Snake Flake

By Tom Neale, 9/18/2008


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When you’re doing the back crawl in the middle of the creek you never know what’s there as you reach your arm back and splash your hand down in the water behind your head.  A snake is not one of the things you want to close your fingers around. I don’t know how the snake felt, but if he didn’t like it either, I suppose we could have bonded and had a wonderful nature moment. Instead the poor guy (I guess it was a guy, I’m not really into gendering snakes) found himself hurtling through the air as I sank beneath the ripples, propelled down from the thrust of my throw. As my head resurfaced, I looked around to see which way I’d thrown the thing. I hadn’t exactly planned the event and I was hoping I’d thrown it toward the shore, but a quick reconstruction of the circumstances left me to believe that I might have thrown it toward my boat. As I was remembering how hard I’d thrown it (sheer panic can make an all-star pitcher out of anybody) I realized that it could well have landed on the boat. A split second later I found myself doing the front crawl like Michael Phelps (well almost) trying to get the heck away from there.

All I’d wanted to do was dive off my boat on a hot summer day and go for a swim. Instead, this unexpected chain of circumstances got my mind obsessing about safety on the water—as it relates to snakes. It’s not that I don’t like snakes; I’ve had some good friends who were snakes. It’s just that some of them can be pretty nasty. Deadly, actually. I used to think that humans are safer from creatures when they’re in their boats. Unless you pay too much attention to works of art like “Moby Dick” and “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and all the Japanese “Godzilla” like movies, this seems a reasonable conclusion.  But over the years I’ve found that it just isn’t so.

Just for starters, consider the famous fake snake. I’m sure you’ve seen them. Many of us put them on our boats in the hopes that they’ll scare off birds. You can buy some very stupid looking blow up fake snakes and you can also buy some that actually look relatively real. When I tried this anti-bird tactic, I got the stupid looking blow up snakes.  Aside from the issue of cost (mine was very cheap), there was also another nagging issue in the back of my brain.  I mean, if they are good enough to scare birds, do you think they’re good enough to attract snakes? When you stop the think about it, there are all sorts of great places for a snake to go on your boat. And if you’re a snake and you’ve got a big seductive fake snake luring you on, you might just check them out. The typical boat could be a literal snake haven. Boats are full of dark crevices and holes and moist places. Most of these are places that you have to peer into and sometimes blindly reach into.  Reaching for a beer and coming out with a handful of snake could sure ruin your evening. I haven’t decided whether it would make me stop drinking or drink a lot more.

In case you think I’m being too sensitive about all this, let me tell you that I’m not. First of all, there are many places where snakes can and do drop out of trees onto boats passing underneath.  It’s called snake rain, so I’m told. (No, I don’t remember who told me.) I’ve heard of this happening in the Dismal Swamp Canal in Virginia, for example, and in the Waccamaw River in South Carolina. I’ve seen snakes undulating up on branches over the water and sometimes hanging down as I’ve explored creeks in my dinghy. And you don’t have to run your boat under trees to be at risk. I’ve been in storms so bad that frogs dropped down on deck.  If some storms can pick up frogs, I guess they could pick up snakes too.

Cruising with Snakes

1. The two legged snakes are far worse to cruise with than those with no legs at all.

2. While two legged snakes generally are not known to eat rats, they often emulate them.

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I even sat and watched one warm Bahamian day as a big snake arched from a piling of the dock where I was tied, across a couple of feet of open air, and then to my mainstay, wrapping around it and continuing his journey down to wherever he figured he was going on my boat.  I “sat and watched” because I didn’t know what the heck else to do. The locals call these “chicken snakes” because they can eat whole chickens. This guy was big and even though I knew that he wasn’t poisonous and that he was actually a good guy because he and his brethren also eat rats, still, I didn’t want to walk right up, shake its hand (or whatever) and throw it off the boat.  Besides, it didn’t look like it wanted to leave.  Finally I came up with an idea. I got my longest boat hook and touched it to the stay just below the snake’s descending head.  Sure enough, he (I guess it was a he…) liked the boat hook better than the slick stainless steel mainstay and climbed aboard, continuing his journey, but this time toward my hand. Once he was pretty tightly ensconced on the boat hook, I threw it and its occupant as far onto the shore as I could. I seem to be pretty good at snake throwing.

Which brings me back to that sunny afternoon swimming in the creek.  I front crawled back to my boat and carefully climbed up the boarding ladder.  Next came a careful sweeping search around the deck, lifting up things and looking under things and hoping fervently that I wouldn’t find the snake. I didn’t. Then I started thinking. Maybe it would have been better if I had. Then, at least I would have known where it was—and where it wasn’t.  Your typical boat presents plenty of opportunities for a snake to get below without going down the companionway.

I think (I hope) that snake in the creek had been an errant black snake, again a good guy, because those snakes eat rats (which usually aren’t swimming around in the creek either—or did this guy mistake me for something else).  But that was small consolation. If the snake is below decks somewhere, it’s got to eat sometime. If it doesn’t, it’ll die. If there’s one thing worse than having a black snake on the boat, it’s having a dead black snake on the boat.  So what would I do—feed it rats?  I’ve spent most of my life trying to keep rats off my boats. So if I let loose a rat on the boat, how do I know when the snake catches it, if he does?  Maintaining a balance of power between a snake population and a rat population isn’t the kind of boat maintenance that I want to get into.  Think I’ll go jump in the creek.

Copyright 2004-2010 Tom Neale