DECEMBER 29, 2008 6:02PM

Night Sails

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Night Sails

I like night sails. Far from shore, with no glow from land and man, the heavens wheeling about the North Star, the sun pinned in the one spot in the heavens, just far enough north that the sunset and sunrise are of exaggerated length and beauty. On those best of all nights, I am awake and on watch, on deck the entire night. In the extreme velvet of night, with stars bright and sharp, and so very clear, the sky is seen to revolve, rotate about the North Star, Polaris.  Our bright daytime sun is just below the horizon and the where and the when of the sun and our day is known by the constellations surrounding the North Star.  I tell time by looking at the sky, I navigate with ease by the stars at night. I like the solitude and the raw beauty of those nights. Northern lights, satellites in space visible tracking north, meteoric streaks, and stars of profusion not found or seen or dreamt of by you.

A particular night, I hearken back to three years or more ago. Headed north to the Canadian shores of the Georgian Bay on a close reach, 20 knots of wind on the port bow, plus or minus, and seas close on one another and one to two meters. Lively and ideal wind and waves for a passage. Now to try to put you there. To see what I see, maybe feel what I feel.

We won't tonight talk of the hundred miles to get here or the planning to be here,,,,, just the here.

Close reach means that you are running toward the wind and waves on an angle. The bow is climbing not straight at the waves but at about a forty five degree angle into, and up, and over, and bury the bow, spray dashed from the bow, whipped straight across, and down  the length of the boat, on each wave, and back up, and over, and through the next trough, and bow splashing spray again, on the same five seconds, over, and over, and over again, all through the night. Just like the five, or six seconds, of each of these phrases.  I was healed or leaned, over away from the wind, 10 or 15 degrees. The pressure on the sails, constant, fluid, cushioning, exhiliarating.   For the sixteen hours of the passage.  You better like it out there.

The temperature that night was chilly. Lake Huron doesn't often get warm. But the air that night was from the north and west and certainly no warmer than the water. Even with the foam life jacket,  I had on a sweater and sweat shirt under, and the crispy waterproof jacket over it all. Early July on Lake Huron.  Most of the night I stayed on deck, arms crossed and close, backed up against the bulkhead facing the stern. The ink black and shiny waves running under my right elbow an arms length away. Polished ebony black and glistening, the sensation being the waves sliding under and lifting the boat and hurrying to the stern and away into the darkness.  Not of me moving, but rather the water world sliding under and away astern.

Some skill required in the night of taking in the reefs of the mainsail. Shortening the sail by rolling and bunching up the bottom of the sail, at the run, so that there is both less sail, as the wind built in strength, and a lower sail, center of effort, so the boat didn't heel over so far. Plenty of energy and speed that night. No need to over power and heel the boat too far. Allow the vessel to run more upright, more sail couldn't have pushed us any faster. The skill is in taking in that sail without breaking pace. And in the dark. You can't see it but when you get to know the ropes, literally, know the ropes, it all falls to hand and your minds eye. Under the stars.

The sounds of the passage are a symphony of many instruments, each vying for your attention. The thump of the hull coupled with the dash of broken water and whipped away like a fast zipper. The burrr of the trailing edge of a straining sail. The belling of the taut halyards striking the mast soft or hard two and three times per second. Insistent, unceasing. The softer wet chuckle, applause, of the water being cut under the bow and the small wet kiss sounds of the waves under the stern and retreating. The wind in my ears making empty bottle sound just in me. Rhythmic creaks and groans of the workings of the mast and shrouds,  of the rudder correcting for each sideways slide up and then over the next wave. The crisp rustle of of my clothing and the spare sail and bag being used to cuddle me in my little pocket out of the wind.

The sky though. That far north the sun sets and rises at such a flat angle to the horizon that dusk and dawn are an hour or more long show. Each minute, each small phase to be savored, witnessed and in this case , today in my words, shared.

Once fully dark,  the stars,,,, how to tell you what they look like so far from city lights?, a fresh northerly wind scrubbing the air clear. The Milky Way is NOT milky. Tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of individual pin pricks of light, so many, so many. The large stars and the constellations are even difficult to distinguish in the riot of the millions and billions. You can see them all! There was no milkiness or haziness of light that night, every grain of sand in that profuse beach was an individual. Every grain. And depth.  The near stars looked nearer, the far stars looked farther, the sky no longer two dimensional, but whole and deep.

Nights like that are made to be shared. My poor words can only do so much to take you there. The chill in mid July, the repetitive motion of the seas, the sounds we have spoken of, the water sliding by, wet glass, the hours long, and ever changing sky, the physical of grasping canvas cold and iron hard in the wind and bending it to your will. And all of this, all of the different instruments in our orchestra, all of the woodwinds, strings, brass, and percussion, all happening at the same time, all night long.  Not separate paragraphs as here, but all at the same time.

There is only wonderment out there for me, and this season I begin, already, to miss it.


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That sounds lovely. I don't sail but I do go top ship at night when on cruises just to lie down and look up at the stars. I don't see so many in the Orlando urban area at dark so it is fun to do.
"To see what I see, maybe feel what I feel."
You got this particular job done and done well. Oddly enough, you paraphrase Joseph Conrad in one of his forewards.
Thank you for the sailing fix!
Hello Dorinda,

I am in Orlando 3 or 4 times per year. So much developement, so many lights. Your solution up on deck sounds much like mine.

Hello Stephanie,
I am very glad you caught this, sailors have to stick together. Joseph Conrad? Which book? I'd like to see.