September 18, 2014

Equinox and a trusty compass

ONCE AGAIN I HAVE FAILED to write a book about the equinox and putting one’s faith in a compass. It was an idea that rattled around in my head briefly a few years ago and it seemed like a good plan at the time. But I regret to say it was an idea that escaped, like so many others, never to be captured again.
I did, however, write a short piece to serve as a sort of story skeleton, a bag of bones, which, suitably clothed, could turn into a minor masterpiece. So here, by way of compensation, is the short version of my unwritten magnum opus: 


The cedars in the back yard were twinkling with cool gray mist this morning, a sure sign that the autumnal equinox is almost upon us.

For years, when we lived on Whidbey Island, Washington, my wife June and I used to make a short pilgrimage on the date of the equinox. We went to a grassy little west-facing hillside in a quiet state park. We took along a blanket, a bottle of Vouvray, some cheese and crackers, and maybe a baguette. And, of course, our hand bearing compass from the boat.

On the evening of the equinox we watched the sun go down into the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and checked the accuracy of the compass. This is one of only two days in the year when the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in west. Otherwise, it’s always either north or south of true east and west.

At that magic moment when half the blazing red sun was hidden beneath the sea horizon, I checked its bearing with the compass up to my eye. Every year, the compass proved accurate to within one degree. And at that moment I was flooded with a wonderful feeling of trust.

Cruising under sail is built on trust in so many ways. You trust that the mast won’t fall down, you trust that the engine will start, you trust that the waves won’t be big enough to sink your boat, and, of course, you trust that your compass is telling the truth. (The way you know whether your main steering compass is telling the truth is to check it against your hand bearing compass, now proven accurate by the sun itself. Trust, but verify, as it were.)

We always stayed long after the sun sank into the strait. We went home cold and happy and damp from dew, and slightly woozy from the wine, holding hands, with our trust in our compass and our boat restored for another year.

And every year I think to myself what a wonderful metaphor this is for life. And I tell myself I must nurture that nascent thought and expand it into a living philosophy and write a fascinating book about it and make a lot of money and get famous and appear on Oprah. But I never do. Restoring trust is easy. Writing a book is hard work.

Today’s Thought
A man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts.
— Harold Macmillan, NY Herald Tribune, 17 Dec 63

“Dad, what’s horse sense?”
“It’s one of Nature’s little safeguards, son. It’s what keeps a horse from betting on people.”

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

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