It's a rare moment when you can confidently say that you've found your place in the universe. It was about 11pm, the moon had not yet risen, the sky was alight with billions of stars, the wind was on the starboard quarter, we were making nine knots, and I was at the helm, alone, mesmerized by the phosphorescence making fireworks in our wake. I'd found nirvana.
It was a tiring afternoon. Immediately after sending off our last bunch of kids, we left the dock, yet again, bound this time for Dominica, and this time without kids on board. I had lucked into delivering a Lagoon 440 from St Martin to Dominica, with my dive instructor Shanon. The quicker we got there the more free time I'd have to explore the island before picking up my next group of little angels. We set sail just outside the exceedingly narrow channel in Anse Marcel (so narrow, in fact, that in a cat you have to straddle one of the greens when you exit the breakwater). Anguilla channel is notoriously windy, always on the nose, and creates a strong, foul current. Beating out of it, especially in a cat, is challenging.
But we were not in a hurry. No, with over 200 miles to sail, we simply enjoyed ourselves, enjoyed the peace and quiet of no kids on the boat, enjoyed the beautiful weather. As the sun set behind us in the west behind a panorama of billowing clouds, we tacked one final time to clear St Barth's. I took the helm for the first watch while Shanon escaped below for some much-needed rest.
I taught Shanon about nautical twilight, that magical time of day when the first few stars come out, as the sky turns the deepest blue as the last bit of sunlight fades beyond the horizon. Before GPS this was the navigator's hour, the time when the horizon is still visible in the waning sunlight and the brightest stars peek through the atmosphere, allowing him to get an accurate fix. To most modern sailors, this time no longer matters, for we simply jump below and take a fix off of that deadly accurate machine called a GPS. It's ironic that for centuries we used the heavens to find our way - now, technology has pierced the night sky and we receive our positions yet again from the heavens, the man-made stars called satellites that float around in space.
Time does not exist at sea at night. The minutes that passed could have lasted for weeks, the hours, centuries. Yet they passed in the blink of an eye. As the boat sailed herself on a fast broad reach, there wasn't much to do to pass the time. Trim the sails a bit here or there, take a quick reef as the eastern sky seems to be darkening, plot our position, make some coffee. Enjoy the night, enjoy the silence. Live.
As my watch entered it's final hour, I fought hard to stay awake. Sailing at night is so rythmic, so enchanting that it invites peace, invites sleep. You must fight it off. I found myself in the galley nearly every 10 minutes making a cup of tea, loaded with honey. I trimmed the sails when they didn't need trimming. I sang to myself. Anything to stay awake. I found enjoyment in this challenge.
I woke Shanon 10 minutes before her watch began so she could adjust to the darkness, rub the sleep out of her eyes. Shanon was not a sailor before this summer. She is now. By 2am, after my first watch, sleep came easy. It came easy because I trusted Shanon to sail the boat well, but more importantly, to wake me up if anything went askew. Though by then, I'd become so attuned to the boat that had anything really been askew, I would have undoubtedly woken up on my own. Sleeping under sail is incredible. So close to the hull, you can feel the water rushing by, hear every groan and creak of the boat as she pounds her way south. You can really feel the boat laying there in your bunk. It's a wonderful way to get to know a boat better...simply listen, simply feel.
My three-hour respite from the duties on deck felt like an eternity, and upon waking I had no idea where I was. Strangely, I felt more rested than I do at home in nice warm bed after 8 hours of cozy slumber. I awoke with renewed vigor. We were still sailing, 12 hours after having departed St Martin. I'd never woke before while still under sail. I checked the chart and was astounded by our progress. Every hour a new little dot appeared on the chart, nearly 9 miles distant from the previous one. Montserrat was only 5 miles off our starboard bow.
It was 2am at the start of my second watch, and the moon had risen, now nearly full. We sailed into it's reflection upon the ocean, and it illuminated the clouds in a way I'd never seen before. The clouds towered over the boat, and seemed enormously high in the soft light of the moon. I put another reef in, two now, as light squalls marched in from the west, eerily ominous as they glowed in the moonlight. The stars disappeared behind the veil of the moon.
Another three hours passed, another millenia gone in the blink of an eye. I found myself perched at the helm, looking aft at our wake. The sense of speed while watching astern was astounding, the power of the boat evident with each passing bit of foam. We were flying, now on a beam reach, right on the rhumb line.