There was a time when I feared night sailing. That was before I had done it on my own. I had had a couple of short experiences of sailing in the dark, both times in the company of other, far more experienced, sailors. On my first Channel crossing, in 2005, with Julian, his dad and uncle, I remember reaching Cherbourg after dark, the lights on the harbour wall impossible to pick out from the street and traffic lights in the town behind, at least to my untrained eye.
When we bought Carina and dreamt of sailing long distances, always at the back of my mind was a nagging worry about the probability of having to helm on my own in the dark, while Julian slept. What did I fear? The dark itself, for the most part. That which I couldn’t see. The supernatural, alien lights in the sky…in other words, my own wild imagination.
But those worries never came to fruitition. The first time I helmed alone, in summer 2012, as we sailed from the Isles of Scilly to Ireland, I discovered I loved the dark, the solitude, the vastness of the starry sky. There at the helm, my family sleeping peacefully below, I at first tried to fill the dark with song. I sang song after song, not wanting to hear the silence, until Lily shouted up from the starboard saloon berth where she slept that night, telling me ‘Be quiet Mummy’. So I stopped and relaxed into the sounds of the night – the wind, the waves against Carina’s hull, the sails.
The things that frightened me were very much of this world. I lacked confidence in my ability to gauge the distances or courses of other vessels. The first few times we sailed at night, I called Julian from his slumber with annoying regularity, not trusting myself to make a decision to stay on course, or change course to avoid a collision.
This summer, something clicked. I don’t quite know what, but suddenly I found myself able to read the movement of other vessels by their lights and their movement relative to Carina. I’ve known how to do this in theory for years, but only this summer did I find the confidence to read these lights. And as a result, I experienced one of the most wonderful sails of my entire short sailing career, when we crossed from L’Aber W’rach to Falmouth in late August this year. Here’s an excerpt from my travel journal:
At 1am I took the helm and Julian went to sleep. I spent the next five hours alone on one of the most enjoyable sails of my life.
We were headed due north and at 1am the moon was due south, dead astern. At first it was behind a cloud, but when it came out, huge and bright and luminescent, it lit up the boat like a spot light. I turned suddenly, sure that a large commercial vessel had somehow managed to sneak up on me, so bright was the light. I could even read the unlit electronics display by its light. All night long, as the moon edged across the sky behind me, from south to south-west, it moved in and out of clouds, the occasional darkness of cloud cover giving way to sudden and brilliant light.
A meteor caught my eye, in the sky to the north-east. It streaked across the sky, falling down and down, and then exploded in a flash of white light, brighter and bigger and more magnificent than any shooting star I have ever seen.
There were other vessels, plenty of them. Lights white and red and green, moving along on either side of me and in front of me. West to east first, making passages into the English Channel, and later east to west. It felt like a game, as I watched for the movement of lights along Carina’s guardrails. I was immensely pleased that Julian could finally sleep through my watch, undisturbed by my worried queries.
Carina raced along at 6.5 to 7.5 knots, barely leaning. At 4.30am, Julian popped his head up the companionway and asked how I was doing. I told him I was doing wonderfully and wanted to keep going until I saw the dawn. He went back to bed and still I enjoyed this magnificent sail, waiting for the first light to appear in the sky.
By 5.45am I had grown tired, and I had already seen the first light in the sky to the north-east. I called Julian and asked him to ready himself to take the helm at 6am. I crawled into bed beside Katie, and slept soundly until 8.30am. Not a long sleep, but a deep and satisfied one.