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Amid the quiet and the dark in the cathedral of the stars

2014 October 1
We are racing, though you wouldn’t know it from the demeanor of the crew. 

The six of us standing the midnight to 3 a.m. watch are virtually silent. When a word is spoken it is barely louder than a whisper. When the spinnaker trimmer calls “trim” from the windward midships deck she elevates her voice just enough to be heard in the cockpit. The grinder on duty responds with a turn of the winch so gentle the clink of the pawls is more musical than grating. 

It is as though we are trying not to intrude in a hushed place where the loudest sounds are the muted slaps of wavelets on the bow and the bubbly gurgle at the stern as the boat slips through the water at 6 knots.

But it is more than that. It is also the sky that has us behaving as though we are in a church. In a way, we are. We are in the cathedral of the stars, and we are in awe.   

 I am thankful—you could say I thank my lucky stars—that I have a sailboat to take me to places that let me see the cosmos that astronomer Carl Sagan described as ‘all that is or ever will be.’

My mates are trying to concentrate on the trim of the mainsail, staysail and spinnaker—without resorting to a flashlight, which they know would be a sin against the purity of this night—but their eyes frequently stray farther aloft.

Against a dome of pure black darkness, the uncountable stars and planets of the Milky Way glow in a dazzling infinity of spots and smears of white light. 

I am at the helm, and I am supposed to keep my eyes on the blinking wind-angle and boatspeed numbers on the mast displays and on the star near the horizon that I’m using as a steering reference point, but I can’t resist looking up at the show the galaxy has staged for this privileged audience far from the loud, lighted shore. 

I am reminded that one of the rewards of sailing I cherish most is its ability to take us to this world that is uncorrupted by the glare and the din.

I live 25 miles from the nearest big city, and nearly two miles from the nearest small town, yet when I go to the front-yard bluff high over the shore to behold the night sky, I can find only a fraction of the stars and planets I saw on that night passage.

On that racing interlude we saw thousands of stars. There are places, a scientific journal has reported, especially in the eastern half of the U.S. and in the U.K. and Europe, from which as few as 10 stars are visible on a clear night. This is a consequence of light pollution, the surfeit of artificial light sent up by the developed world that dulls the night sky. 

We need manmade light, of course, but not as much of it as we throw around. The strip mall closed for the night but slathered in garish light, the street needlessly illuminated to the scale of an airport runway, the McMansion bathed by floodlights as an exercise in vanity and other illumination excesses add to the ever-growing glare and take away from the majesty of the night sky.

Various ills have been ascribed to light pollution, including disrupting ecosystems, confusing migratory animals, making humans sick with various ailments and damaging our ability to sleep. Some of those concerns may be valid, but to me the prime evil is that the overlighting of the land is turning off humans’ view of the universe that spawned our planet.

I am thankful—you could say I thank my lucky stars—that I have a sailboat to take me to places that let me see the cosmos that astronomer Carl Sagan described as “all that is or ever will be.” 

The same goes for the quiet—it’s a gift from sailing. 

Away from where sailboats go, the quiet is a disappearing commodity, replaced by the ubiquitous sound track in virtually every place the public visits, from restaurants plain and fancy to your dentist’s office, by neighbors gunning their riding mowers around their properties at the dinner hour, by people who buy adult toys—motorcycles and cigarette boats and their ilk—expressly to command attention by making
outrageous noise.

Silence, it seems, is regarded as an unacceptable void that must be filled with sound even if it’s only noise. The precise German engineers who insulated the car I drive from most road, wind and engine noise also perversely programmed the radio to turn on automatically every time the engine is started. I can disable this irritation, but any adjustment made to any function—say turning up the AC fan—switches the radio back on. I’ve received the message: There’s no escaping the racket on land, not even in my car.

I won’t be starting a movement to stamp out light and noise pollution; I know losing causes when I see them. I’m quite sure the rising cost of butter is widely viewed as a more serious threat to civilization than the growing glare obscuring the night sky. And I concede that many people would be uncomfortable if not depressed without the noise they’ve come to depend on as a constant companion in daily life.

So I will be content to endure the ever-present clamor and the dulled heavens as long as I can sail away from time to time to find what John Masefield wrote about sailing under the sky and amid the sounds of the sea in Sea Fever: “the lonely sea and the sky … a star to steer her by … the wind’s song … the seagulls crying.”

There are many reasons to love sailing. None is more compelling than that it lets us escape the din and the glare.