Sitting in my Boston Whaler at 10:30pm on a warm summer night, I was trying to use a sextant to take a position reading. It’s not like I was lost; I was bobbing in the swells just off Fish Islands and could clearly see my house on the coast. I got to thinking what it must have been like for early mariners, out in the vast oceans, trying to get a fix on their position. When you consider the vast distances, even a single degree of variance could result in hundreds of miles worth of error as time passed by.
Sure, larger ships had inertial navigation and could be precise down to minutes and seconds of longitude and latitude, but they were pretty expensive and took a lot of knowledge to properly program and read. GPS wasn’t even a gleam in a boater’s eye, and with satellite positioning available to literally everyone it’s almost like cheating.
I turned my focus from the bright points in the night sky and looked at the surface of the water. Zillions of little bioluminescent creatures live in the water and air movement on the surface and marine life beneath it caused nebulae and star like points of light that sometimes seemed to mirror the sky above. A fish of some sort darted beneath my boat, a comet tail of fluorescense streaming behind it. This was a part of the magic of the water that seemed so beckoning to me. Wavelets drew lines across the peaks of the tiny rollers, a cook lightning that zigged this way and zagged that way as I watched.
Peering over the gunwale and staring deep into the water, I saw the passing of something big; perhaps a shark was patrolling the water below. So long as it didn’t turn and breach I was content for it to go its way and me mine. Off to the port was a small island of glowing light, no doubt a few jelly fish with luminous creatures trapped within them.
I rested my head on a bumper and stared into the water, feeling my eyes grow heavy as I looked into the hypnotic waters and allowed my mind to just wander. I was relaxed and that’s why it was so startling to hear the soto honk of a ship’s horn slicing through my reverie like a blade. I say up erect and realzed I hadn’t been paying attention to my drift and was now floating in the deep channel where the ocean going cargo craft plied their way out of the sound and into the sea. The ship passed within 100 feet of me and at the short distance, the ship appeared to be a giant. I braced for the wake that was sure to follow and wasn’t disappointed. First I rode the bow wave and as soon as I fell into its trailing trough, the stern wave picked me up and raised me nearly 15 feet before leaving me rocking violently. The ship sounded its horn again and I watched it go, its deck lights giving a pristine look to what was no doubt mass of rust and grease. I was to her port and saw her green nav lights clearly. Aboard her, on deck, I could make out men in the process of making the ship ready for deep water,
I laid back on my cushions and watched it slowly recede, it’s well of light disappearing as it moved towards the horizon. As much as the well of brightness that were her deck lights, her prop wash was aglow and fluorescing brightly by the disturbed creatures who used light to make their complaint of distress.
I picked up the sextant again and once again tried to get a sighting. And once again I returned the instrument to its box in defeat. It was going to take some hands on training by an experienced man of the sea, the written instructions just didn’t convey whatever trick it took to use the night sky as my signpost.