Perspective Regained

By Tom Neale, 4/2/2012


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

We expected only another beautiful Bahamas evening as we anchored to the west of one of the thousands of beautiful islands of the Bahamas. I stood on the bow and looked down through the water and saw that the CQR was buried in the fine white sand. The light sea breeze was dry and cool, barely ruffling the water around us and gently reminding us that we were enjoying a high pressure phase in the weather that would bring us more sunny cool calm days.

We sat around the table talking about the day’s dive and catch, which we were eating for dinner. Mel, Melanie and Carolyn and I had gone out in the tender after school and had that good feeling that you have when you’re tired, you’ve caught your food and been immersed in a beautiful place and a beautiful day. The last of the sunset filtered into the salon windows, reflecting from the darkening sky and from the water around us. It was that sort of special experience that you can only enjoy while at anchor. But as the evening darkened I felt a twinge of unease. I hardly noticed it at first, and as it grew on me, I sensed nothing that was causing it. Something. But what? We continued to talk and enjoy the time together.

…and the sun sets without the evening news
I looked at the ship’s clock on the wall. Well past dark. But then I realized. It wasn’t dark. Not quite. The beautiful colors of the dying day still graced the interior of the salon, flickering slightly as the boat and waves moved. Or was it? Dark is dark, and there was no moon. I don’t remember which of us did it, we were all sensing something strange. But one of us got up and went up the companionway to look out. I don’t even remember what was said but very quickly we were all on deck. In awe.

The sky was full of colors, gentle colors but powerful. They were moving, wavering, alive. We couldn’t imagine what was going on. Sunset was far past and we’d spent many nights in the Bahamas and never seen anything like this. Mel and I still had vivid memories of the cold war and the “Cuban Crises” and the haunting fear of nuclear explosions. We couldn’t help but wonder if something like this was happening somewhere, although admittedly it didn’t make sense. We sat there, in the cockpit, spell bound and wondering.

We weren’t the only ones wondering. This was in the mid ‘80s. In the islands in those days most people kept their VHF radios on. Homes in the villages didn’t have phones and cell phones on boats hadn’t been dreamed of. At least not by people like me. VHF was the way we communicated and it was like a big party line. We were on it. Soon villagers up and down the island chain were coming on, asking if others were seeing the same thing and wondering together what was going on. Not bothering to switch from 16 to another channel, because of the island/cruising community concern, all were expressing anything from mild apprehension to outright alarm. The oldest of the locals were saying they’d never seen anything like that here.

Then a well known and respected patriarch from one of the larger villages keyed his mike. He’d been watching and wondering too. And he’d also been listening to the growing concern of friends and neighbors. Everyone knew his voice as he assured all. “Don’ worry. Don’ worry. It’s all right. What it is, is the US has shot up another space ship. I heard they were going to do it. And you know those ‘tings go so far they can’t carry all de gas they need. So they carry along spare tanks and when they get way up there they cast off de tanks way up in the sky. And that’s what we’re seeing. It’s de gas tanks burning up in the sky.”

Tom’s Tips

1. At anchor at night you can usually get a much better view of the stars because you don’t have all the ambient lighting to interfere.

2. Many smart phones can download apps that can name the constellations over you based on where you are (if you have a signal).

Click Here for More Tips

That was good enough for many, but Mel and I were still worried. I fired up the Single Side Band. With it you can, in theory, talk around the world when the atmospheric conditions are right. I decided to raise the nearest (but still very far away) Coast Guard station in Miami and find out if there were anything we should know about. It was a good plan. But it didn’t work. I called US Coast Guard Miami on all their frequencies. All I heard was static and the radio sounds of space. It didn’t make us feel any better. I then tried Norfolk, with the same results. As a last effort, I tried New Orleans…over and over again. It was normally hard to reach New Orleans from there on SSB, I suppose because of the interferences associated with all the land the signals had to skip over. But finally, this night, New Orleans answered.

I explained where I was and what we were seeing and asked if anything were going on that we should know about. The guy on radio watch was understandably a bit skeptical. But he listened and finally understood that this was a legitimate and very serious call. He asked me to stand by, saying that he was going to check it out. I rogered back, but uneasily. So often, at times of poor propagation, station signals come and go quickly. We waited, standing around our communications station, watching the glow in the night sky, listening to the crackle, hiss and other noises in the airwaves of space.

After a few very long minutes he came back. “Motorsailer Chez Nous, this is US Coast Guard New Orleans, US Coast Guard New Orleans. Do you copy?” We did. “Roger that, This is Motorsailer Chez Nous back to Coast Guard New Orleans.” He told us, with amazement in his voice, that he’d done some checking and that it was a very unusual display of the Northern Lights. We were around 24 degrees North. Yet there it was. He said it was unusual sunspot activity. I thanked him, we signed off and went up on deck to enjoy the show. Others at sea were doing the same. We talked to a friend later who had been far, far to the south of us and who had also witnessed the event. Eventually the lights began to diminish, we went to bed, and the next morning had another nice day. No problem, no hassle.


Recently, while on our boat in the States, we watched evening and morning news with mild interest as a plethora of typical talking heads repeated “breaking news” story after story of unusual sun storm activity. They spoke of all sorts of rating grabbing scenarios. But planes didn’t crash, worldwide communications didn’t crash and satellites didn’t fry. But this activity did result in folks as far south as Illinois—maybe even the mid Atlantic region—seeing the Northern Lights. In frenzied efforts to whip their ratings to a froth they hit it again and again, with alarmist comments. If you took them seriously you’d be more stressed every moment as to whether you should dig a hole or dig a deeper hole. We fondly remembered that “big gas tank in the sky.” So we stopped listening to the increasingly hysterical reporting. Instead, we continued to enjoy our cruise.

One of the many good things about being on a boat is that it gives you a much better perspective. If you let it be, you’re far more in tune with nature and an orderly sane progression of life in the world. You don’t have to be whipped back and forth by artificial stimuli the purpose of which is to make money or serve some selfish goal of others. It makes it worth going out on a boat, even if it’s just to sit at anchor and enjoy the afternoon. Your boat --- What a Deal.



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