July 29, 2012

Sailing at night

I FORGET NOW what brought it up, but my wife reminded me the other night of what it’s like to sail at night. She recalled a night in mid-South Atlantic when she was sitting next to me in the cockpit of our 31-footer. It was a cloudy, moonless night, a night of complete and utter darkness — so much so that we couldn’t even see a trace of each other. No faces, no arms, no legs, no nothing. I could have been sitting next to Angelina Jolie.

Sailing at night can be a wonderful experience in more normal times, especially in warm waters where phosphorescence swirls in your wake and the trade wind sighs gently in the rigging. Brittle stars prick through the velvet canopy of night and the moon floods the decks with a silver glow.

But sailing at night can also be quite frightening, something like driving down the freeway blindfolded. Even on the best of nights it’s almost impossible to see anything in the water close ahead of you, and we all know that containers are washed off ships regularly, and that debris from continental shorelines is floating out there along with those half-submerged containers, timber deadheads, fishing nets, unlit weather buoys, sleeping whales, and other yachts.

The land looks quite different at night, too.  Even a harbor entrance you know well by daylight is confusing at night until you learn to separate the lighted buoys from the traffic lights on shore and the searchlights on the used-car lots.

It takes practice to steer by the compass only, to reef, handle sails, and work on deck in the pitch dark.  It’s best to start gradually and gain experience by going out for a couple of hours at dusk.  You’ll notice then how difficult it is to judge distance in the dark, and how confusing ships’ lights can be.

And if you’re not sure who’s sitting next to you in the cockpit, I advise you to experiment by gentle touch.  You’ll know soon enough if it’s Angelina Jolie.

Today’s Thought
Observe her flame,
That placid dame,
The moon's Celestial Highness;
There's not a trace
Upon her face
Of diffidence or shyness:
She borrows light
That, through the night,
Mankind may all acclaim her!
And, truth to tell,
She lights up well,
So I, for one, don't blame her!

— W. S. Gilbert, The Mikado

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(19) “Oh, really? So that’s where they go in summer, is it?”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

No comments: