July 29, 2010

More Dark


After goofing off for two weeks, I had finally written a post for today, but then I read Edward's great story about a night watch during the recent Pacific Cup. It was on a night that was darker than the inside of Johnny Cash's wardrobe trunk.

After reading Edward's post, I decided to declare this Dark Week in the blogosphere.

Photo of The Dark courtesy of EVK4

Edward's story struck a nerve, or rang a bell, or did whatever stories do when you hear one and think, "Oh wow, I know that feeling."

I, too, had a memorable few hours of hoary darkness on my boat one dark and not-so-stormy night. It wasn't in any big-time sailboat race. It wasn't a zillion miles from nowhere. There were no giant swells swelling, or awful winds blowing, or icy spray spraying.

But cripes, was it dark.

Dark in a way you can't believe until you look behind you and discover there is no behind you.

We were working our way down the coast to Monterey last summer, harbor hopping one day of sailing at a time.

Our long hop was from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz - about 50 miles - and to promote domestic tranquility I thought it wise to make sure we got into Santa Cruz before the shades of night were falling. I figured a few hours of night sailing would be better at the start of our day than at the end, so we left HMB at 4:30 am.

The thing about Half Moon Bay that is most consistent is the fog. When it is clear up and down the coast, it can and probably will be foggy in Half Moon Bay. Day or night, rain or shine, summer or winter. And that morning, foggy it was.

We made it to the outer breakwater within sight of a few shore lights which painted fuzzy cotton candy circles of yellow in the fog and, while I didn't quite realize it yet, those fuzzy circles also lent a sense of up and down and left and right. Oh alright, port and starboard. I was relying on the GPS to find our way through the gap in the breakwater, then around the scary reef, and through the entrance buoys about a mile away.

About 100 yards outside the breakwater, a very spooky feeling settled in. Someone had turned out the lights. All of them. There is nothing darker than being in a thick fog on a moonless night. And unlike Edward's raucous swells and wind and spray, this night was still. Very, very still.

We were motoring out into the murk. Except it was too dark to see if it was actually murky. This must be what one of those sensory deprivation chambers is like. No up, no down, no forward, no aft, no left or right. Oh alright, dammit, no port or starboard.

There was almost no sense of motion at all. I was in a little world of just me and the GPS.

And then, it was just me.

The unthinkable had been thought. Like everything else around me, the GPS went dark.

After a few moments of thinking that divorce court might not be so bad, I realized the GPS must still be working. It was just the backlight that had shut off after a preset time delay. All I had to do was work my way through 16 menus to find the one that would keep the little backlight on.

While keeping the boat off the scary little reef that was somewhere very close by.

Which I had no way of doing without seeing the screen on the GPS. Hmmm.

I decided to keep pushing the little backlight button every minute until we cleared the reef and made it out past the entrance buoys. Then, I could deal with the 16 menus without fear of munching the hull. Although, at this point, divorce court was still a definite possibility.

The next fifteen minutes flashed by in what seemed like merely hours, but finally we were past the reef, out in deep water, and I could find the damned backlight menu on the GPS.

To make things easier (I thought), I got us pointed to our next waypoint and flipped on my trusty autopilot (familiar to regular readers of this blog) to hold that course. I set to work fumbling through the 16 menus, everything taking a whole lot longer than it does when you do this stuff on your dining room table.

Finally, there it was, 'Backlight Timeout - None'. Click 'OK'.

What the freak do you mean 'Am I sure?'.

With one last click, the backlight was on and the GPS was back to the main display. But I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

We were humming smoothly along, but the GPS had now gone beserk. The happy little arrow that always points calmly to our next waypoint was now doing complete circles all the way around the dial. Our course was now North West South East North West South East North West South...

This couldn't be happening. The next thing I expected to hear was Rod Serling doing a voiceover.

Or maybe Alfred Hitchcock would peer up out of the companionway. If I could see the companionway.

I froze for a moment and then thought of what a pilot friend had told me about learning to fly by instruments. Forget about your instincts and believe the instruments. In zero visibility, your instincts are almost always wrong.

I switched off the autopilot and started turning the wheel in the direction that would have slowed the wild spinning of the GPS. The spinning needle started to slow.

More steering and it slowed some more. Finally, I got the needle to stop and gradually was able to steer us back on course. It was then I realized the autopilot had slipped out, the wheel had gone hard over, and just as the GPS had been telling me, we were turning in tight little circles - round and round and round.

The really bizarre thing was that, without any visual references, out there in the Pacific Ocean sensory deprivation chamber, there was absolutley no sense of turning at all. It's something you just have to experience to believe.

We motored on in silence for a while. I realized I could buy my wife a nice dinner once we got to Santa Cruz, as I wouldn't need to hire a divorce attorney, after all.

I had learned a few more lessons about GPS and about autopilots and about boats and about voyaging.

And about the dark.



  1. I remember a similar problem when luckily we weren't in the complete black and there was this "hey, what's the moon doing over there?" moment until the realisation sunk in that the auto-pilot had decided to do it's turning round and round in a circle act.

