Trip Reports

The Night The Sea Turned White (13-Mar-2002-21-00):
9:00 PM local time, Wednesday, March 13 (1800 March 13 UTC) 22 55 N 036 54 E. Temp. 86, Humidity 73%, Cloud Cover 0%. Off the Egyptian Coast, Red Sea.

Greetings from the crew of Maverick.

We left Massawa on the afternoon of the eighth, and we're now 460 miles further up the Red Sea. We have about 270 more to go before we reach our next port of call, Safaga, Egypt. Progress has been slow for us--we've averaged about 90 miles a day--and we've had some problems. I'll go into those next time, but tonight I think I'll give some impressions of standing watch at night.

Soon after dinner, off-watch Terry Shrode took to his bunk. The night is split in two six-hour watches, starting a bit after dark at seven o'clock. This is the schedule we've used since we left home and we're comfortable with it. Unlike many other crews, we're rarely exhausted when we arrive at a port.

As his watch begins, the Captain arms himself with the tools of the solitary sailor after dark, including a harness and tether to keep himself connected to the boat at all times he is out of the cabin, as going overboard at night, with no one else awake, would mean certain, but not immediate, death. He has as well a flashlight, a leatherman, and a kitchen timer on a lanyard. This is set to sound its alarm to correspond with the radar, which wakes up every twenty minutes, less if we're in a neighborhood with traffic, and looks around for things we don't want to hit. Binoculars and a night vision scope are ready to hand. Running and instrument lights are turned on, and he's now solely responsible for the safety of the boat and the sleeping crew.

If the sky is clear, the moonlight, or even starlight, beats a path to the boat. This path is yours alone and if another boat were to pass nearby, your path would be completely invisible to her crew, although they'd have one of their own which would be invisible to you. If you were an infinite being, or a very large one with a million eyes in a million places, you could see that the moonlight is, in fact, reflected everywhere it touches, so you might say that the specificity of your moonlight path to you is evidence and at the same time a metaphor for both your finitude and your separation from all other souls. If you're into that kind of thing.

If the night is as black as a bat under a witch's hat, on the other hand, being on a boat in the middle of the ocean can be unsettling. This is particularly true in two circumstances: when the boat is moving, and when the boat is not moving.

Most of the time, under wind or engine power, the boat will be sailing through the night. The reader might think that this is similar to driving a car after dark, but it isn't. The main reason is that a car has headlights, and a boat, no matter how large or modern, has none. Effectively, you and 20,000 pounds of sailboat are going just as fast as you can, rumbling your way through the black water, blind. You wouldn't do that in a car, but in a boat, the idea is that there's nothing out there to hit, and you can't run off the road. Neither of these, unfortunately, has more than a high likelihood. Other boats at sea and obstructions are supposed to be lit at night, but if they aren't, you won't see them until it's too late. And in any ocean there may be debris--logs or 55-gallon drums or containers or whatnot, awaiting you in the dark. Then there are reefs, of course, and rocks and islands and headlands, and you like to have some confidence both that these are properly on the chart, and that you know for sure where you are on the chart. Not seeing them at all in the dark means being in close proximity requires faith in your navigation and the skill of the cartographer. The explorers, like Columbus, had no charts or GPS or radar or, actually, brains. That's why Columbus is no longer alive. But we, like they, try as best we can to put all the unpleasant scenarios out of our mind.

But there may be times on a long passage when the boat is not moving at all, like last night, here, in the Red Sea. In a high or in the doldrums, the wind may entirely die away and the water may become glassy. If you need to conserve your fuel, you just sit there, you and the water and the sky, in the middle of the dark. The darkness is at the same time vast and claustrophobic, and since you have no reference, you have no idea how far you can see. If you get the notion to escape, the only refuge is in your little cabin. Unless the power goes out, the darkness can't get in there.

Officer of the Watch Terry Shrode was sitting alone in the dead of a black night in the cockpit of Maverick, becalmed and nearly motionless in the Pacific High a thousand miles from anywhere, and he heard a sound. It came from, say fifteen feet out into the murky dark, almost close enough to touch with the boat hook, but on the other hand, beyond the glow of the cabin lights on the water, and a world beyond his safe little cosmos. The sound he heard was a cough. Mercy. I sure hope it wasn't some dude. Great goojeeboojee.

Throughout the oceans of the world, at night you'll also be visited by the microscopic bioluminescent dinoflagellate Noctiluca miliaris. Known by sailors of old as "sea stars," they get excited by the turbulence of the boat's passage and light up in her wake. Seems dumb to me, cuz now I can see 'em and eat 'em if I'm that kind of boat. As though they were fireflies of the deep, they emit a blue-green light, near the point in the visible light spectrum of maximum transmission for seawater. Sometimes they get splashed onto the deck or pumped into the head and little sparkly guys swirl around the toilet bowl. In daylight, in a glass of seawater, they're too small to see, but at night, when they light up, their glow makes them appear to be a quarter inch or more in diameter.

I came up out of the cabin to take a look around a couple of nights before making landfall in Oman, and the whole sea was white, from horizon to horizon. It was a dark night and it was hard to tell what you were looking at, but it seemed as though the boat was flying gently on the top of a cloud. So I went down below to shake it off. Came back up, still there. It was so surreal that I woke the off watch crew, Mr. Terry Shrode, to confirm that I hadn't lost either my mind or my sight. He saw it too, but he's a looney old coot. He also made out dark shadows moving in the water, which he figured were fish. What I believe this was billions of microscopic guys, at some convention or another, all lit up, not quite as brilliantly as usual. Usually they flash brightly for a couple of seconds, but apparently all of them were set on "dim" because the light wasn't enough to make the ocean light up or even glow, just appear white. This way, I surmise, they could stay illuminated for quite a while.

But two skippers reported something stranger, that I would not have believed, had not I and several other cruisers seen the ocean turn white. They had been surrounded by the same weird whiteness, and then all of a sudden, instanter, the water around their boat, perhaps twice the beam and twice the length, lit up incredibly brightly. They compared it to the water in a lit swimming pool at night. Evidently the boat, or perhaps the lights on the boat, had stimulated this group of guys to shift simultaneously to the bright setting for a few moments, the way fish in a school all turn together. Then it faded, leaving the ocean once again uniformly white.

I've read a lot of books about the sea, but I've never heard either of these phenomena mentioned before. I don't expect to see anything to the end of my days that will be as strange as what I saw that night. If anyone out there knows something about it, or knows a marine biologist that might, I sure would like to hear what you have to say.

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