ISBJORN Trans-Atlantic p. 1 // Full Lunar Eclipse Offshore Africa

Stock photo.

“Andy. Pssst. Andy! The eclipse is starting.”

0345 ship’s time. Etta gently woke me up as her and David were wrapping up their watch, while Walter & Fred were getting dressed to start theirs. ISBJORN was blasting southwest under spinnaker, making 9.5 knots in the little surfing runs. The skies had parted just after sunset, when I made the happy realization that the lunar eclipse would actually happen tonight, and that I had been wrong about it happening the night before (thanks to a timezone miscalculation).

I was instantly awake, having been in a deep, comfortable sleep, but excited to see the start of something I’m not sure I’d ever seen before, ashore or otherwise. And to get a full & total lunar eclipse on a crystal clear night offshore...with the spinnaker flying and the boat on course, and a warm northerly breeze....well that’s just silly cool.

I put my head out the companionway and saw the leading edge of the earth’s shadow just beginning to take a bite out of the brilliant full moon. I made a pot of coffee for Mia, Walter & I, plus a cup of green tea for Fred. We shut off the tri-color and the instrument lights, put a towel over the VHF and started sailing by feel, wanting to black out any source of artificial light to give ourselves the best show.

By the time I poured the coffee, the moon was half covered in shadow. I rousted Mia from her bunk, she couldn’t miss this. We gathered in the cockpit, nobody saying much except for the occasional “wow” as we waited and watched the moon slowly dim. The occasional puffy trade wind cloud would block our view, but only for a moment. 

Just as the last sliver of silver light disappeared into red shade, a large shooting star streaked across the sky off the starboard beam. Everyone saw it, as we were all already focused intently on the heavens. It was one of those rare shooting stars that seem to go on forever, one where the first person to spot it actually has time to get everyone else’s attention and point it out before it vanishes. Finally, whatever it was, burned up in the atmosphere and disappeared in a multicolored flash. When we looked back towards the moon it was completely in shadow.

This might sound strange, but looking at the fully eclipsed moon in the binoculars, I could really see how round it is. The shade gave the moon more texture, more depth than you’re used to seeing, even on the brightest of full moon nights, and looking at it through the magnification really made me feel physically close to it. Like, it really felt not that far away. Instead of the moon as a 2D painting on the same black canvas as the stars, it felt now like a 3D thing and much closer to earth than the background night sky. Which, obviously, is precisely what it is! Maybe it’s not so crazy to think we, as a society, have actually been there and back again. Just then it felt reasonable.

I also wondered if they can see this from space. Presumably the ISS will pass over the Atlantic at some point tonight and they’ll get the same view we have (well, certainly more brilliant). I want to see what those astronauts see from up there. I often compare ocean sailing to the closest us ‘normal’ humans will get to space travel, and tonight that feeling’s stronger than ever as I look towards the night sky. Behind the port quarter two planets are rising, bright enough with the moon in shadow to cast a brilliant glow on the water, and easily mistakable for a ship on the horizon. What a night.

As I type this, the eclipse is still happening. The moon’s been in full shadow now for an hour, and it’s got some time still to go. Mia’s gone back to bed, as she has the 0800 morning watch. So have David & Etta. I felt the need to immediately sit down and describe this before it drifts into memory. I stuck my head up now and the moon is a deep red, just it’s top edge and a bit on the right side of it brighter than the rest. Imagine what the cavemen must have thought at times like this? Right here and now, with no TV, no Internet, no distractions, we’re getting an extra special show and all of us can enjoy it in silence and solitude.

Besides the moon, we had a brilliant sunset earlier in the day. There were lots of clouds around, so we never saw the sun actually dip beneath the horizon, but for a time, while it hovered behind a cloud bank, the most spectacular sunbeams broke through and painted the ocean in front of us in a magical, religious display of light. 

I’m not the first person to think or say this, but gosh, if you’re spiritually inclined, you can sure find God on the high seas in a lot of places.