We departed Crosshaven last Wednesday afternoon on course for the Isles of Scilly. This time the wind and sea were favourable and we had a pleasant 25 hour sail to Old Grimsby Sound on the north side of the Isles. For the first few hours the wind blew us along at a pleasant 5 knots, and we grazed on the food I’d prepared in the afternoon sunshine. The girls fell asleep around 7pm. Unlike on the passage over to Ireland seven weeks earlier, I didn’t try to put them to bed, but rather let them drift off when they were ready. They slept, Lily port and Katie starboard, in the saloon, so we could keep an eye on them through the night. Julian quickly followed them, and went below deck for a rest (though no sleep) that lasted three hours. I then had the sea all to myself for sunset and the start of the night. The sunset was glorious over the two Kinsale gas rigs away to the northwest, and I watched as the sky gradually changed colour and stars began to rise.
When I was a teenager, my family (good Irish Catholics that we were) went to Mass every Saturday night. My two strongest memories (apart from my sister and I week after week trying to stifle our laughter in church) were of picking up burgers or fish and chips from Joanna’s Golden Fries in Edenderry on the way home from Mass and, on winter nights of jumping out of the car when we arrived home and going out into the back garden, as far away from the light of the house as I could get, to watch the stars in the sky. And in Nunavut, in my late 20s, I loved wrapping up on winter nights in my cold weather gear, a mug of hot chocolate in my hands, to sit on my back step overlooking the inlet that leads onto Hudson Bay, and watch the night sky – green aurora borealis dancing across the sky, the stars twinkling behind.
These happy memories came flooding back to me as I helmed through the early night last Friday. At first I sang, every song I could think of, at the top of my voice. Everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Lady Gaga; Christy Moore to Tom Waites; Carly Simon to Eta James. I covered them all. That was, until Lily shouted up at me to be quiet. So then I watched in silence, as the stars rose and set across the sky. It was amazing. I’ve been out on clearer, brighter nights, but I’ve rarely been out for so long or been so concentrated on the night sky. The Milky Way ran across the sky overhead, and I picked out the constellations that I know and wondered at the ones I didn’t know. I saw lights appear on the horizon, thinking at first that they were ships, only to realise they were stars rising to the east or setting to the west. It was a beautiful sight.
Julian arrived up at 11pm, but before I could rest, Katie woke up. She had been restless since going to sleep and when I lay down beside her I realised that the sound of water against the hull was potentially terrifying, so I took her with me to the aft cabin and she slept somewhat better. Much like Julian, I couldn’t sleep when my watch was over. Julian told me his mind raced, thinking about me, the inexperienced one, at the helm. I couldn’t sleep, because I worried that he would fall asleep during his watch. So every hour I popped up to check that he was alright. Still, I got three hours of rest, and at 2pm I returned to the helm. The amazing spectacle continued, and I marvelled at how the stars had migrated across the sky in the three hours I had been away. Not that I should marvel…it is precisely such movements that Micronesian sailors used to navigate their canoes from one tiny Pacific island to another for millennia. I watched a green planet rise away to the south east (if someone can tell me what it was, I’d appreciate it), followed by another planet some time later. And then, oh delight of delights, a strange light on the horizon that I puzzled over for minutes before it revealed itself to be the thinnest sliver of a waning moon, a fingernail crescent hanging in the sky.
The sky clouded over after that, and by the time Julian came up to relieve me there was little to be seen in the sky. But by then the noises beside the boat had started. The occasional unmistakable sounds of a mammal breathing – a dolphin? a whale? I didn’t know. There were splashes too, which made me think it must be dolphins.
This time I slept…and slept…and slept. For four hours. Lily was up before me. The sounds I had heard proved to be dolphins, who knows how many, possibly 50, who accompanied Julian for hours, entertaining him with a spectacular display of jumping and spinning and synchronised dancing that went on for hours and hours. When Lily joined him early in the morning they thrilled her too, and they were still with us when Katie and I finally made our appearance after 8am.
The remainder of the journey was pleasant, and we reached Old Grimsby Sound in mid-afternoon, tired but very pleased with our sail. We had achieved our goal for the summer – to sail from the UK to Ireland and back again. We enjoyed a few wonderful warm days on the beach in the Isles of Scilly and had a brush with minor celebrity…of which more later.