Monday, October 1, 2012

Starry Night

From the mailbag:

“Sometime in one of your posts I wish you would describe the night sky on one of your passages as seen on a cloudless, moonless night. (…) How are your navigation skills by the stars?  (…) Please put this on your list for future description - I would be very interested.  Maybe also you could provide a description for landlubbers as to how you do navigate accurately across such vast distances. Are you ever looking for a tiny island that is supposed to be there but isn't?”

The Papillon Crew aims to please.

Long-time readers may recall that we visited Cape Canaveral during the early days of our voyage.  We met an astronaut, saw a rocket launch, touched moon rock, and generally sucked the marrow out of the Kennedy Space Center.  More recently, we followed the Mars Curiosity landing with avid interest.  (In fact, it was the one bit of “news” we’ve shown any interest in since we moved aboard two years ago.)  We are keen on space.

I'm holding the space shuttle!

I have two clear memories of the night sky from my youth.  Once, we were staying with friends at their cottage in Georgian Bay.  It was August, and the Perseid meteor shower was in full force.  We lay on the dock for hours watching the shooting stars, and trying to forget the terrier-sized dock spiders lurking below us.

The second time was my sole experience with winter camping.  In sixth grade, my class went north for a handful of days in February.  We played a game of hide-and-seek one evening, and were perfectly able to navigate the camp using the light from the stars shining on the thick piles of snow.

In both cases, but particularly in the second, the stars filled the sky from horizon to horizon.  No city lights spoiled the view.  It was purely marvelous.

Offshore, the stars are not only beautiful, but serve a practical function.  On passage, I take the midnight to 4 am watch.  My first act, after checking for other boats in the area, is to see which stars are out, and to make sure they are where I expect.  Aside from being fun, it is a handy check that we are still sailing in the right direction.

Of course, we are mere dilettantes in this regard.  For the real deal, search out a video called “Inside Outside”.  It was made by two Frenchmen (twins) who built themselves a tiny boat, then sailed it 4300 miles across the Atlantic from the Canaries to Desirada in Guadeloupe (an island only 6 miles long).  They had no systems or instruments aboard – no fuel, no GPS, not even a sextant.  They navigated solely by the stars, knowing that keeping certain constellations in a certain part of the sky would let them maintain the correct latitude.  Even cloudy nights didn´t get in their way, and they hit their tiny target bang on.  Now that is hard core.

But I have strayed from the original question.  What do the stars look like at sea?

No doubt many of you are, like your correspondent, opthalmologically-challenged.  I got my first pair of glasses during university.  I thought I could see pretty well, but the board was a little fuzzy from the back of the lecture hall.  After getting my new glasses, I walked out of the optician’s and the first thing I saw was a tree.  And I could not believe how many leaves there were on that tree; suddenly I could pick out every vein on every individual leaf.

Seeing a sky full of stars is much the same.  It is mind-boggling the first time – there are so many more points of light than you had imagined, and in so many colours, too.  It is such a glory that you begin to resent the moonrise because it obscures some of the stars.

How, then, do you pick out constellations from such a field?  Much like moving to a new town, things become much easier once you make your first friend.  For me, that was the Southern Cross (as ably introduced to me by Stylish).  Not only does it show you south (and never underestimate the value of a hint like that at sea), but it is very close to Alpha and Beta Centauri.  From there you can build the Centaur.  Then off to the side is the Scorpion, and on we trot.

Stylish got a telescope for Christmas last year.  We can’t use it at sea because the boat isn’t steady enough, but we had an excellent time looking at the craters of the waxing moon while we stayed on Olivier’s motu.  Thankfully, there wasn’t much light pollution in the Tuamotus.

And, finally, our questioner asked how we navigate.  This being the modern age, we use electronic charts to begin with.  We have navigation software on a computer, and a stand-alone GPS unit with excellent charts.  We have paper charts as a backup for the inevitable day that we lose our electrical systems completely (due to lightning or what have you).  When we plan a route, we set our course such that, if disaster occurred and someone fell asleep on watch (or was injured, or there was another emergency), we wouldn´t hit land if we failed to make a turn at the right time.

It is worth saying that, as wonderful as those tools are, you must use your own eyeballs.  We always check that islands and lights are where they belong.  We are vigilant about spotting reefs.  We´ve had our electronic charts be off by 60 meters or more; sometimes, the computer claims we are sailing on land.  We don´t enter new ports at night, because even a small coral head could get us.  As we navigated the lagoons of the Tuamotus, I stayed up the mast in the bosun´s chair.  I wore my polarized lenses and helped Papillon to avoid the shallow reefs that were everywhere.  Trusting the charts would have run us aground long ago.  In short, charts are good, but eyes are better.

So the night sky at sea is a case of, “I once was blind, but now I see.”  As much as I look forward to visiting the Hobbit country sometimes known as New Zealand, I don’t look forward to losing the stars.  Maybe we’ll have some luck on top of a mountain somewhere.


Kate said...

Stylish, in that photo you look exactly like your mother as a little girl. So much so, that I should be Indy in that picture.

Great post as always.

love Katie

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. I too remember that time in Georgean Bay on the rocks & also the time we lay down on the road in Kruger National Park to view the night sky.

Stylish is far more adept than I at spotting those important marker stars. Bravo! Another important reading life-skill.
love Grannie

Anonymous said...

I remember both of those as well. :)