back to Diamond, I figured learning to sail would be a cinch compared to learning to fly!


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