When you’re sailing in the Aleutians, Kodiak, and Prince William Sound, common wisdom says you need to be out of the Gulf of Alaska by September first at the latest before the hurricane-force winds of autumn arrive. So, you could just head south to Mexico, escape the band of ice and snow, and set sail for a margarita. Or you can settle in for the winter.

At 60 degrees north, the endless light days of summer start closing in rapidly. By late October, there’s a skim of ice in some anchorages. There’s no one around. We can hear the howling of coyotes in the forest and the snuffling complaints of sea otter pups as they drift by the boat. As sunset approaches, we look at the sky with a critical eye. If it’s a “we live at the northern edge of a rain forest” cloud and drizzle evening, we retreat to the heater-warm cabin and read books while the kids do their homework.

But if a few stars are visible in the sky, there’s an excitement. Do you think it will stay clear? What was the forecast? Auroras come when the electrons and protons discharged by solar storms—coronal mass ejections or solar flares—line up with the Earth’s magnetic field. There are commercial aurora forecasting options online, but out in the wild, off the internet, the most reliable thing is to go outside and look. One clue is the sun’s rotation takes twenty-four days, plus another three for it to catch up with the Earth’s advance, so when we see a fantastic aurora, we’re on the lookout 27 days later when we’re lined up with that same sunspot. However, even if satellite cameras track the flare or ejection, it can take between one and three days for the solar wind to reach the Earth, so the best forecast nights can be a black-sky disappointment.

Their daytime view wasn’t too bad either

Their daytime view wasn’t too bad either

Like being on watch at sea, we take turns crawling out of our warm beds, bare feet sticking to the cold deck, checking the sky, looking into the depths of the Milky Way, seeing thousands of stars and distant galaxies. They get a brief admiration, before we hustle below to the warmth, unless there is a shadowy green loom to the north. Sometimes it looks like a pale greenish rainbow, nothing much.

I hesitate. Should I drag my kids out of their beds tonight? Will it be worth it? I stay up a minute more looking at the green tinge. Will it do anything? A sliver shoots out from behind a mountain, green-white, fast, and disappears.

That’s all it takes for us to dig out Arctic fishing boots, layers of thermals, woolly hats. Hamish’s tripod is already on the foredeck, camera batteries charged. Maybe this will be the night when the green and red pulsing aurora snakes across the sky. Still photographs can’t do justice to the streaks and bursts of light, the fast-changing swirls, faces, and enchantment. Some nights, it looks like a green cloud; others it’s a nonstop light show for hours, necks stiff with looking up, conversation restricted to, “Wow.” We’re seeing into the universe, to the sun chucking its plasma at us and our planet mounting a defense. Behind it, the galaxy arcs across the sky. Out here, in the clean cold air, there are as many as five thousand stars visible to the naked eye. In a city, there might be thirty-five; perhaps five hundred in a dark suburb.

It’s easy to shift into prehistoric awe.

Rolling waves of green pulse outward from the north, sometimes covering the entire sky. One second, it’s a shining cloud, then the edges shimmer and break, and a starburst shape crinkles pink at the edges. You can’t go below and warm up cold feet; it’s changing too fast. With our raised saloon windows, we can actually see some of it from inside, but the magic is lost indoors, so we stay on deck, where we can see the full bowl of the sky. We will feel leaden in the morning, but who can go to bed when the universe is dancing?

Kate and Hamish Laird run charters in Alaska aboard their 56ft aluminum cutter, Seal. Contact them at expeditionsail.com

January 2017

Related

CONNECTING-SHROUD-2048

Experience: Wild Ride

My Hartley 38, Moet, is pounding into massive Pacific Ocean seas. One week of continuous storm conditions has taken me 700 miles south of Fiji, heading for New Zealand. Every few seconds the bow lifts out of the water and hangs in midair for a moment while I tense my muscles, ...read more

01-LEAD-nSterling-ProCombi-S-2

Know-how: Inverter, Charger Combos Offshore

With solid-state inverters and domestic AC devices becoming increasingly efficient, it only makes sense for many sailors to install the necessary 120V AC power for the many appliances now finding their way onboard: including washing machines, TVs, microwave, laptops, chargers ...read more

IMG_5308

Chartering in the British Virgin Islands

Not for nothing are the BVI known as the “nursery slopes” of sailing charters. There simply is no better place to ease yourself into a first-time sailing vacation; for that matter, such is the appeal of these islands that many charterers return year after year. The islands ...read more

IMG_7831

Racing and Bareboat Chartering in the BVI

If not all who wander are lost, then not all who charter are content with sailing between snorkeling spots and sinking a few Painkillers at beach bars. Some want a dose of hard-sailing action blended in with their sunshine and warmth—the kind of action you can only get from ...read more

01-GMR19FP45_1194

Boat Review: Fountaine Pajot Elba 45

With new catamaran brands springing up like mushrooms, France’s Fountaine Pajot is something of an oak tree in the market, with a story that goes back to its founding in 1976. It is also one of the largest cat builders out there, sending some 600 boats down the ways in 2018. The ...read more

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell. Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com Take no Chances This is my stern with the engine running slowly in gear against the lines. We all know that when we’re charging batteries this lets the engine warm up thoroughly. However, I have a ...read more

190910_ROSS_PORTSMOUTH_0187-2048x2048

Cup Boats Hit the Water

Emirates Team New Zealand may have been the first to launch a new-generation America’s Cup boat, but it was the New York Yacht Club’s challenger, American Magic, that had the last (first?) laugh. Just a few days after ETNZ’s radical-looking AC75 hit the water in mid-September, ...read more