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Latest Expedition Journal

October 9:  Day 7

Posted by Thomas Young

Singing to the Stars

The nocturnal tall ship is an enchanting place.  I am always at a loss to decide which is more breathtaking at night:  the lights above us, or the lights below.  While the stars above light the night sky and direct our course of sail, the glowing bioluminescence of plankton from below provides a pulse of the productivity of the oceans.  Both serve as metrics for our progress in this expedition as we pass through lines of latitude and longitude and transition from the abundance of the California Current system to the desert of the mid-ocean gyre.

This evening, we were blessed with clear, moonless skies and an open panorama of the heavens.  As we sailed 360 nautical miles from the nearest land (Point Conception, west of Santa Barbara), the light pollution from the California coast lay far beyond the visible horizon.  There were no other ships in sight or on radar.  Finally, we are all alone out here, rapidly approaching the mid-ocean gyre.  

For the first time in over a year, I beheld the sky in its full, primitive glory, the Milky Way galaxy a dense streak of stars and stardust stretching over the beam of the ship, terminating in the setting constellation of Scorpio.  I try to imagine what it might have been like to be alive hundreds of years ago, when such sights of the night sky were commonplace and inspired entire religions.  Betelgeuse, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Aldebaran, Capella:  the names of the bright navigation stars we are learning hint at extravagant stories from Greek and Roman mythology.  There is, I suspect, a reason for this ethereal source of our spirituality:  we all ultimately originated in this universe as stardust, the planet Earth emerging from debris that spun off from the sun during the formation of the solar system, aggregating gravitationally into this rock that gave birth to Life.
 
Just as all life on this planet originated in the oceans, all the planets originated from the stars.  Perhaps this is why sailors go to sea:  to reconnect with our origins.  When we look at the stars, we look upon our elemental ancestors, a truth captured by many Native American groups long before corroborated by science.  Indeed, the stars we behold in the sky are a direct portal into the distant past, the light they project arriving to our planet hundreds or thousands of years after originating from the source.  Many have since exploded as supernovas or collapsed into black holes, our current perception of them a mere memory of the past, a visual history of the life cycle of the Universe.

The artificial lights of cityscapes have become such a cosmopolitan feature of our modern, fossil-fuel-powered lives that we find ourselves spending thousands of hours and millions of dollars engaged in a skygazing tourism industry dedicated solely to filling this innate need to reconnect with the Universe.  Expensive trips to the Arctic to view the breathtaking atmospheric phenomenon of the aurora borealis; excursions deep into the remote, unpopulated desert to witness the unpolluted nighttime sky; and an unprecedented rise in home telescope ownership testify to the strength of this visceral connection with the stars above us even as these very stars become occluded by our collective demand for artificially lit streets and homes.

But here, deep into the North Pacific Ocean, the night sky has been restored to its full glory.  As I strolled the ship shortly after dusk, mesmerized by the number and diversity of stars in the sky, the watch on deck had just finished taking sextant sights of Antares in order to calculate a position on the charts.  Antares, aptly named “The Heart of the Scorpion”, is one of the few distinctly red stars in the sky that truly twinkles, its luminosity oscillating rapidly and creating the effect of a siren in the sky.

Aboard our vessel, I have found that the other sirens—the Sirens of sailors’ lore—are no mere myth.   My shipmates Emilee and Marina sat perched upon the port side lab boxes singing sea shanties, entrancing me with their melodious voices accompanied by the soft swishing of the bow wake passing by.  As their voices carried into the night sky, a meteorite streaked across the stern of the ship, framed by the looming shadow of the mains’l.  Two satellites whizzed overhead, their apparent trajectories passing perilously close to one another.  As they appeared to nearly collide in space, Emilee and Marina laughed uproariously.  Later that evening, the waning quarter moon rose along the eastern horizon, glowing like an enormous orange slice resting upon the surface of the water.

The importance of the stars and other planetary bodies for open ocean sailors cannot be understated; the moon, the planets, and our own star, the Sun, have been relied upon for centuries to guide mariners back to land, to the safety of port, and the comfort of home.  There is something indescribably powerful about being able to sight the angle of a star or sun and then find one’s exact location on earth using nothing but a sextant, a nautical almanac, and one’s own knowledge of celestial dynamics.  On clear nights, the ship and the stars themselves become a living compass for the skilled mariner who uses the orientation of the constellations among the shrouds and masts to guide her course like the lines of a highway.  

Returning to the port side, I sat with my shipmates Emilee and Marina and joined them in serenading the sleeping ship.  The sea shanty has been as much a steadfast feature of nautical culture as celestial navigation.  I wondered in those moments, while we chorused in the night, were we singing to each other and our ship, or to the stars above and the sea below?  Just as the ship is our refuge and our shipmates are our family and safety net, we owe our safe passage to the heavenly bodies and oceanic forces from which we originated.  They too deserve our song.