24 September 2013

Starry nights

Cruising is a life of contrasts.  Many years ago a friend said to me that when you lived on a boat, the highs are higher and the lows are lower.  It was true then: it's true now.

At present it's at a low.  The wind is howling; rain is pelting down and I'm in a tidal anchorage with the ebb flowing strongly, dead against the wind.  We are rocking and rolling and in the lulls, the poor wee boat swings round as the tide catches her and the next thing I know is that she's stern to the wind.  I don't like wind: it's an over-rated commodity.  And today there is far too much of it around.  I have two consolations: we have good holding and sooner or later the wind will die down.  One of the few things that I genuinely have taken on board over the years, is that gales finally blow themselves out  But at times like this it seems much more an act of faith than a reality.  I watch my barometer.  It's an electronic one and it has dropped so far, so quickly that all but the most recent reading are jammed along the top of the scale.  It's not a reassuring sight and I should dearly like it to start rising again.  I suppose there's one more consolation: the tide will soon turn.

How different is this night from one last week when the wind had died away to a glassy calm, and the sky was filled with bright stars.  I was in a different anchorage, sharing it with several other yachts, who were away for the weekend.  Before turning in, I took a glass of wine to the after hatch to enjoy the evening: spring was in the air and in spite of the clear sky, it was surprisingly mild.  Not by the wildest stretch of the imagination could I be described as an astronomer: I've always found it immensely difficult to recognise anything other than the major constellations, but for all that, I know the patterns that stars make, so I was somewhat startled by two bright, completely-unidentifiable planets.  Both so high in the sky and neither in a place I would have expected.  Puzzled, I looked at them for a few moments before it dawned on me that what I was looking at wasn't a planet; nor a star; nor even a satellite: I was looking at a couple of masthead lights, with LED bulbs and absolutely unmoving on the flat water of a calm night.  In case you hadn't noticed, LED white lights are exactly the same colour as a bright star.

Now, for many years I have been bewildered as to the prevalence of masthead lights in anchorages.  I am reliably informed that the people who switch them on regard them and describe them as 'anchor lights', but when and where did the ridiculous habit of placing them at the masthead come about?  When I sail into an anchorage at night, I'm looking ahead of me, not star gazing.  I want the anchor lamp to be at eye height, not 40 or 50 ft in the air.  USAnians, indeed, believe that the masthead is the correct place for the light to be.  Traditionally, an anchor light (also known as a riding light) was hung from the forestay and although the Rules (for Prevention of Collision at Sea) say that the anchor light should shine for a full 360 degrees, boats either at anchor or under way, rarely keep such a steady relation to one another that a light on the forestay would be hidden by the mast.  Yes, a masthead light does comply with the literal meaning of the rules and yes, if you were wanting to be seen by ships rather than other small craft, a masthead light would probably be more efficacious, but shouldn't common sense and courtesy also apply?  Surely, you are not switching on your light only in order to comply with the ColRegs?  You are trying to make it easier for your fellow sailor, groping his way into the anchorage after dark and trying to thread his way among the boats already there.  The fact that LED lights are so bright, only makes matters worse: it's astonishingly difficult to estimate how far off that light up in the sky is, particularly as you haven't a clue whether it's on a 20 ft mast or a 60 ft one.

If you feel you must have a masthead light, then please hang another one further down so that the approaching sailor can get an idea of where your boat actually is.  You can go to any hardware store and buy a $5 lamp, with a tiny solar panel, a re-chargeable battery, one LED bulb and a light-sensitive switch that turns itself on when it goes dark.  It's enough for anyone to see you long before they hit you and you might be happy to have it yourself, on the day when you return to your boat after dark when you only intended to be ashore for a couple of hours.

PS  Make sure the one you buy uses an AA battery and replace it with a high quality, 200+ mAh one, for long nights and overcast days.