The Points of the Compass

The sailboat’s compass glowed red in the 3 AM darkness. Quetzal, a late ‘80s Kaufman & Ladd 47 foot monohull, purpose built for the Bermuda race she had won, sliced through the

North Atlantic almost silently. The cloudy skies blotted out the blanket of stars in the moonless sky, but their glow still seeped through, revealing the cylindrical wall of mist and fog about a mile out in all directions that defined the borders of my encapsulated, mobile world. 


The sea state was mystical. The seas, the same North Atlantic Ocean that swallowed the Titanic a few hundred miles away, were as glassy flat as on that fateful night, with nary a ripple to reveal a breeze. But through some once-a-decade twist of meteorological fate, Quetzal’s anemometer measured eight to 10 knots of wind at the top of the mast. The bottoms of the sails were lifeless, but the top 2/3rds were taught, generating enough power to drive us through the still seas at a steady five to six knots. 


The resulting silent motion, with only the quiet gurgle of our wake belying our passage, added to the beauty and wonder of my favorite time on a sailboat, solo night watch on an ocean passage, alone on the boundless sea. 


I shifted my weight from right foot to left on the transom, the movement rattling the caribiner of my safety harness tether clipped on the backstay. I cupped my chin in my hand and peered over the bimini, softly cursing the huge fields of red and green light cast by our bow navigation lights.While the red glow of the compass was designed to preserve night vision, the navigation lights, especially the white stern light, conspired to compromise it. 


It didn’t really matter that much, as I’d long before done the mental calculations of how many seconds I’d have to react to the sight of a freighter breaking out of the mist bearing down on us at 20 knots. At our slow rate of advance, there would be basically nothing I could do except shout to wake the rest of the crew and unclip myself from the boat to keep from being pulled down into a watery grave as Quetzal plunged to her eternal home hundreds of fathoms below.

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