It was time for my watch, so I dragged myself out of "bed", pulled on some foulies, donned the PFD, and climbed up the companionway, ready to tether on for another three hours of sailing. As my head popped up, all I saw was a dim green glow from the compass. I assumed that the shape behind the glow was a person but where was everything else? I didn't think to turn off the flash on my camera and take a picture so I did an artist's interpretation of the scene in the cockpit on this dark night:
That is not an exaggeration. We knew that there was going to be no moon for many of these nights but what we didn't expect was that a four mile deep layer of clouds was going to cover the Pacific. No light could get through even if it wanted to.
So how do you sail when you can't see the sails, the waves, the wheel, or your precious mug of hot chocolate? You do it by feel and let all of those hours of practice with the blast shield on (gratuitous Star Wars reference) allow you to feel the force.
Let me set the stage for this night, one of the greatest 3 hours of sailing I ever did. We had about 20-25 knots directly on the beam and based on what the swells were like the last time I was able to see them about 8-10 foot swells, with some bigger sets every once in a while. We had the main, staysail and genoa all up and pulling; I can only assume they were filled. And it was dark. And noisy.
I was steering by compass though I guess I could have done it by wind direction too, but the heading was most important. The boat was blasting along at 9 knots, leaving a ferocious wake as we went up and down these swells. I wish I could tell you where they were coming from but I have no idea, there must have been some sort of cross swell because it felt completely random.
I could hold the course for minutes at a time and then without warning (because, you know, I couldn't see a damned thing) a swell would come along and push our canoe shaped boat higher. I'd have a split second to adjust and then bring the boat back on course as the speed picked up and our bow wake hit our stern wake and buried the leeward rail right to the cockpit coaming. This is known because my watch partner was sitting there!
The sailing was brilliant. It was fast and done completely by feel. The wind angle was perfect for staying on course and I'm pretty sure it made all of us better sailors. Heck, we might as well have been sailing blindfolded.
And, that's the cool thing. You know how they say when you lose one sense that the other 4 senses get more acute? Well, in this case, my hearing picked up. I could hear the waves, the wind, and the sound of the boat through the water. I swear I could hear the boat turning before I could feel it. And it was loud...20+ knots of wind, 26,000 pounds of water being displaced at 9 knots of boat speed, and the wake rushing over the rail...it sounded like we were an unstoppable force. And, thankfully, there were no immovable objects in the way because we would not have seen it.
The only description I have is a freight train....it sounded like we were just an out of control freight train tearing through the Pacific Ocean. The feeling of connectedness I got with VALIS during those pitch black watches and the beam reachy one in particular was fantastic and helped through most of the rest of the trip.
I'll never forget what it was like to sail blind like that. Though to help out the rest of the world who wasn't lucky enough to have been on board that night I started the design of a great iPhone app. The screen shows a dim green compass and four dim red instruments that have no bearing at all on the game. Your goal is to keep the compass pointing at 270 by using the accelerometer in the iPhone and gently rocking it back and forth. The problem is that the inputs to make the needle swing make absolutely no sense and you have no idea which way it is going to swing next. All you can do is correct and hope you don't over correct. It will probably have a cacophony of weird boat noises and wind and water sound. And if you can get a friend to shoot a water cannon at you periodically that would help with the realism.
Oh, and do it in a dark closet.