Moonlight Sonata


I realize it’s 3am, but this is the kind of night you dream about — well, that I dream about — as a sailor.

I went topside at 11:30pm, half an hour before our midnight watch, to see what the weather was like, figure out which clothes I would need for the midnight watch, and find out why we were still on a starboard tack headed southeast. Emerging from the hatch, I was greeted by a cloudless sky filled with a myriad of stars and a daytime-bright, almost-full moon. Not a manmade light was in sight from horizon to horizon: no ships, no oil rigs, nothing. And to further improve the scene, seas were calm and the wind was a nice and steady 20-ish knots. Oh yeah…it was setting up for one of those perfect midnight watches.

For the first hour of our watch, we continued southeast with the nearly full moon to the south off our starboard beam. The white moonlight reflecting off the water was bright enough to read by (almost) and served as a shiny, shimmering axis, a rod used by a puppeteer to control a marionette to guide us along our track.

It was really too bright a moon for deep-sky stargazing, but away from city lights all the big-name constellations and sky patterns were readily visible. Lyra, Cygnus and Aquila and the summer triangle of their brightest stars Vega, Deneb and Altair were slowly setting in the west signaling the winding down of summer. Off our stern, the Big and Little Dippers pointed the way north and showed us from where we’d just come. Overhead, all of the players from the Perseus myth were present: Perseus himself, along with Andromeda, Cassiopeia and Pegasus. King of the gods and planets, Jupiter blazed brightly in the southeast while just a touch north, rising in the east, the Pleiades and Taurus the bull heralded the coming of autumn…and winter beyond.

Just before 1am, we tacked over for the straight-line run toward Newcastle. And though clouds started rolling in at that point, it was no matter: the continued spectacular sailing — seven-plus knots and right on the ideal track for our destination — and the joy of an hour of perfect, dark skies kept the high intact. Even the Finnish sourpuss exalted in the conditions, especially when Polar Bear hit eight knots while he was at the helm.

The spell finally broke a bit, not long before we finished our watch, as the loom of the lights of Newcastle and an antenna somewhere along the coast came into view. As if to counter the intrusion, Orion began his climb out of the sea back behind us to the east.

Whew. Sorry about that. Sorry to wax rhapsodic to the point of sounding like a greeting card or one of those posters teenagers put on their wall when they hit their I-wanna-be-taken-seriously phase, but it really was a perfect way to wind up the trip — that was likely our final watch as our ETA is 9:30-ish in the morning and we’re not on again until 10.

It was the kind of nighttime watch I love and never get enough of; the kind that makes me want to head right back to the States, buy my own boat and take off. Relax, Mom…not that that will actually happen: I don’t think I could get any boat ready to head to the Caribbean in time for a Nov. 1 departure, and after that it’s getting a little late in the season.

But a night like this (along with yesterday’s rollicking sleigh ride) goes a long way toward redeeming — or at least helping me overlook — some of the shortcomings that have occurred on this summer trip. Combine these couple of days with the sights and scenes of the Shetlands, the Lofoten, Iceland and Greenland, and some of the great people I’ve met along the way, and it really does make for a summer of adventure. Perhaps even the summer of my life.

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