The Summer Solstice on a Boat

By Tom Neale, 6/25/2009


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Celebrating the Beginnning of Summer

The Summer Solstice is claimed to have special significance by all sorts of people, but I think that we boaters have special claim. Humanity has celebrated it in many ways, for as long as we know history and, I’m sure, before.  Today, for example, people collect around the Stonehenge ruins to party, worship, act weird or do whatever moves them.  And there are many other gatherings all over the world, prompted by ruins, legend, history, ancient religions and, as always, humanity’s age old quest to seek any excuse for a party.

As a boater, I’m happy that it’s the first day of summer. Most of us have already begun our boating season, but it’s nice to know that summer is officially here.  It puts to rest that nagging fear of more cold weather. It legitimizes the life changes that we make, and have looked forward to making, for summer. But there’s far more to it than that.

This is the time when the tilt of the earth’s axis in relation to the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun causes the longest day of the year for you. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, you just experienced it on June 21. If you were in the southern hemisphere then, you would have experienced the winter solstice. If you’re on an offshore voyage doing celestial navigation (and many of us still do celestial), you might notice that the sun seems to stand still—downright spooky if you didn’t know what was going on. This is because, on our summer solstice, it seems to stop its apparent journey to that point when it appears to be closest to the earth in the northern hemisphere and seems to begin its apparent  journey back to the point where it appears to be closest to the earth in the southern hemisphere. But enough of the technical stuff.

A Peaceful Anchorage to observe the Summer Solstice

The greatest significance to me is that the summer solstice is the longest day of the year in terms of daylight. I love that. Long days are important if you’re into boating. The most obvious reason is that they give you more fun time on the water. But there are other reasons.  If you’re making overnight passages, no matter how often you’ve done it and how comfortable you are with the concept, most of us feel a slight twinge of uneasiness when we’re out in that big universe of ocean, and darkness sweeps across the waves.  The stars and the moon and even phosphorescence in your wake add wonder and comfort, but still there’s a feeling, maybe primitive, maybe almost unnoticed, of unease.  I’ve been at sea on those long nights when it seems that the darkness will last forever—especially when you’re on watch around 2 in the morning.  But when the days are long and night comes much later and leaves much earlier, I feel better as darkness overtakes “Chez Nous” and I know that the new day isn’t so far away in time. The ocean seems friendlier.

You don’t have to be far out at sea on offshore passages to appreciate longer days. When you travel the ICW, for example, short days, in the fall or winter, mean that your trip usually takes much longer because you can’t make as many miles per day.  Almost everybody, except for the commercial boats, stops moving at night. There are too many shoals, deadheads, twists and curves to make this a fun night trip. But in the spring, when we’re making our annual pilgrimage north, we can often add 20 or more miles to the day.  And it’s easier to make a daytrip offshore, because, when you can make more distance in a day you can gain that next safe inlet (and there are fewer and fewer of these) in plenty of light.  Even the well marked big ship inlets aren’t particularly fun to do in the dark, because the many lights can be confusing, and because the navigation lights are sometimes lost against a backdrop of lights in a city ashore.

But despite all this, to me there’s something depressing about the summer solstice. It means that, while you’re enjoying the longest day of the year, tomorrow will begin the cycle toward the shortest day of the year.  Each day will be getting a little shorter. The rate is almost imperceptible. At first you don’t even notice it.  But it’s happening.  And soon enough, you wake up and realize it’s still dark outside. Or you’re underway and you’re planning your anchorage for the evening, and realize that you won’t be able to make that favorite cove you’re thinking about, before dark. It’s happening. It’s a bummer. The tilt of the earth on its journey around the sun is adding darkness to your voyaging and more darkness to your life.

Tom’s Tips About Night Sky and Your Boat

1. Your boat can allow you to be closer to the stars than most other people in the civilized parts of the world ever imagined. If you seek out an isolated anchorage at night, far from the lights of cities and towns, and look up, you’ll see stars and constellations that you would probably never see from your home, unless you live way out in the country.

Click Here for More Tips

I’m like most people I suppose. I just go with it.  And I realize I’m being pretty pessimistic to be enjoying the longest day of the year and to have negative thoughts about the days to come. The summer solstice is a test of our psyche. And we on the water are very vulnerable to it, because we’re outdoors people. We’re more in tune with nature. We’re more directly controlled by nature. So I look at the other side of what the planet’s movements are doing to us.

As the days grow shorter, the time grows closer for us to point our bow southward and begin yet another journey, ticking off degrees of latitude until we reach a waypoint where we know we want to stay awhile—where it’s warmer—where it’s tropical—where it’s boating weather all year long.  People who don’t live aboard and cruise can look forward to those magical rare special winter days when they can get out on the water in an entirely different atmosphere. Or they can look forward to finally doing those boat projects that are going to make the boat much better for next season. And there’s one more thing.  I know as I sit here today writing this, on the first shorter day after the day of the summer solstice, that not too far in the future my internal calendar will start whispering to my psyche: Guess what? The winter solstice is just a few days away. And then it’ll come: more darkness than any other day. But the very next day will be a little longer. As will the next and the next. We’re on our way to longer and longer days, to those days where night watches seem shorter and easier, to those days where we can eat up the miles on our trip north, to those days of summer. It’s all good when you’re on a boat.



Copyright 2004-2009 Tom Neale