Monday, 22 October 2012

Sailboat Steering by the Stars - Night Watch Hand Helming

Sailing between The Galapagos Islands and The Marquesas archipelago we had the wonderful experience of night sailing with no moon and viewing the incredible southern night sky. With absolutely no degradation from other light sources, the heavens were lit up by a myriad of stars and galaxies not normally seen anywhere near land and all its artificial light.

Visualise this over the complete canopy
The following extract is from my book 'Sailing Adventures in Paradise' and my initial attempts at steering by the stars:  

'All this starlore stuff is running around her captains head and he reckons he might try steering our little ship by the stars on his watch. He selects a group of stars close to her masthead, and that he can recognise easily. Studying his star chart, it turns out to be the planet Jupiter, with some other stars in the background, forming a pattern that he can identify instantly. The warm night breeze is well round on her port quarter, and she is gambolling along at an easy eight plus knots.

All lights are doused, including the white masthead light, so there is just the soft red glow of the Autohelm station and the faint glimmer of the compass light. She is taken off autopilot and, after steering for a few minutes on her present heading to familiarise himself with her motion - the way she comes off the waves, her pitch and yaw, and how far the dim masthead is swaying through its arc – he covers the compass with its plastic hood and lifts his eyes to his chosen star pattern. She is holding exactly on the starmark and behaving exactly as before.

There is no moon and the canopy from horizon to horizon is a cornucopian mass of stars that he has never seen this way before. Gazing amazedly at this twinkling carpet, cascading 360 degrees, all the way down to where the seas' black knife slices, he passes up his thanks for being able to be part of this wondrous spectacle.     

Cockpit at Night
After a minute or two, the temptation to have a peek at the compass becomes overpowering. A slight prickling in his armpits and a light sheen on his forehead, drives his right hand forward toward the binnacle. He watches helplessly, unable to deny, as his fingers grope for the cover. A snap lift of the hood reveals she is exactly on course – amazing! Dropping the hood back on he manages to steer for five minutes this time before succumbing, and stealing a glance to reassure himself they are still on course. Ten minutes later, another peek reveals nothing has changed.

As the increments of time increase, her captain gains more confidence. Jupiter and companions remain utterly unmoved all this time and beam down their twinkling radiance benevolently on our little ship, and her now somewhat more comfortable captain. He is enjoying himself now and taking in more of his surroundings, as opposed to fixating his eye permanently on his sky guide. After an hour he is quite relaxed, hand lightly on the wheel, and glancing upward only occasionally, to check that Jupiter and company have not run away! Over a four hour watch, travelling at eight knots or so, she will have moved westward not more than half of one degree, i.e. thirty nautical miles, so any change of her position in relation to the stars would be so infinitesimally small, there would be no visible variance.

Sails taught, gently swaying as she creams through the dark and velvety water, our little ship is all quiet. Occasionally, a line slaps against metal, a block rattles against its line as the tension comes off momentarily, and somewhere below the light squeaking creak of wood on wood drifts up the companionway, along with a short snort from the depths of slumber. Billowing in over her port quarter rail, the soughing tropical wind streams into her sails, completing the symphony – utter peace.

Very small portion of night sky with Orion 
‘This is more like it’, she thinks, ‘this is how it must have been back then’. Carving through the night, her unseeing prow thrusting forever onward, Masefields’ famous lines emerge: ‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by’. What words, what evocation.

‘Wake up, you idealistic moron, you’ve got work to do!’

Her captain starts, glances at his watch and slips below to wake the next watch. ‘All’s well, nothing to report’ he relays to the new watch keeper. Exchanging a few pleasantries in the dark, he pads off to his bunk, preferring to keep his new found skill to himself for the moment, savouring it until tomorrow. En route to oblivion another line of Masefields floats before him:

‘To add more miles to the tally, of grey miles left behind, in quest of that one beauty, God put me here to find.’

Poetry lines courtesy John Masefield, images courtesy google 

You can read my whole book 'Sailing Adventures in Paradise' by downloading it from my website 

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