Big Mama the cruising spider

The orb weaver spider building her web aboard Ora Kali.
The orb weaver spider building her web aboard Ora Kali.
The orb weaver spider building her web aboard Ora Kali.

Our first week sailing our Sabre 30 Ora Kali home to Maine, we noticed a web in a corner of the Bimini frame. At sunset a spider appeared and when she was done with repairs she sat in the center of a beautiful creation, swaying gently on the zephyr which was all we got on those heatwave days of mid-July 2021. By morning she had disappeared and the web was bedraggled. We traversed Long Island Sound and after we dropped anchor, she reappeared.

Exactly when she signed on is unknown though she likely climbed up from the dock before we left New Jersey. “Sometimes, your pet picks you,” according to author Julie Wenzel. We called this spider Big Mama (only female spiders build gorgeous webs). 

A cruising boat is largely self-contained, especially during COVID, and as Ora Kali progressed slowly up the coast we included the spider in our circle; admiring her catch of the night, wondering over her ability to rebuild her web and keep track of her position in space. As if growing more comfortable with us she’d often emerge to check her catch during the day, detaching bugs she didn’t like and cocooning others. 

I never saw her eat her prey but she grew bigger as the summer progressed and what was to be a two-week trip turned into two months. When Hurricane Henri bore down we moored in landlocked York Harbor in southern Maine, and fretted over what to do about the spider. We postponed removing canvas but finally, with wind building, we unzipped and carefully rolled the Bimini around the frames. Big Mama’s web was destroyed but that happened often, especially with the lower limb usually attached to our outboard motor. 

Henri mostly spared us but when we reset the Bimini Big Mama didn’t reappear. Had we killed our spider? When we left York Harbor Ora Kali felt lonely. Then, three days later, she was back! No preamble, just there, building a new web.

There are more than 45,000 spider species. Big Mama looked plain black silhouetted against the sky and when we peered closely she balled up tight. One decent photo of her spread on her web showed her to be a type of orb weaver. Doesn’t bite, has eight eyes, works at night, appears generally in April but isn’t noticed until summer. Orb weavers include garden spiders, barn spiders (think Charlotte’s Web) and fabulous specimens like the Arrow-shaped Micrathena.

We decided that Big Mama had to make it home and grew reluctant to use the outboard for fear of discouraging her. When the web disappeared, we cheered to see her emerge at night. Was she looking out for us? We marveled at her ability to reweave the links between the long radial arms that attached to Ora Kali. We crowed when she made a large catch.

Big Mama was still with us on our triumphal entry into Sorrento Harbor in mid-September. Two days later I rowed to the mooring with vague thoughts of trapping and bringing her to the basement of our house but every bit of her web was gone. It never reappeared.

Orb weavers typically lay their last eggs in late fall and die at first frost. We couldn’t have kept her over winter and it’s unlikely a male would have found Ora Kali to fertilize her eggs. Sadly, Big Mama is likely gone, her cruising exploits over. 

Contributing editor Ann Hoffner and her husband Tom Bailey cruised for years aboard their Peterson 44, Oddly Enough. She’s now based in Sorrento, Maine.