After goofing off for two weeks, I had finally written a post for today, but then I read Edward's great story about a night watch during the recent Pacific Cup. It was on a night that was darker than the inside of Johnny Cash's wardrobe trunk.
After reading Edward's post, I decided to declare this Dark Week in the blogosphere.
Photo of The Dark courtesy of EVK4
Edward's story struck a nerve, or rang a bell, or did whatever stories do when you hear one and think, "Oh wow, I know that feeling."
I, too, had a memorable few hours of hoary darkness on my boat one dark and not-so-stormy night. It wasn't in any big-time sailboat race. It wasn't a zillion miles from nowhere. There were no giant swells swelling, or awful winds blowing, or icy spray spraying.
But cripes, was it dark.
Dark in a way you can't believe until you look behind you and discover there is no behind you.
We were working our way down the coast to Monterey last summer, harbor hopping one day of sailing at a time.
Our long hop was from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz - about 50 miles - and to promote domestic tranquility I thought it wise to make sure we got into Santa Cruz before the shades of night were falling. I figured a few hours of night sailing would be better at the start of our day than at the end, so we left HMB at 4:30 am.
The thing about Half Moon Bay that is most consistent is the fog. When it is clear up and down the coast, it can and probably will be foggy in Half Moon Bay. Day or night, rain or shine, summer or winter. And that morning, foggy it was.
We made it to the outer breakwater within sight of a few shore lights which painted fuzzy cotton candy circles of yellow in the fog and, while I didn't quite realize it yet, those fuzzy circles also lent a sense of up and down and left and right. Oh alright, port and starboard. I was relying on the GPS to find our way through the gap in the breakwater, then around the scary reef, and through the entrance buoys about a mile away.
About 100 yards outside the breakwater, a very spooky feeling settled in. Someone had turned out the lights. All of them. There is nothing darker than being in a thick fog on a moonless night. And unlike Edward's raucous swells and wind and spray, this night was still. Very, very still.
We were motoring out into the murk. Except it was too dark to see if it was actually murky. This must be what one of those sensory deprivation chambers is like. No up, no down, no forward, no aft, no left or right. Oh alright, dammit, no port or starboard.
There was almost no sense of motion at all. I was in a little world of just me and the GPS.
And then, it was just me.
The unthinkable had been thought. Like everything else around me, the GPS went dark.
After a few moments of thinking that divorce court might not be so bad, I realized the GPS must still be working. It was just the backlight that had shut off after a preset time delay. All I had to do was work my way through 16 menus to find the one that would keep the little backlight on.
While keeping the boat off the scary little reef that was somewhere very close by.
Which I had no way of doing without seeing the screen on the GPS. Hmmm.
I decided to keep pushing the little backlight button every minute until we cleared the reef and made it out past the entrance buoys. Then, I could deal with the 16 menus without fear of munching the hull. Although, at this point, divorce court was still a definite possibility.
The next fifteen minutes flashed by in what seemed like merely hours, but finally we were past the reef, out in deep water, and I could find the damned backlight menu on the GPS.
To make things easier (I thought), I got us pointed to our next waypoint and flipped on my trusty autopilot (familiar to regular readers of this blog) to hold that course. I set to work fumbling through the 16 menus, everything taking a whole lot longer than it does when you do this stuff on your dining room table.
Finally, there it was, 'Backlight Timeout - None'. Click 'OK'.
What the freak do you mean 'Am I sure?'.
With one last click, the backlight was on and the GPS was back to the main display. But I couldn't believe what I was seeing.
We were humming smoothly along, but the GPS had now gone beserk. The happy little arrow that always points calmly to our next waypoint was now doing complete circles all the way around the dial. Our course was now North West South East North West South East North West South...
This couldn't be happening. The next thing I expected to hear was Rod Serling doing a voiceover.
Or maybe Alfred Hitchcock would peer up out of the companionway. If I could see the companionway.
I froze for a moment and then thought of what a pilot friend had told me about learning to fly by instruments. Forget about your instincts and believe the instruments. In zero visibility, your instincts are almost always wrong.
I switched off the autopilot and started turning the wheel in the direction that would have slowed the wild spinning of the GPS. The spinning needle started to slow.
More steering and it slowed some more. Finally, I got the needle to stop and gradually was able to steer us back on course. It was then I realized the autopilot had slipped out, the wheel had gone hard over, and just as the GPS had been telling me, we were turning in tight little circles - round and round and round.
The really bizarre thing was that, without any visual references, out there in the Pacific Ocean sensory deprivation chamber, there was absolutley no sense of turning at all. It's something you just have to experience to believe.
We motored on in silence for a while. I realized I could buy my wife a nice dinner once we got to Santa Cruz, as I wouldn't need to hire a divorce attorney, after all.
I had learned a few more lessons about GPS and about autopilots and about boats and about voyaging.
And about the dark.