It’s hard to describe how amazing it is as I am writing this. Words like epic and spiritual come to mind. Let me see if I can paint the scene for you, the sight, the movement and sounds of a sailboat traveling at night.
We are twenty miles offshore, heading towards Antigua. It’s just gone midnight and alchemy is powering us through gentle swell with an eleven knot following wind.
Six hours ago we were at iles de petite terre. A tiny pair of islands with breathtaking beaches. They are about eight miles east of Guadeloupe. Completely rustic, the only building a lighthouse built in 1820 and the only inhabitants iguanas and barracudas. To reach the lagoon like anchorage between the two islands, you have to shoot a bar of sand and coral. When we arrived, it was easy, but on the way out, as the daylight was fading, the swell and changed direction and now there was a four foot braking surf over it. Just at the place we had to get out. Gunning to full throttle, we drove into the waves and confirmed my suspicion, that a normal seven-foot depth is a lot less in the through of a huge wave. As we hit the incoming surf, we banged the keel a couple of times as the waves dropped us onto the bed. Free at last, we turned alchemy to Antigua.
Six hours later, it’s a magical night. We all started together in he cockpit as the sun went down. Despite Simon packing his own, second, ditch bag, and tying it to the bright yellow one, the sailing is gentle. With a red sky behind us, we head along the east coast of Guadeloupe. As the kids head to their bunk and drop off to sleep, Peter takes an hour steering as the light fades. By nine o clock, Sarah and I get into the rhythm of our two-hour shifts.
It’s my second watch, just gone midnight. Therein is no moon, but the sky is clear and the stars painted on the sky overhead, like a children’s picture of nighttime.i have dialed in “Arthur”, our monitor windvane that can steer to the wind for us. There are other lights around too. I can see a glow to the left and ahead. Guadeloupe five miles off port and Antigua twenty miles ahead. A small pinprick of light is in front of the Antigua glow. Looking on the chart plotter, our AIS tells me it’s a ship, either a ferry or cargo, doing 17 knots towards Guadeloupe. Looking up the mast, I can see our windvane pointing to the direction the wind is coming from, lit up by our masthead light. It’s all we have to show us up to other night traffic. At the top of the mast, it’s white to the rear and split red and green to the front. The colors tell you in the dark which direction an oncoming ship is traveling. You don’t want to see red *and* green. That means it’s coming straight for you!
The sky is full of stars, the horizon glowing with the lights of land, but the sea is almost all dark. You can actually know where the horizon is because everything below it is inky black. The only indication of the sea is the occasional breaking wave catching starlight. That, and the trail of phosphorescence we leave behind us. The glowing points of light are huge only real indication of our speed, about six knots. When you look back, you can see the trail of light churned and boiling behind us like a jet stream. But looking forward, it’s impossible to penetrate the dark sea to see anything that might be on the surface. It’s a strange combination, the blindness of speeding forward across the waves, but looking up, being able to see the bright stars shining through between the sails and rigging.
The movement of Alchemy is like an elliptical rocking. The swell and waves are coming from the east, the right of the boat, at a slight angle. As we drive drove them, the boat rocks slightly bow to aft but mostly side to side. Combined, it’s a strange corkscrew motion. With bigger waves, it would probably be a recipe for seasickness, but in these milder conditions, it’s just enough to have you hold on, to have you feel the movement and motion.
The sound is constant. The waves froth and lap around us as they break on themselves, and every now and again, there is a sound like a breaking wave on a beach as our ten ton sailboat drives over and through a wave. These sounds of waves are punctuated by smaller disconcerting pops and bangs of water against our hull. These make the boat shudder and lurch slightly. The two different sounds, the whoosh of surfing and the bangs on the hull are both from our movement over the water surface. Depending on the timing of a wave, we might either arrive at its crest and slide, surfing down its backside, or at its trough where the crests might hit our hull as its shape curves out of the water. At the stern of alchemy, there is the sound our wake makes, like a motor boat, but without the engine sound. The trailing part of our hull makes a quiet bubbling sound as it drags through the water. You have to hang over the stern rail a little to hear it over the waves at the front.
Apart from the perpetual sound of the water there is the sound of the sails and rigging. The ropes strain on their winches, as the wind loads the sail, they make a worrying creak as their coils move imperceptibly around the winch. Halyards rattle and flap against each other softly. The wind whistles through the holes and crannies of the book and mast. If the boat lurches on a wave and the wind shifts at the same time, it momentarily throws the sails out of trim. Rather than being filled and taught, they flap hard for a moment, making a sound like a gunshot.
Five hours and about thirty miles to go. We should arrive at about 6am. I can hear Sarah stirring below. It’s time for her watch. When she climbs up the stairs from the cabin, we’ll do our ritual of changing the watch. What has been our heading, and what do we want it to be? Are there any ships nearby? What is the wind dosing, and how have the sails been trimmed, does anything need changing?
Then I’ll climb down below myself, and get a short two hours doze before I take the wheel again under the black starlit sky.