    Luckily no reefs out where we were.

  2. Great idea. Here is my contribution to Dirk Week.

  3. O Docker, you and I are alike in that we are always concerned for our wives. Mine, however, prefers being on the bay in the day.

    Quite a Serling-esque event that was with the spinning headings on the gps. What an Aha! moment it must have been once you realized the auto-helm had slipped. Phew. Hope dinner in Santa Cruz was good.

    P.S.- My favorite Twilight Zone was the Henry Bemis library episode with Burgess Meredith.
    I happened to briefly meet him and Carroll O'Connor one night at the restaurant many years ago. Imagine, The Penguin and Archie Bunker at the same table!

  4. In all fairness, I think few spouses - or sane people of any marital status - who are not sailors would choose to be out on the ocean in a little boat in the middle of a pitch-black night. That goes against any survival instincts that several million years have bred into our species.

    It had taken a fair amount of cajoling and logical discourse to half-convince my wife that this would be a sensible and perfectly safe thing to do.

    Here we were, 30 minutes into our venture, and disaster was closing in on us from all points of the compass. The spinning GPS was Mr. Neptune's way of saying,

    "Nyah, nyah, nyah!"

    But, it's for adventure like this that we go sailing in the first place, right?

    It turned out, that that was one of the few, uh, dark moments of a two-week trip. We both ended up having a great time. It was one of the best vacation trips we've ever done.

  5. Wow. And that's why fog scares me.

    With little wind, there's no way you'd feel the pressure on the wheel/tiller that I was feeling to at least know what the boat was doing. Did you have a compass to go with that GPS (asks the man who can only see his compass dial from inside the cabin)?

  6. In a way, the compass saved me.

    I was so fixed on what the GPS was doing, I shut everything else out at first. But then, I noticed the compass was spinning, too, and slowly, very slowly, the fog inside my head started clearing.

    It's scary how quickly you can become disoriented.

  7. Great story. All I could think of was that you were caught in the vortex of a huge downspout, and were going straight to Davey.

    "Are you sure?"


  8. Could have been a vortex, Puffy.

    That reef I was trying to avoid is the same one that makes the water all lumpy for Mavericks.

    Baydog, you must remember Mr. Jones.

  9. I remember one of the stories used by people to try to prove the existence of the Bermuda Triangle. It was a group of five Corsairs in WWII, and they got disoriented. Their instruments were telling them that they were in one place, going one way, but looking out the windshield of the plane, the leader of the squadron insisted that the instruments were wrong -- he absolutely knew what islands he was seeing below him. His last communication with the ground was that he was going to ignore the instruments, which said he should be flying west, and he would keep flying east instead.

    Bermuda Triangle believers say the mysterious forces of the Triangle made his instruments unreliable. Skeptics say he was stupid not to trust his instruments.

  10. I don't know what I would have done. Trusting your instruments when they all go beserk is hard. You were very clever and pretty zen about it!

  11. Someone call me?

    So what was the lesson learn?

    Your story would have beat Edwards if there was some terror.

  12. I think that's the difference between serious ocean racers and me, Zen.

    They're out there in pursuit of terror wherever they can find it, and I do whatever I can to avoid it.

    I think the lesson learned was not to put your fate in the hands of anything that runs on double A batteries.

  13. No, but on second thoughts... how come you did not HEAR your boat turning around? you must have been on engine alone. If you had your sails up (as well as the engine) you would have seen your boom come across.

  14. Yes, we were motoring, Frankie.

    It was one of those still, foggy nights without a breath of air.

    Despite its reputation for heavy air, our coast can often be calm, especially at night.

    San Francisco Bay has its own wind machine that seems to operate entirely independently of the winds just outside the gate. It's common to approach the gate from outside in almost no wind, and then to be slammed by 25 knots as you pass under the Golden Gate bridge.

    I think the SF chamber of commerce has a contract with Mr. Neptune and his associates to provide wind during daylight hours in the bay proper.

  15. You're sailing through Mavericks at night? This is surely stone cold crazy. Yikes.

    Davey as in Davey Jones and his locker.

  16. It would seem to me that The Tillerman's absence would go down in the annals of Laser Masters competition in a manner he would not want passed on to posterity. The Finns warmed-up the Circle this year. Just add butter and syrup.

    Further, I must note that, absent micro-weather info, only rented convertibles approach the Golden Gate Bridge from the north. At Fisherman's Wharf, they sell scads of sweatshirts to fellow Americans who assumed that SF temps would be like St. Louis temps in summer.

    And, the summer of 2010 sucked. Mark Twain didn't say it, but somebody said it and it should have been Clemens, "I spent the coldest winter of my life one summer in San Francisco." I've seen it before, but I've never yet seen it two years in a row. Lord, let it be so.

  17. Kripey, Mikey, I thought I was in a different comment chain

  18. Quite alright.

    This blog leaves most people confused.

    I've been thinking about sending Tillerman a copy of your book about sailing in our famous currents. I think one glimpse of the view across the bay towards the city front and the bridge will make him forget about the weather.

    Thanks for stopping by.