Wednesday, December 11, 2013
By GAIL RICE
Some people live for overnight passages; others consider them a necessary evil. And the experiences people relate about their overnight trips vary as much as the motivation that drives them to transit the waters in the dark. There are a few reasons boaters find themselves cruising through the night. Boaters from southern New England or places even farther away will sail or power north and east through the night to maximize the time spent in Maine's legendary cruising grounds.
A rising moon, sunsets and sunrises are among the delights of cruising through the night, but strange sounds from creatures you can’t see can be a little scary.
Staff file photo
Some sailors look forward to a long-distance race, including night sailing, and its test of navigation, endurance and intestinal fortitude. They'll come back to certain regattas year after year.
For me, and probably for many others, overnight passages provide a mixed bag of experiences and the emotions they trigger.
The nighttime passage begins, appropriately enough, with the beauty of an ocean sunset. Adding to the spectacle is a wave of emotions that can range from serenity and appreciation of nature to apprehension of what the nighttime hours might bring.
The moonrise can be equally beautiful, particularly if the moon is full and promises to provide at least some illumination. A new or crescent moon offers a different kind of beauty, as the stars and Milky Way become even more spectacular.
As the light fades and darkness takes over, a sailor's other senses start to compensate for what the eyes cannot pick out.
Splashes from a pod of porpoises or breeching whales, for example, can seem louder and are definitely more startling when the critters haven't been spotted first.
Also more pronounced are the salt smell of the air, the boat's response to adjustments of the helm, and the draw of the wind (or lack of it) on the sails.
Along with senses of hearing, smell and touch, the sense of imagination can sometimes be triggered by the most benign events. Add dying winds and a thick fog that cuts limited nighttime visibility to virtually nothing, and the mind can really play tricks on even an experienced sailor.
Such conditions can (and have) made an overhead pass by a gull or tern seem more like an attack by a pterodactyl. Of course, considering a black-backed gull rivals certain pterodactyl species in size, that may not be too much of a stretch.
After a while, the overactive imagination can run its course, leading to the other extreme -- intense boredom. This can be exacerbated if you are working long and hard to pass a certain waypoint on your journey.
For us, during this year's Northeast Harbor Race, that waypoint was the light on Matinicus Rock. At 90 feet above sea level, the light can be seen for many, many miles, so we were watching it for hours. I've had my fill of that light for a while.
Long, quiet night passages can give a sailor the mistaken impression that he or she is alone on a vast sea. Don't be fooled.
I had that very feeling during one nighttime watch while my husband was below catching a much-deserved nap. The Matinicus Rock light was still flashing in the distance, the wind had died, the knot meter was showing goose eggs, I was running out of ideas for keeping the boat moving, and consequently, I was feeling very, very alone.
Then a sea bird started vocalizing and splashing in the water nearby. I never saw the creature, so I have no idea what it was. But it reminded me that first, I was not alone, and second, I was most likely invading its territory, so I'd better behave. Its antics continued for a while -- long enough to keep me entertained until the breeze filled in and the boat started to move again.
As spectacular as the sunset can be, the sunrise is even more so as it marks a new day with new possibilities. Best of all, it gives sailors enough light to see the wind on the water and pick the best course. We can also see the whales breech and the gulls swoop, which is not only fun to watch but reduces the pterodactyl effect.
But for the more sensible among us, the setting sun and nighttime sky are best observed from the cockpit as the boat bobs at its mooring or anchor -- at a time and place where it's OK to relax, close your eyes and get a decent night's sleep.
Gail Rice of Freeport and her husband, Randy, race and cruise their Pearson 30 sloop on Casco Bay. Contact her at: