SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans
February 29, 2020
It has been a little over two weeks and those of us aboard the Robert C. Seamans have become accustomed to life at sea. We have docked in harbors, sailed along coastlines, and explored out in the deep ocean. We have experienced calm waters and twelve-foot swells. We have taken a dip in the ocean on purpose at port stops and have gotten doused on deck during rough weather. We now don't have to think about the watch schedule or which line to run to when our mate shouts to "strike the jib." We are definitely getting the hang of being at sea, but one element of our trip still catches us off guard every time: the southern night sky.
During our time on the Robert C. Seamans we participate in a rotation of six-hour watches with twelve hours off. Dawn watch means we get woken up at 12:30pm and are sail handling or working in the lab until 7 am. Staying awake and engaged can be difficult in these early hours, but the night sky is unlike anything we have ever seen. Little traces of light pollution allow us to see the Milky Way splattering across the night sky. We can see planets and cloud-looking areas filled with dimly lit stars called the Magellanic Clouds. The deep blue, black backdrop is the perfect canvas for the patterns of bright to faint lights that spill across the sky in intricate patterns. The Southern Hemisphere at thirty degrees combines some constellations we already know and love in the Northern Hemisphere, like Orion's Belt. This new night sky has also brought additions like the Southern Cross. In Woods Hole we learned about Pacific Island navigation, and for some reason I believed that the Southern Cross would, without a doubt, point South. One of my first dawn watches at the helm, I was steering my course and was very confused with the fact that the Southern Cross was to my right rather than directly behind me, pointing south. Thankfully I had a compass to hone in on my heading and I could use the stars to loosely navigate. Throughout the nights we have been able to track certain constellations and their movements based on the time of night and month in the year.
When we look up at the sky we can pick out Orion's Belt and Gemini and Leo. Sometimes when Orion is visible we can even see Scorpio which typically never happens. This event is just for a small period of time until Orion sinks below the hemisphere and Scorpio rises. We have been able to identity Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. We even tried to see Jupiter's moons through our binoculars, but on a moving boat in the very early hours of the morning, it is very difficult. I cannot forget about the best part of Dawn watch: the shooting stars. The shooting stars are nothing short of extraordinary. Just a dawn watch ago I lost count after 10 because there had been so many. Sometimes you see faint quick bursts of light and other times you can watch a bright star dance across the sky for multiple seconds.
This night sky has kept us on our toes for more reasons than just being beautiful. One event that many watches have now experienced during dawn watch is a mysterious band of glowing orbs that move along the same line in the sky. This lasts about 20 seconds and is an extremely long and visible, straight string of lights. After the initial streak disappears, orbs of the same size follow in the path, but are evenly spaced out for another 20 seconds. Some have described this spectacle as a shooting star with visible fragments in its wake. Some have said it is a large collection of satellites all traveling on the same path. I personally believe it is a fleet of UFOs with other UFOs following behind, either spies or avengers. This hypothesis was less favored than the others. But, alas, we do not have internet to look this up so until we know, we will just be confused.
I am going to be very sad to have to leave this sky when the time comes. There are very few places left where you can see the stars as clearly as off in the ocean. Thankfully my shipmates and I still have plenty of time to take it all in and learn more constellations. Here is a photo of some of my watch mates from left: Kaitlin, Kendall, and Devin, and then me at the helm. We had just relieved a dawn watch and are sailing into an anchorage on the west side of Great Barrier Island.
- Annabel Weyhrich