Skip to content

When Frigate Birds Tire of Flying

Frigate birds are an oddity among seabirds in that they never go into the water. Indeed, if a frigate does somehow end up in the drink, it will likely drown in short order. Easily ID’ed by their black plumage, forked tails and up-to-7-foot wingspan, frigates feed in one of two ways. One is to fly to within inches of the surface and snatch fish in their hooked beaks. The other — which we almost hate to admit can be quite entertaining to watch — is stealing food from other birds in mid-air. All these traits make them excellent fliers.

Frigate Birds in flight
Sailors cruising the Americas’ Pacific and Atlantic regions are often accompanied by frigate birds — day and night!
© 2020 Monica Grant

Most of the time, anyway.

Rowan and Vikki Fennel (along with daughters Lucy and Emmy) had an encounter with a frigate bird while southbound across the Papagayo wind zone in Nicaragua on their Bay-based Bavaria 46 Taliesin Rose. “We were sailing along at night in beautiful 15-knot beam reach conditions when a large frigate bird attempted to land on our swaying mast — and miscalculated,” remembers Rowan. It slid down the leeward side of the sail and ended up in a heap on deck.

“It tried to take off, but was hindered by lifelines and lashed surfboards . . . so it waddled back to the cockpit coaming, regurgitated a large, nasty fish, and tried again.” Still stymied by lifelines and a dodger in its flight path, it leapt into the cockpit — then hopped down the companionway into the main saloon! A very surprised Vikki sprang into action, expertly casting one of their daughters’ blankets over the monstrous bird – and handing the squirming mass back to Rowan in the cockpit.

“I took the bird to the rail, removed its special cape, and flung it as high into the darkness as possible,” he says. “It flapped once, fell almost to the water, flapped again — and off it went. Whew!”

Emmy Farrel keeps dad Rowan on course aboard Taliesin Rose.
© 2020 Taliesin Rose

We’re publishing a feature story on the Fennels’ cruising adventures in next month’s Latitude 38, which is now only a few days away! When you get your edition, flick over to Changes for the full story.


  1. Tony Spooner 4 years ago

    I’m sure cruisers have lots of bird stories. We had a Brown Booby land on deck on our tri on the way to Fiji from Tonga 2017. It was pretty bedraggled looking. We secured it with a towel and found it had a ton of prickly nuts in its lower feathers. Pulled them all out and after a rest it flew off.
    Another time, 1970 Acapulco Race, on a Cal 36, close to the coast, we had a whole swarm of insects come aboard along with a small wren sized bird. He proceeded to gorge himself, sometimes with moths about a third his size. He finally was not able to fly, so he walked around the deck, still eating til he could barely move. He then hopped into the cockpit and onto the galley counter, where he spent the night sleeping and digesting and flew off in the morning. Very entertaining.

  2. Dan Haynes 4 years ago

    On a delivery heading south along the Mexican coast, a Frigate Bird decided to land on the main mast’s wind vane. The bird swiveled from port to starboard as the boat rolled. After flashing the anchor light and blowing the horn, it flew to the top of the mizzen mast which was unfortunately above the helm where I was. You guessed it. It decided take a dump on me.

  3. Dickie 4 years ago

    We were crossing from La Paz to P.V. A couple of years ago. Had a pair of Brown Boobies land on the pulpet. They spent the night and left the next morning. We got into port and were washing the boat. Where “roasted” was the most sticky mess you have ever encountered! Took green scrubby pads to get it off! Never again!!

  4. Alan Trimble 4 years ago

    It simply isn’t true that frigate birds cannot take off from water. They do fly inland in various
    places and take baths in fresh water lakes just like other birds. One place that is fun to watch
    this is El Junco Lagoon on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos. Frigate birds and ducks share
    this open fresh water source with glee.

Leave a Comment

Bay Station Band Goes Virtual
Local musical artists, Bay Station Band will perform their annual 'Love The Bay Music & Sailing' tour this week, as a virtual event. Almost a decade ago, California-based songwriter/musicians Kwame Copeland and Deborah Crooks combined their love of sailing with their love for music.
What's in a number?
Nation — We will take any and all latitude theme establishments that you might have come across in your international travels.
Off to the Races
During the month of June, a lot of good news crossed the Latitude 38 Racing Desk. Now to figure out whose races are on, and which organizers are still holding off.
A New Look and New Features
Latitude 38’s Classy Classifieds is the place to buy or sell boats — as well as marine gear, trailers, liferafts, boat partnerships, trades and more.