It is four in the morning, flat calm. The long swells pass under, smooth as glass. The last of the breeze was from dead astern, so the genoa is rolled up, the chute down, and the preventer still rigged to stop the worst of the boom's slat and bang. It is an awkward movement - the roll, the bang of the boom, the return roll, the bang of the boom again. Annoying, really. Annoying for the crew off watch, anyway. On deck, the conversation between helm and standby hand has become sporadic, partly because we are tired, and partly because we are gaping at the Milky Way, a great striding arch across the heavens among whose thick constellations little shooting stars are wriggling.
A greenish-white meteor tears across the sky, huge, inconceivably fast, dropping bits of itself like welding slag. ‘Woooooh,’ we say, and the light is so bright that for a moment there is nothing to be seen except blackness. Then the standby hand says, 'Over there. I think, anyway,' and points a shadowy arm.
And over there it is: a pale bloom on the horizon, growing, then fades, pauses, and then returns. A lighthouse. The standby hand clambers below to mark the chart. A dim red glow from the night lamp in the navigatorium. The clank of cups in the sink, a glorious waft of coffee up the companionway. The cup nested in a coil next to the compass. A feather of steam in the green glow, bending sideways. And on the face, faint as a baby's breathe, a tiny waft of breeze.
The mainsail rumples. The hand on the wheel feels water passing over the rudder. The eastern sky is paling. The wind is conventionally supposed to die with the dawn, but not, by the look of it, today. Get the preventer off. The mainsail is drawing now. The standby hand uncleats the reefing line, and the big genoa unrolls from its foil with a rumble and thump.
The movement of water over the rudder firms up, and if you take your hands off the wheel the boat's nose claws up to port, hunting the wind. Haul in some genoa, let off some mainsheet. She is balanced now, with a faint trace of weather helm for safety's sake, but not so much that the rudder will act as a brake.
The lightness of the horizon has become a pale stripe. Between us and it the sea has completely lost its glassiness, crosshatched with moving air. A dark shadow flits across the swells. The gust hits with a bang. Down goes the lee rail, and the acceleration compresses the knees, and the sound of the wake is a full-throated roar.
Under normal circumstances it would seem a good idea to take a reef. But we have been on passage for a week, and our judgement of such matters is finer than it once was. So we hang on, and feel the power of the heel translate into forward motion until we are thundering ahead, flat out, and the brilliant disc of the sun, white, not a trace of threatening red, soars out of the horizon, and the grey world floods with blue and green and gold.
The standby hand takes time to watch the sunrise, and goes below to put a note in the log and the kettle on the stove. It is 0550, and the watch below is stirring, groping feebly for coffee. The light pours over a sea of deepest indigo frizzled with whitecaps. Far ahead is a long grey shadow that you might think was a cloud, if you were not absolutely certain it was the land.
Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly