Shooting (for) the stars

I came up on deck around 1915. Sunset. Even though I’ve seen countless sunsets in the last few weeks, this one is still beautiful. The clouds, the water becoming more the color of steel, the sky becoming bronzed. There is maybe half an hour till twilight. The previous watch had calculated it, listing the date and time of twilight on a whiteboard in the doghouse. I was plenty early to the party. So far, there were no stars. Yet.

Shortly before Venus appeared (near the moon on the beam of the starboard rail tonight) we passed several sextants onto the quarter deck. One person pulling them out of their cabinet in the doghouse, another (or several people) ready to grab them at the top of the doghouse ladder. It was almost time for a star frenzy.

img_4873Every time the sun sets or rises, there is a narrow window of time when we can see the horizon when the sun is below it. This is the ideal (and really the only) time you can shoot stars. SEA calls the sometimes chaotic rush to shoot stars during this short period a Star Frenzy.

The first time I tried to shoot a star, I’d only seen a sextant once before when my watch officer showed a group of us how to use it. I had  no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have a light and it was quickly getting dark out. First, I learned how to find the index error of the sextant I had grabbed, by looking through the scope when the sextant was set to zero and making sure the horizon was a continuous line. The flaws and quirks of each individual sextant need to be taking into account when calculating a star fix, and the index error is the number you use to make this correction.

And then the star frenzy began, leaving me in the dust. I struggled to find a single star through the scope and then bring it down to the horizon while my watch officer moved confidently and quickly around deck, shooting star after star. I was impressed and envious. I wanted to be able to shoot enough stars and well enough to give us an accurate fix on our charts.

Sextants are a tool that help us to find our line of positions (a line on the globe, somewhere along which we are located) based on the stars we can see and their position in the sky. Specifically, their height above the horizon. You can shoot the sun and the planets, too. “Shoot” being the verb that means essentially, “point a sextant at them to find their height above the horizon and then do a lot of math.” And all the numbers you might need for running the calculations, beside those you got from the sextant, are found in the Nautical Almanac. I’ll be honest, the math is beyond me. Conveniently, there is a program on the boat that lets you plug in the position of the celestial bodies you shot and the exact date and time you did so, and it will churn out your location.

During the last leg of the voyage, when students had their knowledge and skills put to the test, our GPS in the doghouse, which tells us our latitude and longitude among other things, was covered up. The sign over it read “why use satellites when you have the stars?”

We were to rely on celestial navigation and dead reckoning to get us from Suva to Auckland.

And we did.

Night after night (and morning after morning) we shot the stars at twilight. When I joined a star frenzy one evening, it was the first time I’d done so since the very start of the voyage. I’d been left befuddled and confused that first try. But this night, I got the hang of it, shot five stars or so, and ended up getting a star fix within 3 nautical miles of accurate. Which is a very good fix. And to think, just a couple of weeks previously, the sextant had been a stranger to me. But now I was hooked. I made a point of shooting the stars whenever possible. Sometimes staying up a bit later than I should learning how to use the computer program.


Shooting the stars one twilight

And though I never got a fix as good as the 3 mile one, I started to get just a bit more familiar with the stars: Altair, Antares, Rigel Kent, Achernar, Alpheratz, Deneb. All spinning slowly through the southern hemisphere night sky. Orion and Scorpio chase each other. Venus and Mars shine brightly. And they watch us glide along, guiding us further south.

A brief accounting of wildlife seen on the open ocean

  • Birds, too small to really see, just dark shadows at night, will sometimes circle around the RCS. In the dark, they reflect our lights back to us. At first, one of my watch mates thought they might be bats, because they were just large, flappy shapes swooping over him at the lookout. This was a particularly dark dawn watch, and we had a handful of birds chirping to each other as the hours passed. Sometimes they will land on the deck, and it becomes our responsibility to ensure that that they safely return to the air.
  • Albatross floated by our ship one stormy afternoon. We were surprised to see them in the water. They were sitting there calmly in the waves, which dramatically bobbed them up and down. They seemed rather undisturbed as we passed them on the ship. I’d seen albatross before, flying very distantly on the Otago Peninsula in the South Island of New Zealand. The peninsula point is decorated with a lighthouse, cliffs, and albatross nests. Huge as the birds are, you can still see them soaring, even at a great distance. Though, there, they seemed remote, unreachable.

