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The stars remain a sailors’ guide and good company

2008 June 17
Why are you sleeping outside?" she asked. "I'm not," I said.

"OK, let me rephrase. Why are you lying on your back on the lawn chaise at midnight?"
"I'm looking at the stars."

She made one of her patented snorting sounds and disappeared back inside, leaving me alone with a black sky pierced with zillions of stars.

I love the stars. My dad was a B-24 navigator during World War II, and so evenings on our boat were often about the stars: "There's Orion, there's Sirius, there's the Big Dipper, follow its edge to Polaris, the North Star."

But to me, the stars are more than just my father's love: stars are a part of a sailor's life. As the sun sets when you're far offshore, it's always a quiet pleasure to see the first star appear as the sky darkens. And sitting in a quiet cove, you can lean back and consider the array of stars visible when you're far from the loom of city lights.

I think my strangest star experience was during one TransPac race to Hawaii when we were totally becalmed somewhere in midocean. And I don't just mean becalmed, I mean the entire ocean was stilled and there wasn't a swell or a wave. The Pacific was literally as flat as a mirror, so it reflected all the stars in the heavens above. It was an eerie feeling, as though we were some sort of celestial sailboat drifting through the universe, surrounded by stars above and below us.

Oh, yes, the lawn chaise. Well, I'd seen a mention of a product called mySky, which sounded intriguing, and it is. It's about the size and shape of a portable drill and, in essence, you point it at any star in the sky and it tells you what you're seeing. The pleasant woman's voice in the earbuds attached to mySky actually tells you far more that you probably want to know about that star, but it's interesting stuff anyway.

I've fiddled unsuccessfully with those star charts on plastic disks and finally gave up on them when I was too dumb to make them work. Besides, I had to keep looking at them with a flashlight and then my night vision was shot and I couldn't see anything in the
sky anyway.

What fascinates me the most about the stars is that they are unchanging. Coastlines change as the sea erodes the shore, rivers change course as earthquakes and landslides move them, and man bulldozes mountains into suburbs. But the stars? They're the same as they've been for eons.

When I look at the sky when I'm cruising or chartering, I always wonder who also looked at these same stars. During a charter in the Greek Islands, I lay on deck, gazing at the brilliant stars. It suddenly occurred to me that a young Greek sailor, perhaps on the verge of sailing into the battle of Salamis against the Persians nearly 2,500 years before, had watched these very same stars and hoped he would survive to see another night.

In the Caribbean, I know that these same stars were above the pirates, as they lay in wait in the coves and harbors, hoping for a fat treasure galleon to pass. And there were sailors aboard those Spanish galleons, using those stars to set their courses.

I look at the Big Dipper and smile when I think that the English call it the Plough and the French call it the casserole or sauce pan. So English. So French. And I remember that escaping slaves in our country once followed "The Drinking Gourd" north to freedom.

Seeing the stars has been a comfort to sailors for centuries, and not just because a clear sky means fair weather. No, the stars led the early navigators on their grand expeditions to find new lands. There is something reassuring about knowing that Polaris is always there in the Northern sky and, for those in the Southern Hemisphere, the Southern Cross points the way to the Southern celestial pole.

My friend, Alec, is a professional seaman. We met when he was the first officer on a large charter yacht, and I've followed his adventures in the merchant marine as an officer on cargo ships around the world.

He was in France and, in a small antique shop in Nice, he came across an old sextant. He was interested, but returned to his ship. There, the idea of actually owning it festered until he made up an excuse to go ashore to find some nonfat milk. He raced to the antique shop, bartered with the elderly owner, and walked out with the sextant.

"When I held that sextant in my hand I felt many different things," he wrote. "I could feel the ghost of one sailor's cold hands, one generation of sea captains handed down to another generation. Maybe it was responsible for ships safely crossing oceans, or handed down to a lifeboat that was leaving a sinking ship? You don't know the significance until you are at sea and your life depends on it. It is something worth its weight in gold the minute you cross the 90 fathom curve leaving Spain and Africa. Maybe it's my destiny to hand this sextant down the line…maybe God wants this sextant back on the ocean for one more sun sight?"

There we both are with star instruments in our hands. Mine is from the 21st century, all electronics and video screen and soft buttons. Alec's is 200 years old, of wood and ivory and faded mirrors and brass vernier screws. His has the vibrations from two centuries of mariners, mine has AA batteries. Mine came from Amazon, his from a time when ships creaked and sails pulled hard.

But both are for looking at a sky that has never changed. There's more to the night sky than just those pinpricks of light: there's history and legend and tales of the sea told and untold.

So, Dad, thanks for leaving me the stars.