One Night's Watch, Or How Flies Time

By Douglas Bernon
September 29, 2000
Newport, Rhode Island
N 41 29.154 W 71 19.244

The weather helped us decide when to leave Maine. One morning, Bernadette awoke with a wet face and we thought that there was a new hatch leak over her head. But good fortune prevailed; it was only the condensation of melting ice. Overnight, the air temperature had dropped to 30, and the temporary hatch-glacier above us was dripping in the warmth of the rising sun. Two days later our barometer showed the air pressure had climbed 24 millibars in 30 hours as a northwest high from Canada has pushed across Maine. It was the right direction for us to return to Newport without the prevailing southwesterlies on the nose.

In the realm of the obvious, it's probably still worth pointing out that when living outside, much of one's consciousness is focused on the weather; feeling it constantly on your skin and smelling it and tasting it, factoring it in for such mundane but crucial decisions as whether or not it's a good laundry day, for that involves dinghies and distance and exposure to the elements. On that particular cold morning, I was baking eggplant by 6:45, not so much out of a craving for baba ghanouj, which turned out to be a pretty good breakfast spread on toast, but to heat the cabin and us.

So far in this voyage we'd been day-sailing short distances. A day's run usually was in the 25-to-50-mile range, and could be much less, as we poked from island to island, but we'd chosen now to return directly to Rhode Island from Maine, and that meant one or two overnights, depending on wind and course, as well as our timing going through the Cape Cod Canal, where a 5-knot current can be either a timely ally or can make you wait. Out of sheer serendipity, we arrived at the height of the ebb tide and rocketed through, sometimes at just over 10 knots, which on land would be horn-honkingly tedious, but in this life feels like a face-flattening g-force.

Bernadette and I have taken lots of overnight sails on other people's boats, and sometimes crossed oceans in them, but this is our boat, and the only previous overnights we'd done aboard Ithaka were scurrying back to Newport from Annapolis last year in a gale before the front edge of Hurricane Floyd. This time, we decided on a two-hour watch system. We were to be crossing the Boston shipping lanes in the middle of the night, so we knew to wake the other if there were questions or worries.

As it turned out, this was an anticlimactic trip. We woke each other only to change watches. Our much-wished-for wind lasted just six hours, then died completely, leaving our little piece of the Atlantic without swell or ripple or movement of air. The Autohelm steered us in a flat sea, and we motored for more than 24 hours before another gust filled our sails.

But this is not a complaint.

Our evening began with an orange and purple streaked sunset, followed by a cloudless sky and a rising full moon, which all night dripped white fireballs onto the water. I put a favorite CD of mine into my walkman, Live at Carnegie Hall by Dory Previn, and sat back in the cockpit. In "Moonrock," written back in the early '70s, she wonders how the moon felt about the astronauts and how they behaved.

Sing glory to the golf balls that were driven across her breast
She was a very gracious hostess to a most ungrateful guest.
He thanked his friends in Houston-town.
He thanked his fellow mates.
He thanked his gods and the makers of Tang.
And then he thanked his chief of state.
His gratitude to mankind was eloquent and plain,
But he never thanked the lady who allowed him,
Allowed him, allowed him, in her domain

Photo of moonlight over the water

Throughout this gentle night, we took turns sitting in the cockpit, at first hearing the diesel drone, and then becoming inured and blocking it out. We saw only a few freighters, two other sailboats and a handful of fishing vessels, but mostly we saw this grand moon and her constantly morphing kite-tail of reflections. With little need to do much of anything, it became an evening for viewing and re-viewing, a chance to muse about what Bernadette and I are doing, how exciting it is and challenging, about people in my life, about events in my past. With so much going on inside, each of my two-hour watches passed quickly.

At dawn we were treated to a simultaneous sunrise and moonset that shook and tickled the whole planet all at once. First, the sun peeked through and then screamed up with loud, sharp edges, yellow darts from a tough red orb climbing hard out of nowhere. At the same time, on the other side of the boat, we watched what had been the night's bright white light soften into a mottled cottonball, sink low and then evaporate into a powder blue haze. It was as if these two great bodies were on some kind of heaven-based teeter totter, their opposite forces raising and lowering the other.

Photo of dawn over the water

Lest this rhapsody sound too idyllic, however, for part of the night and into the morning, we paid a price for our reveries. Swept offshore by the wind that died, not just several, but many thousands of flies swarmed onto Ithaka. My 5:00 a.m. log entry reads: "With no wind to aid them, every stinking fly in the northern hemisphere is giving its wings a rest and catching a free ride on us. There are big ones, and skinny ones, and old ones, and tiny ones, and these little, biting bastards are everywhere. There are literally hundreds on the inside bottom of the Bimini. They're cheek to jowl (or whatever it is flies have) on the outboard engine, on the Inmarsat-C antenna, on the rails, on the solar panels, on the deck and hull, on the lifelines, on the compass, on the wheel, on the radio, and on me! They're on my hands and arms and legs and shoes and in my ears. The clever ones land square on my face, knowing somehow that even I am not stupid enough to smash them there. Otherwise, I'm turning black and blue, slapping myself silly."

Prone, I am told, to exaggeration, in this situation I found corroboration in the behavior my most frequent accuser. At the height of our infestation, instead of a sleeping silence from below, I heard the anomalous whirring sound of our tiny and generally useless 12-volt vacuum cleaner. My wife, my beloved, My Personal Commodore, the one who rails against the killing of any living thing, was sucking live flies out of the air and off the upholstery, and seemed to be glorying in the carnage.

Prone, I am told, to Then, just before eight, our wind found new legs. The engine was made silent. The vacuum was stowed. The live flies flew. Three sails were full, and we scooted toward the Cape Cod Canal. We'd passed through a safe and glorious night, and we were grateful to the moon, the lady who allowed us in her domain.