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Though my soul may set in darkness, It will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly To be fearful of the night.
An old astronomer to his pupil, Galileo
August 16, 2003
The navigator's sun is the same radiating sun that warms us here in the Octopus Islands and makes spectacular summer days from rise to set. The celestial navigator describes the sun as being self-luminous, a blazing disk that makes the stars invisible in the daytime. The sun is the sky's dominant feature that forever follows the same precise, predictable, trustworthy path about the celestial dome and allows the navigator to position his boat on a chart. With a sextant, a chronometer, an almanac and a chart - I can say I am right here on this earth on this spherical earth suspended somewhere in the cosmic ocean. To this day the celestial navigator, somewhat like religious man, considers the earth as the non-moving center of the universe itself. Not just the earth physically, for even earth has dimension in the universe. The center of the navigator's universe is actually a pinpoint, a mathematical dot located at the very center of the spherical earth [actually it's an oblate spheroid, but "spherical" works best]. From that mathematical dot the altitude of a star, a planet, or the moon can be measured and timed exactly. I know this can be imaginary and somewhat abstract, but measuring the sun - and stars and planets from the deck of a small boat is an ongoing fascination.
Ancient peoples tried to reduce the mystery of what they saw in the skies. They believed that the night sky was a dome. The gods lived in their palaces in the heavens, behind the dome, where they too had fires to cook food and to provide warmth. To mortal man on earth the stars were the light from the gods' many fires that happened to shine through small openings in the dark celestial dome. The gods lived luxurious lives, so for amusement they would sometimes throw little pieces of fire, coals, to see if they could hit the earth. Earthbound mortals believed that those fast moving lights in the sky were shooting stars. The American Indians believed that the Milky Way was a pathway - a pathway taken by the dead on their long path to Heaven. The bright stars were the campfires where the souls warmed themselves along the way.
Tonight, a clear night, the stars of the "Summer Triangle" dominate the sky. To the south the triangle shows Altair in constellation Aquila. The Romans said Aquila was an eagle sent to earth by Jupiter to obtain a replacement for Hebe, the hostess to the gods. Hebe had twisted her ankle and could not serve wine. At Jupiter's request, Altair dove from Mt. Olympus to earth. The eagle selected handsome Ganymede who was helping his father tend the fields with his father. From amongst the mortals on earth, Ganymede was lifted to a station in the heavens as the new cup-bearer and wine pourer and thereby achieved immortality. For certain, today's astronomer measures the universe more accurately, but he still weaves the metaphors of ancient man in his descriptions.
Just a month ago we gave up our attempt to go a little way up the Vancouver Island west coast. After my sixty-four years of life, I have finally gained the wisdom of not contesting the weather. I go sailing when nature's forces are with the boat, not against the boat. Fog, opposing current, "gale" winds amidst a prediction that the weather was going to deteriorate are features that bring out my better judgement don't go! A younger man could have made the trip, I suppose, but my bones need more comfort at this age. We turned around to the inside, heading back to Sidney with the wind at our back. We re-provisioned in Sidney and then made a passage to the perfect protection of Silva Bay where we rested, we hiked onshore, we set the crab trap and we ate fresh crab. In three days we departed Silva Bay bucking choppy head seas, and for eight hours followed a course across the Straight of Georgia rounding Sarah Point, the entrance to Desolation Sound. Desolation Sound and the Discovery Islands, with bright skies and calm waters, have enough secluded anchorages to satisfy the wants of every small boat sailor for his lifetime - plus another.
We have transited several anchorages up and are nearing the end of this summer's cruise. We have set the hook far inside a small cove in the Octopus Islands where our arrival was delayed by a passage through another of nature's conniving devils, Upper Rapids. For some devious reason, these fast water areas are interspersed between the serene anchorages. But the fast water beast can be handled if you time things right and, very slowly, tiptoe through. Transit at a time when there is only slack, still, motionless, unmoving current conditions. You should check the book and see no surface swirls, rivulets or mini currents passing each other in opposite directions. When the water looks comatose, go ahead. That delay forced us to arrive at the Octopus Island approach in the evening, at lowest tide.
The somewhat unique, preferred entrance to this Octopus Island group is through a half-mile of narrow but somewhat straight, trench-like channel. At low tide the channel narrows to just 40 feet in places. The surrounding terrain is grassy and forested but the underlay is a craggy rock from some geologic upheaval a few eons ago. On the "trench" sides are irregular, stubby short cliffs and boulder outcroppings. Surface depressions have collected silt and soil and now support a diminutive growth of red bark Manzanitas, grass and the common pine and fir trees. In Southern California this would be called a lush forest. Here it is a somewhat atypical, stunted mini forest albeit with a richness all its own. The sparse "pygmy" trees are of little interest to the forester and probably have never been cut or "harvested". This just may be primal forest growth.
I feel that if the keel can clear the bottom by just two or three feet, we are safe. A near miss is as good as a mile, so we motor along fast enough to maintain steerage, but slow enough to minimize damage should we strike. Inside, we bear to starboard, pass one cove, pass a trio of islands, slip past an underwater rock shelf and sneak up to the head of this peaceful cove. In windless, flat water with no sign of civilization, the anchor sets eight feet down in a mud bottom. The islands screen our view of the few neighboring boats so only their mastheads can be seen above the trees.
The mind can go free in a peaceful environment like this. To an admirer of the heavens these nights are perhaps more "brilliant" than the days. The deck is still warm from the day's sun, the night sky is clear and the stars look larger than tiny pinpoints. Even I can sense the sky's motion to the west. The planets shine by reflected light, and day-by-day they seem to move amongst the stars. I have to check to see what planet is visible and where it will be next. Planet Venus is close, appears larger and is visible even in daytime. Mars is strikingly red and extremely close this year. Jupiter is physically the largest and is, at times, the brightest. The moon, dimensionally the smallest of the visible celestial bodies, looks to be as big as the sun and ostensibly sprints around the earth. The whole bunch rises in the east and moves westward across the dome ultimately to set below the horizon. What could be more spectacular than what I am looking at right now!
In the warm evening twilight, lean against the mast and lift the sextant even with the horizon [should there be a horizon]. Try in your mind for a moment to set aside the imaginary fables of the Greeks and Romans, and sight a bright star in the mirror. Gently ease the arc until that star and horizon meet. Swing the sextant in a small arc, side to side and affirm just a little star-to-horizon contact. Click the watch and figure that at that moment it is possible to reduce one tiny part of the universe to numbers - numbers that will reveal a fixed mark on a chart showing just where I am or was a few moments ago. Is there a sailor who has done that without feeling a relationship with the mathematical harmony of the skies?
Today, most sailors laugh when you show an interest in the sun and stars when you navigate. Use dividers, parallel rules, a sextant, an almanac and study Bowditch's American Practical Navigator, and you may as well be Captain Ahab seeking a glimpse of the great white whale. Who cares about measuring the sun, moon or stars for a split second fix? Today's sailor can flip a switch and a phosphorescent screen displays, ongoing, the ship's latitude and longitude a fix that's updated every few seconds. On the phosphorescent screen is a small red boat icon, a little electron boat that mimics the vessel's course and direction. That little icon is you yourself upon a phosphorescent sea. Usually it the electronic gadgetry - all goes well. I admit that, and I relish the electronic nav-aids when they work. However, perchance, salt air infuses the electrical innards and a tiny crystal of salt grows somewhere, a tiny crystal of salt that bridges two electrical conductors and allows bad electrons to rupture the flow of good electrons. That's the electrical engineer's equivalent of a severed jugular or major bowel obstruction. The plastic box and its phosphorescent screen, now full of randomly plummeting electrons, goes dark and incredibly ignorant in under a nanosecond.
I don't put all my trust into what is technologically new, yet I'm not advocating a return of gas street lamps, cobblestone roads, wooden ships and lashings to quell insurrections. Just a word for the study of piloting, dead reckoning and celestial navigation techniques that are part of that noble, honorable, romantic, AND reliable discipline studied and refined for centuries. Therefore, I have resurrected my copy of George W. Mixter's Primer of Navigation my worn book that belonged to my father. For just today, never mind Galileo's declaration that the earth is not the center of the universe and that the earth rotates about the sun. Never mind that artificial satellites can send signals to electronic receivers aboard a boat. Never mind that the electronic GPS can position the boat within 30 feet. Today I'll be G. W. Mixter, smoking a pipe, standing on the deck of his wood sailboat, Terragram, wearing sea boots and a foul weather coat. I'll be studying "proper" navigation. Beside my cup of coffee in the cockpit are brass dividers, bakelite parallel rules and a hard chart printed on paper. These are the revered tools that aid in the art of directing a vessel. A blast of salt spray won't harm my vessel's charted position for it is a solid pencil dot inside a small circle drawn on a salt crusted paper chart. 'Tis every sailor's duty to keep a sharp lookout toward the horizon. Up the ratlines and enter the crow's nest where 'ye can see. If 'ye should glimpse the white whale from there, sing out!
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