In the ocean, mere meters away from the bow of the boat, they seemed like fellow seafarers. Calm even as the weather picked up. Comfortable with a world always tossing and breaking. We watched each other for those few minutes as we passed each other. I admired their calm, their grace. Clearly they are made for the unusual place that is the center of the ocean. They are here more often than I, less visitors, more permanent residents.

  • Whales, too, we’ve seen. I don’t know if I dared to imagine that we’d actually see them around Vava’u. Our professors told us that we’d be passing through at the tail end of their migration through the islands. It was too much to hope for, I thought. But in the days between Vava’u and Tongatapu we saw a number of humpbacks. Surprising us in the morning. Being trailed by whale watching boats. Breaching time and time again. Later, we saw a whole crowd of sperm whales. Nearly the whole ship’s company arrived on the quarter deck to watch them. I was on the helm, trying to keeps us on course, while glancing over my shoulders at the whales.
  • And there was a shark once. A white tip shark was the closest ID we got. Someone spotted it in the slow time right after class, and we all crowded around, again. Watching a great shadow meander in our wake. Benign and curious.

From the Headrig


Twice, I have leapt into the ocean from the boat. First, into the impossibly clear Nuku’alofa harbor with only a handful of shipmates. On the headrig, I looked down, remembered the caves, and my feet reminded me of how dearly they love the ground. Still, I jumped into the water.

“The pool” was open for maybe twenty minutes before the captain closed it. But it was twenty incredible minutes. I’d never swam in water so light blue or under the shadow of a tall ship. I had been feeling a little homesick and a lot challenged by life on the boat, but the swim re-inspired me.

It was the kind of moment that could have easily slipped past me had I returned to the Seamans just a little later that afternoon. Instead, I got to jump from the headrig (no harness needed here!), admire the light streaming through the surface of the water up close, and scull and stroke back and forth for half the length of the ship. It, I thought, was a perfect afternoon.

But the next day another unbelievable chance arrived. We left the Kingdom of Tonga on a calm day, headed to a volcanic island that had only emerged from the ocean in January of 2015. All afternoon, the skies stayed clear, the seas calm, and the wind virtually nonexistent. As we neared the volcano, class started. We debriefed about our time in Tonga. And then, our captain opened the pool again. This time the entire ship’s company had the opportunity to swim–in the open ocean no less. Mere miles from a young island, with thousands of meters of water between us and the seafloor.

I can’t quite describe to you how astonishing this swim was. The water, which looked so flat from the deck of the RCS was so not flat with your head at the surface. That afternoon, it rolled slowly and long. The waves almost looked like desert dunes, building up and away from us, mounding in our range of view.

And I think I always forget the metallic taste of saltwater. I am always surprised when I taste it again. And that afternoon, I could float in the salt so quietly, vertical, my head comfortably above the water line without needing to scull at all. I, a competitive swimmer, pretty familiar with all the ways you can float in the water and move efficiently through it, had never experienced that before.

If you lay back, immersed you ears in the water, you could hear the chirp and rumble of the Seamans. The clicking and popping of the ocean I’ve heard SCUBA diving before less evident here at the surface and at the center of all this blue.

Again, we could jump from the bowsprit or anywhere from the forward port side of the rail. Again, standing in the headrig, looking (far, far down) into the blue, I was scared. It took a few deep breaths to remind myself (as I’ve found myself remembering any number of times this trip) that I will never have another chance to do just this. What is great is not always easy. Don’t miss your shot. How else are we to grow and learn but to find ourselves facing the unfamiliar, look intently, and leap in. Continuing forward despite it all.