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Midnight steering

Last night on the midnight watch, I steered Europa by the position of 
Arcturus in the mizzen shrouds.

I’ve been on board for two weeks now, and have seen dark skies, bright 
gibbous moonlit skies, fog so thick we couldn’t see a thing.  Prior to 
this voyage I had been in many dark sky areas on land, in fact I spent 
my childhood in one, learning the stars and planets, but had never been 
out of sight of land on the ocean.  Now it seems dreamlike.
We have watched as the fog dispersed after two days, first at the zenith 
and a few stars appeared, then more and more until half the sky was 
visible, and we knew with the rising sun the fog would finally be gone. 
We have watched the moon skip across the sky, from the tiniest silver 
curve , in the evening twilight ten days ago, to the fat misshapen orb 
that lit up our graveyard watch last night, sinking into the orange haze 
in the west before the sun rose.

And we’ve watched the planets.  Jupiter next to Spica in Virgo, 
brilliant in the south, Saturn outshining Antares, between Scorpio and 
Sagittarius.  As we’ve waited for the sunrise, Venus appears, glittering 
her promise of another amazing day.  The word “planet” comes from the 
Greek for “wanderer,” as the ancients noticed them moving amongst the 
stars, and not keeping to a fixed position.  I am glad to have watched 
three of them from the decks of Europa, Ocean Wanderer.

We can’t photograph the environment on deck on a midnight watch, we can 
only try to remember it.  The gaze up into the rigging, the lie of the 
yards and the motion of the sails, the song of the riggingas it moves in 
the wind, under faint silver light and the quiet of the night watch.  At 
dark of the moon, the stars steal the glory, hanging there in the 
rigging like strings of fairy lights.  So many that it’s a challenge to 
pick out our familiar constellations, turning around and around on the 
heaving deck until we lose our balance.  Last night under the gibbous 
moon it was easier, only the brightest and therefore most familiar stars 
were visible.

And so Arcturus was in the mizzen shroud last night, as I steered our 
course west-southwest  towards New Brunswick.  Just as we see the motion 
of the bowsprit against the horizon, showing how the ship is moving up 
into the wind or backing off, and we can anticipate heading changes 
before they register on the heading indicator, so this bright familiar 
star served me.  I found a point in the rigging that the star danced 
around, and let it circle that point on the roll and pitch.  When it 
moved off that circle, a small correction kept our heading.

The rotation of the earth means that on a four hour watch, the star 
wheels around through sixty degrees of arc across the celestial sphere. 
So about every ten minutes I needed to adjust which point in the rigging 
the star would circle, as Bootes the herdsman dove toward the surface of 
the sea.

This, of course, is not celestial navigation.  Navigation is far more 
complex, involving tables and sightings and calculations, well beyond my 
abilities as a trainee.  But the romance and poetry of steering a tall 
ship by a star last night will seal the memories that no photograph 
could capture.

Written by:
Kathie Brosemer | trainees



Kathie, what a lovely description, and I feel I was there on board with you gazing at stars and planets!

Anne Swedberg  |  14-07-2017 21:29 uur

Thank you for the delightful description!

Bill Helwig  |  11-07-2017 20:22 uur

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