Back in ancient times, long before the Interweb polluted the lives of bluewater sailors, I found myself late one winter in the Cape Verde Islands preparing for a transatlantic crossing to Antigua on Crazy Horse, my three-decades-old 35ft fiberglass yawl. I had spent the previous two months cruising the West African coast with no access to any news reports, so had no idea what was going on in the world outside my boat. With two other crew, I loaded on provisions in Praia, on the isolated island of Santiago, then hoisted anchor and sailed forth into the northeasterly trades.
I have always believed it is best for watches on long passages to come at the same time every day, so a body can get used to them, and set the schedule accordingly. To save any argument I took for myself the worst of the night watches, in the earliest hours of the morning before the sun was even thinking of rising. The first several nights I was barely able to stay awake as the tropical Atlantic hissed its lullaby along our hull, but then on day seven of the passage, halfway through my dog watch, a comet appeared in the sky overhead.
This wasn’t some barely noticeable glimmer of an astronomical event that lay people might only discern if forewarned. This was a smack-you-in-the-eyes brightest-thing-in-the-sky kind of comet that even had a long tail on it so you knew for sure what you were looking at. I couldn’t believe it! I had been fascinated by astronomy as child and had waited my whole life to see something like this. And now, at last, under the most sublime circumstances, during a passage in mid-ocean, my moment had come.
[advertisement]I named the comet Elvis and described it in effusive terms to my dubious shipmates. Now I keenly anticipated my dogwatch each night and was even a little jealous, as the miles rolled on beneath our keel, when Elvis started rising early enough for the others to see him too.
We were a total of 18 days on passage and sailed the entire time on starboard tack, running off either dead downwind or on a broad reach, with the main on a preventer. Only on our last day out did we have to gybe over to lay English Harbor, at the south end of Antigua, at which point the main instantly split in two with a percussive snarl. I had often mended this frail sheet of Dacron by hand and now saw at glance I must spend money I could ill afford having a new sail built.
Worse yet, soon after we got ashore I learned from the newspaper, the first I had seen in more than three months, that Elvis (not surprisingly) had been anticipated and had actually been given the very uncool and not at all dignified name of Hale-Bopp, after the two astronomers who first detected him.
By now Elvis was rising so early he could be seen as soon as the sun set each evening. As I waited day after day for my new mainsail to arrive from England, I toasted his advent in the eastern sky with rum sundowners as we lay in the crowded anchorage at English Harbor. And soon there appeared in the south another amazing sight: the volcano on Montserrat, next island over, had just gone active and was spewing smoke into the sky. At sunset its volcanic plume was a gorgeous vivid purple color.
The things you see and experience on a boat belong to you in a way that nothing else can. Even when you know what’s coming, but most especially if you don’t, your appreciation of novelty and sense of discovery is honed to a razor edge. And I was witness now to something I knew I would never forget—the best sundown anchorage view ever. The fearsome volcano, quite rightly, belonged to everyone on all the boats in the anchorage who could see it with me. But I felt very certain, and still feel, that the comet belonged only to me.
SAIL’s Cruising Editor, Charles J. Doane, sails his Tanton 39 on the Maine coast and down in the West Indies whenever he gets the chance. He is the author of The Modern Cruising Sailboat, published by International Marine, and is a contributing blogger at SAILfeed.com
Photo Courtesy of Johannes-Kepler-Observatory