Revisiting an old friend
I’m not much of a night-owl when I’m in company. While other musicians head for the late-night jam, I head for bed. I’m the guy asleep in the corner of the sofa at parties.
So it’s strange, perhaps, that I love the night. Yet I do.
As darkness falls, the visual world is stripped of its third dimension. A stand of eucalypts becomes a flat silhouette in black paper. Is that pinprick of light a few feet away, or half a mile?
Conversely, sound gains depth as the white noise of daytime fades. The dog barking to its fellows over at the next farmhouse; the insistent chirp of crickets in the brush; the squeal of tyres as bored teenagers run the gauntlet out on the highway. Noises that tell of goings-on beyond my vision and my knowing.
At night, we are conscious of our island Earth spinning its path through the infinite. We gaze up at the stars: tiny points of light, in reality, vast nuclear furnaces, each a blazing orb of gas with strange worlds circling. Our delights and worries seem inconsequential in the face of this inhuman vastness.
I usually find that adjustment of scale comforting, not pitiless.
Night holds no terrors for me, but sometimes a delicious frisson. Who knows what secrets the darkness holds? What prowls beyond the campfire’s reach? As my face stares blindly from the lit window, what stares back?
As a teenager, I used to rise in the small hours of Saturday morning, two hours before the dawn, and walk six miles through silent, dim-lit streets and along dark country roads to my favourite fishing spot at Frogmore. The flooded Hertfordshire gravel pit was stocked with muscled carp and tench, ambush-killer pike, flashing silver roach, and bream.
I arrived and set up in the dark, to be ready and waiting with a baited hook in the pre-dawn light.
Sitting on the bank, I would watch the blackness take on definition and contour, observe the colours return — one by one. First, the red of my float bobbing in the still water; last of all the green of the grass by my feet. I hear the splash of a big fish jumping somewhere over by the other bank, moorhens calling in the reeds. A little mouse noses around my tackle box as I sit motionlessly. Thinking. Watching. Listening. Hoping for a bite.
Night-time sailing is a voyage into mystery. Wind and waves are often tamed by the soft fall of night. Horizons remain visible in all but the dirtiest weather (when I stay safely ashore). Yet they reveal little about progress across the water. Are we moving at all, or just bobbing on the spot?
Passage planning even for familiar trips becomes essential, despite modern satellite navigation technology. Staring at a GPS ruins your night vision, which you will need, by yourself in a small boat. Moreover, technology can fail. Then what will you do, lost and alone in the dark?
All I see is inky blackness, a little light above the horizon. It’s an overcast but still night. So still. In the darkness, there are faint pinpricks of light. Are they near or far? Difficult to tell …
Lit navigation beacons each have their flashing code, revealing their identity. Six short flashes and one long? That’s the south cardinal mark; steer south of it to avoid the shoals.
That pair of steady red and green lights, red to starboard and green to port? No beacon, but another boat, heading straight for us. Watch her carefully! Steer a little to starboard and see the green light disappear, the red persist, as we pass safely port to port, hull, and sails of each boat invisible to the other.
That flashing white light is … ? Is … ?
No, it’s green! That’s the first starboard channel mark, guiding us home.
Text and images copyright © 2021 Steve Fendt unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.