Staying awake and being alone on the ocean at night opens the door to the rarest form of beauty. The stars became my friends and companions, and I learned to steer by them as generations of sailors have done before me, keeping an eye on Polaris or Rigel or Spica as we tracked along the endless sea. They were the only real point of reference I had. In the bygone past of sextants they were crucial to navigation; in the modern day of GPS, some of the romance has been lost. A GPS is an incredibly accurate and necessary tool on a boat, but it is seldom a beautiful one.
Some nights, in the clean holy deep of the ocean, hundreds of miles from shore, the stars were mirrored in the water by the untold countless flecks of organic light: phytoplanktons, microorganisms, all glowing with the joy of being alive in this great expanse, emitting a blue-green aura of color. They were diamonds glinting in the water, rushing past the boat; they were that wonderful and strange phenomena known as phosphorescence. Captain told me about seeing enormous glowing spheres in the ocean, like alien villages, while on his thousand-day voyage. One night watch Artist saw glowing dolphins swimming around the boat, their movements disturbing the waters around them into a frothing bath of light. I can only talk of moonlit watches where everything around me sparkled like a gem: from the stars above, to the glitter in our wake, to the moonlight, reflecting on the infinite waves of the sea. It was hard to tell where the sea ended and the sky began.
The watch schedule rotates nightly, so that the same person doesn’t have to wake up for mid-watch (midnight to 4 a.m.) every night and get cheated out of a full night’s rest. Sometimes the cycle would play in my favor and I would have the blessing of standing the final watch, just before breakfast, and get to experience the glory of dawn arriving over the horizon to the east.
I remember one sunrise in particular. We had just splashed the boat again after a month spent in the sweaty, dust-choked boatyard at Brandon Marine, in the post-industrial wasteland of Freeport. Our transmission had been repaired; our boat was fresh and beautiful. The whole crew was exhilarated to be back on water again, and conditions had been perfect for the last two days—clear skies and a steady breeze that blew just enough to keep the sails trimmed perfectly and give us a couple of knots of speed, but not enough to generate large waves. Our big schooner barely rocked at all; she glided across the sea as if it were ice. We rode those days like a dream.
Later that afternoon we began to tack down a tongue of the Atlantic Ocean which extends down from the Abaco Islands towards Nassau, where the three of us were to rendezvous with the Kaiser for a ride back home to Wilmington. This was really the first leg of our journey back to North Carolina, and the last long-distance sail we would make on our beloved schooner. It was all happening so fast. The change of command loomed before us. What would the Kaiser be like as captain? Would we make it home safely on his rickety old wooden boat? Did I really have to ever go home at all?
Captain and the schooner planned to stay in Nassau as long as they could to try and make the charter business happen. He would have to find new business partners and a place to dock the boat, but the boat had never looked or run better (thanks to our work in Freeport) and he had a fresh survey in hand that said so. He faced the future with his characteristic confidence, knowing he had to make it work to pay back his debts and provide for his family.
That night the wind picked up enough to make it interesting—we were now in steady 4-foot seas and a brisk 25 knots of breeze. Our little ship was sailing marvelously, as if she was happy to be on the sea again and to have the chance to be put through her paces, like a thoroughbred horse running the first race of the season after a long winter of rest.
I took my watch and plotted our position at 4 o’clock, early that next morning. We were getting close to Nassau. The GPS showed we were making 7 knots, a fantastic speed. I went out on deck and watched our course, but the whole time the schooner sailed herself and I never had to make an adjustment. So I settled into the nook in the cockpit beside the helm, on the leeward side, the big main boom behind me, with a clear uninterrupted view of the sky.
The schooner rocked rhythmically and sang along, the holes in her stern railing, whistling like a flute in the night breeze. A honey-golden moon slowly descended into the ocean to the west, directly in front of me. A few clouds peppered around her, escorting her to her bed, and as she sank beneath the waves I saw anew the old glow of the Milky Way, high in the sky. The stars were bright and uncountable; whole worlds and solar systems were reduced to a faint and impossibly distant mist. I watched our entire galaxy revolving above me, over the loom of light on the horizon where Nassau Harbor lay. As my night watch passed, both the stars and horizon lights shifted and moved as we tracked along the silent eternal darkness of the sea.
It changed something inside of me forever. For the first time I saw myself in true perspective with the world around me, and that is something a finite being can never recover from. I was just one man, lost on a boundless and limitless horizon, dissolving into sheer grand distance; searching for a harbor to seek refuge from the scale of our world, yet knowing the planet we live on is a lonely dark dot in the majestic cosmos. No such harbor can be found except near that which you love. I now know, with perfect certainty, the true smallness of all great human endeavors, having seen it for myself. What was my own journey, all that I had seen and learned, when compared to the galaxy? That meaning which we place in our actions is all we can ever have—we, who do not linger like the stars.
The constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpio hovered in space, grand parentheses around the faint spilled expanse of the galaxy. As I watched, the stars around them began to fall, one by one, from their place in the firmament into the steadily lightening grey to the east. I could see more of the schooner than I could before, and of myself. I realized dawn was coming, slowly at first, then with faster and ever faster shades of color that radiated from the sky behind me, until the first holy glint of the sun pierced the horizon, and the sea, the schooner and I were bathed in a baptizing light. Below me, my shipmates began to wake. My watch was over. A new day was beginning.
John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.