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Colorful experiences found when sailing in black and white

2010 June 1
People used to talk about dreaming in Technicolor, back when movies were still on film. Most sailing dreams and reveries should be in color. When I want to change my mental subject from something irritating, boring or depressing, I can conjure a perfectly pixilated digital sailing image in crisp, dazzling colors like you see in the photographs in this magazine. When I'm in a more reflective mood, I might opt for an inspiration from an Edward Hopper painting, perhaps the one called "The Long Leg" of a small gaff-rigged sloop sailing full and by in milky blue water, its sails and hull, and the lighthouse and sand spit in the background, aglow in highlights of sunshine.

Color is so much a part of it that it seems odd to think of sailing in black and white. Yet I sometimes do that because some of my best remembered sailing experiences happened at night when there was no color.

Have you noticed that at night crewmates of the on-watch tend to speak with lowered voices, sometimes in whispers? It's not out of deference for the off-watch-they're usually too zonked to be bothered by voices in the night. It's more out of deference for the quiet of night sailing, when everything seems hushed except the natural sounds of the boat, the slap of wavelets on the bow, the gurgle of disturbed water passing under the transom, the occasional squeak of a block. So quiet is the ambience of a light-air night at sea that the ratcheting of a winch, a sound that barely registers in daytime sailing, can seem a jarring intrusion.

We sail at night usually because we have to as part of a cruising passage or a race, but there is a reason to make sailing in the dark an end in itself: If you're far enough offshore, and far enough away from overlit urban areas, you will be treated to sights most people in developed areas of the world never see. Someone has estimated that 50 percent of Americans cannot see the Milky Way from their homes, a consequence of the excesses of public and private lighting that have ruined the night sky with light pollution. Is it ironic or just sad that the more people crowd themselves into cities and their suburbs, the more afraid of the dark they seem, compelled to defeat the night with mega-lumens of man-produced light?

You don't have to sail too far from urban areas-cities without stars-to see the Milky Way and then, as the loom of artificial light fades, much more of the cosmos. Sailors have the advantage of not only a purer darkness, but a view unobstructed by buildings and trees and, at the usual slow pace of sailing, plenty of time to contemplate the heavens. The value of the word "awe" has been deflated by its profligate use by the verbally challenged to describe reactions to everything from an oversized hamburger to an iPad, but it is still useful to describe what one feels under a sparkling canopy of stars on a dark sea. Maybe the word was invented by thrilled stargazers in ancient times.

The night sky can inspire that feeling whenever it is not obscured by clouds, but sometimes it goes to extra lengths to dazzle us. If you haven't seen the northern lights from a sailboat well offshore, I urge you to seek out the experience (forecasts of the magnetic storms that cause the phenomenon are available) before you shuffle off this coil. I can best describe my last encounter with aurora borealis as sailing toward a towering swirl of green and pink light that appeared as an alien visitor to an otherwise black and white world.

Lest I wax too romantic here, I should acknowledge that night is not always the sailor's friend. I recall an Atlantic passage when I dreaded its arrival. Low clouds and 30- to 40-knot winds were present day and night, but in the gray light of day the helmsman could see the great seas marching up from astern and, aided by the reference points of the horizon and distinctive clouds, could steer down their steep slopes with a measure of control. At night, with the horizon gone, black water indistinguishable from black air, the seas came without warning. Sometimes, gazing aft, a crewman harnessed in the cockpit could see a subtle darkening as a wave rose to displace more of the sky, and a ragged line of gray high above our stern indicating a breaking wave top, but this was of no help in steering, and sometimes the boat skidded down the face of the wave on its side to the trough below.

Much as I value that experience, it's not my preferred subject for night-sailing reveries. A better one is a spooky smooth-water phenomenon I've experienced while racing at night. By smooth I mean not flat-there were swells-but water so devoid of evidence of wind that there was not so much as a ripple, not a cat's paw, not a ruffle, on its surface, as though it were a puddle of glossy fiberglass resin. Yet there was wind, plenty of it, not on the water but far aloft, and it drove the boat at fabulous speed. With all of that high-altitude breeze pressing on our tall rig, the boat was heeled, elevating the windward rail high over the glassy water. From that vantage point, the sensations were surreal, as though we were riding a ghost ship propelled through the inky atmosphere by some otherworldly force.

I've experienced the phenomenon more than once, but never during day, only when sailing in black and white.