SEA Currents: Robert C. Seamans
May 23, 2019
Steering by the Stars
Beige sand sifts through my feet as I look up to see the many mounds of an expansive desert. Behind me, a pillar of burnt orange sandstone rises out of the dry air and dominates the horizon… “Julien, hey, Julien.” Confused I turn to hear, “it’s um 12:30 on the 13th and you have dawn watch in like 30 minutes. The skies are clear and the air has cooled off, but like don’t wear a jacket, cool?”
My dream of a lurid orange desert under the heat of the midday sun fades into the gentle rocking of my rack in the middle of the night. I roll out of my bunk, grab a headlamp, and run to the head (or bathroom) to brush my teeth. While I had taken seasickness medication the day before, the constant motion of the boat disoriented my senses. Walking down the hallway, the world around me rocks in synchrony as if the curtains, pots, walls, and books all got the memo, but I had missed the email (probably because T-Mobile doesn’t cover 17˚ 38.201’ S, 150˚ 09.459’ W under its international plan). I stumble against the wall (and maybe the floor…) a couple times and scramble up the latter onto the deck.
The cool breeze of the sea feels refreshing as I enter a new world. The Robert C. Seamans, our vessel for the next five weeks, is on the open ocean traveling from Moorea to Îles Maria in French Polynesia, the first leg of our journey. When I fell asleep, the last rays of the sun had just set over the ancient volcanos of Moorea, casting shadows across the sea. Now, Moorea appears as a sliver of orange light on the horizon sixty nautical miles away.
“To the forstays’l, we are on a port tack and need to jibe within the hour,” the first mate shouts. Not yet fluent in sailor, I follow and grab the line last held by our first mate. I tug to no avail, but behind me I feel the slack disappear and hear the shadows shout, “two six heave! Two six heave!” So I too shout, “two six heave, two six heave,” and watch the sail rise into the moonlight. The cool breeze I felt when I first walked on deck struck the sail and sent a ripple down to its line. I look overboard to see our wake grow and its bubbles fade faster into the distance. Turning to my shipmates tired yet beaming faces, I smile as well. As a team, we had hoisted a sail in the middle of the night in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and harnessed the power of the wind to push our ship onward.
“Julien, muster to the quarter deck to take the helm,” the first mate shouts. While he could not see my eyes widen in surprise, I walk to the back of the ship. In front of me, a large compass encased in a glass dome filled with water reads 170 under the red light. The first mate instructs, “the wheel controls the rudder. The wind pushes our sails to the starboard side, so compensate by turning the rudder to the left. Lastly, you can align the mast with a star in the sky instead of staring at the compass. Relieve the person at the helm.”
“I relieve you from the helm,” I state.
“Julien, I have been steering a course of one seven zero and have the rudder turned ten degrees to the left,” she responds.
I grab the weathered wood of the steering wheel and feel the resistance of the water pass through the rudder. As the boat rocks and the compass sways with it, it took time to steady my hands and stay within ten degrees of the ordered course. To this day, I still learn, but over the course of the first night my eyes leave the light of the compass and turn towards the stars. Sirius, Beetlejuice, and Spica sit among a mass of stars as numerous as desert sand. What I first glossed over as a gray cloud reveals itself as a great arm of the Milky Way. Under the most beautiful sky of my life, I steer by the stars and laugh in excitement. While exhausted on watch at 3:30 in the morning, I could not believe the opportunity I had been given at Stanford at Sea and steer onward– excited for the many adventures to come.