|"Black... as the Night... is."|
Ken Nordine's Word Jazz
The thing about night sailing is the darkness.
We're visual, and mostly diurnal creatures. We lack tapeta lucida - the reflective layer which produces spooky eyeshine, and amplifies night vision acuity. We say that we are benighted, that darkness is palpable. We don't like to be kept in the dark. We huddle by our fires and peer apprehensively into the black heart of old Mother Night.
But once we step away from the light... shiver a for a bit in the sensory vacuum... a funny thing happens. Darkness eases back from us a bit - loosens its grip. We become aware of the world around us. Our irises dilate, hearing sharpens, nostrils flare, skin thrills to the slightest change of temperature or humidity, the faintest caress of breeze. Our minds sift subtle messages lost to a brain awash in visual abundance.
We begin to find our way.
Our sailing tools extend the reach of our senses. With our compass, we detect the orientation of the Earth's magnetic field. We can sound the sea's bottom when it comes within our reach. We resound our horn's blare from cliff and stone, inferring their presence from the timbre of echo.
When calm, the surface of water is reflective... a tapetum lucidum about the boat. Closing on shore, one may watch the dim, argent sheen of the sky reflected in the water round. Straining into the blackness beyond is of no avail. But the impenetrable silhouette of rock or shore or kelp, intruding on this circle of protection, announces itself clearly, black on silver.
Generally, the land is dark and all but its horizon obscured. We work our way along, sometimes oh so close in, to separate a feature from the cloaking, black backdrop of hills. Once silhouetted against the sky, it serves as a waypost. Then repeat for the next stretch, and again.
Watershed valleys open, when in line with us, and close as we pass, as do channels, passages, straits and entrances. Each provides a line of position, and tick off the miles along the coast.
To find distance off, we often sail by the hand.
At arm's length, we lay our hand 'on the water', so well as we can judge. Little finger resting at the waterline, hand held horizontal and open, our palm facing us. We want our upper, thumb edge at the tops of the shoreline trees. If the trees overtop our hand, we're too close in and head out; if the hand is taller than the trees, we're too far out and head in.
A bit of low cloud, flat foreshore or a touch of moon or stars can show that first row quite well. If not, no matter, we end up a bit farther out, in deeper, safer water, our thumb at the ridgeline.
We practice this by daylight, to get the feel for offhand distance. We're in a good area for this. The trees are of a fairly uniform height and stand cheek on jowl along almost the entire coast. But the method can be adapted for most any coast with clear water paralleling the shore... how many fingers, or hands to the common, distinguishable feature? See what works for you.
Another way to use these relative angles is when approaching shore. A feature of a given height, looming over us, against the sky at an angle of 45deg, means we're as distant as it is tall. They loom higher, we're closer; lower and we're farther out. Very useful when creeping into a tight cove. Again, daytime practice develops a feel for what's going on, transferable to that nighttime world of shadows.
One of our best nights ever was sailing, northbound in Chatham, toward the wedding of two dear friends.
It was August. The wind was against us, some 20kts on the nose. We lashed the tiller for long, timed tacks, deep into Chatham and back inshore. Pillowed and warmed under blankets, we snuggled together with Scuppy (our longtime, canine companion for whom this was among his last nights with us). We drank the glory of the night in grateful drafts.
Under a full and brilliant moon, we sailed through pockets of cool air, scented with salt and sea, alternating with blushes of warm, redolent of spruce duff and summer flowers. All round the boat, bioluminescence lit the chop in tongues of cold flame. Above, the Leonid meteor shower serrated the sky. A rare display of summertime northern lights teased ghostly veils amongst the wonders.
We lay back, hour after hour, tack on tack, basking in the glory of it all. Humbled and awestruck by this onslaught of beauty.
Just before the first light of pre-dawn, we fetched our anchorage, a notch in the western wall, marked from afar by the silhouette of a mountain with a steep shoulder to the north. We sailed in close and offset a bit south, ears open for the sound of waves along the cliffy shore. Once we found the kelp line, we turned north and followed the wall until the shoulder of the entrance loomed against the meteor rent sky. Rounded the point and followed the edge to a square turn at the back of the cove.
About this time, we reached for our lead line. GONE! During a fit of cleaning while waiting for tide earlier that day, we must have bumped it overboard! Our long reach into the deeps was AWOL.
The tricky bit was avoiding the shoals to port and shoreside, and an exposed rock to starboard.
Favoring the shoals and tapping our way with the pole to port, we followed the shore until the rock loomed clear against the night. Sailing free once more, we rounded a last point - holding its treetops to 45deg - and into our tidal creek of destination. Anke, at the bow, called out the tack when our silver circle encountered one shore or the other.
As a final gift, salmon massing in the creek to spawn shot from our path as we advanced, visible only as submarine Roman Candles; as fountains of sparks in the night.
When we'd gone as far as we dared, we eased the anchor over the bow.
Safe and sound, snug and smug.
PS. See LISTEN UP for a trick to enhance hearing; very useful at night!