I was blessed to grow up in a family that had a 35’ sailboat, which we cruised during the summer. I have many fond memories as a child cruising the Great Lakes, and a whole summer moving the boat from Michigan to Maryland. Of all our time on our Alberg 35, Willy Wispe, there are four hours that will stay with me forever.
It happened off the New Jersey shore while sailing Willy Wispe from St. Michaels, Maryland to Newport, Rhode Island. After cruising up the Chesapeake Bay, through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and down Delaware Bay, you have to sail offshore out in the Atlantic to Montauk, Long Island. Once you reach the Atlantic Ocean at Cape May, it’s about 225 nautical miles to Newport. It’s a long leg so you want to go under good conditions where you can make good time and be comfortable. At a modest pace of 5 knots, the trip would take two nights. If you left Cape May at 7am, you’d reach Montauk at 9pm the following day, just as it is dark, and then forced to sail at night north of Block Island to reach Newport at 3am. Not pleasant timing; it would actually be better to go slower and hit landfall the second morning.
If, however, you make good time, and average 7 knots, then you reach Montauk at 10am the next day, and then Newport at 3pm. Much better.
Fortunately, the conditions were such that we would average about 7 knots under sail the whole way.
There were three of us on board: my father, his friend Jack Maxwell and me, 23 years old at the time. With a multi-day leg and three people, it is necessary to take shifts at the helm. Somebody had to take the graveyard shift for the one night at sea. I don’t remember if I was assigned by my dad, or we drew straws, but I got the 2am to 6am shift. I was not excited about it. I didn’t realize at the time it would be the most memorable night of my life.
If I were asked at the time to conjure up the perfect conditions for my shift, I wouldn’t have the creativity to come up with such perfection.
It was pure magic.
Magic Ingredient #1: the weather.
The first and obvious thing to ask for is good weather. I couldn’t have asked for better conditions. We had a steady, 20 knot wind on a broad reach to port, with 6’-8’ rollers that we surfed. This offered a fast and comfortable ride, no need for the engine, and the ability to steer straight for the destination.
There is something more gratifying about sailing with a tiller, rather than a wheel. As a wave rolls up and lifts and pushes the stern to starboard, you can feel the wave tugging the rudder. To compensate, you lean back and pull the tiller, using your whole body, to bring the bow back to the course. This happens at a steady rhythm, which has a hypnotic effect, as you rock back and forth, feeling connected to each passing wave.
Magic Ingredient #2: a moonless sky.
The second magical ingredient was and incredible starry sky. That evening there was no moon and no clouds, and we were far enough offshore to avoid light pollution from the cities. This mix of ingredients made for stars on the level of the Big Sky country of the West. The Milky Way was clearly visible nestled in a background of stars all the way to the horizon on all sides. It was so dark it was difficult to discern the boundary between the ocean and sky. The sensation was like being in a soup of ocean and cosmos.
Magic Ingredient #3: shooting stars.
As if the clear, starry sky was not enough, there were shooting stars throughout my shift. Some were quick to disappear, but some went a good portion of the sky. Each shooting star as a flash of excitement to counteract the hypnotizing effect of the slow, steady rhythm of the rolling sea.
Magic Ingredient #4: phosphorescence.
And then there was the most magical ingredient of all: phosphorescence. This is a phenomenon created by plankton that glows when the water is disturbed. I saw this beautiful glow on the waves, from the wake off the bow each time we accelerated down a wave. I had seen phosphorescence once or twice before in Maine while sailing, but
What is amazing is that the sailboat we were on, that I grew up sailing, was called Willy Wispe, which refers to the term “Will-of-the-Wisp”. There are many references to this, but the unifying theme is of a magical, glowing light in the water, usually marshes. Many folk tales include fairies or other spirits that are impish and often evil, who lead people astray, as they follow the light until they get lost. The phenomenon is the same, a chemical reaction with phosphorus. I didn’t feel any evil spirits.
Magic Ingredient #5: a glorious sunrise.
To cap the perfect shift, was a deep red sun, rising out of the ocean. Fortunately, the old adage “red sky in the morning, sailors take warning” did not prove to be true that day. The beautiful weather continued.
By the time the sky started to lighten, I was in a Zen-state, and it was bliss to watch the big, red ball slowly break the horizon and climb out of the sea.
When dad came up to relieve me, I don’t think I said much. I was tired, and yearned for sleep.
I settled into the starboard berth in the forward cabin. I always loved sleeping in the forward cabin while we were sailing. Given the fact we were still rushing through the water on a heel, I was half on the mattress and half laying on the hull. The sound of the water swishing past the hull lulled me to sleep. It was like being in the womb.
The next day
I woke up a few hours later and back then my eyesight was much sharper. My father was always impressed how I could sight a buoy on the horizon. This was before GPS existed, and we had just sailed almost 200 nautical miles by dead reckoning. If I had been five degrees to port, we would have reached land fall at Shinnecock, which is 35 miles west of Montauk. 5 degrees to starboard and we’d end up in Martha’s Vineyard. If our compass was 20 degrees off to starboard, and we didn’t notice, we wouldn’t hit land until we reached Scotland. Today sailors don’t get the pleasure of reaching land fall and trying to determine where they are, by looking for land marks identified on the charts, to see how far off course they are.
This evening was many years ago, and although I don’t remember the details, I remember the feeling of being a part of the ocean and sky. I felt both like a tiny speck in the vast universe, and also a part of its entirety.