Moments of Grace

Peter Reason, 2015

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From my home in Bath, if I am lucky, on a dark night I can see just a handful of stars. The planets stand out more, and I was thrilled last year when Jupiter,Venus and Mars were visible, hanging together brightly over the roofs of our row of Georgian townhouses. But that was unusual: my vision is severely impoverished by the light pollution of the city. I know this from my experiences of sailing in a small yacht, frequently making overnight passages across the English Channel or the Celtic Sea. Often the sky is overcast, or bright moonlight hides the stars; sometimes, I am so busy managing the ship that I have no attention to spare. But when the sky is dark and clear, when all is calm onboard, the qualities of the night sky are revealed in what I can best describe as moments of grace. Blaise Pascal is famous for observing ‘Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point.’ For me, moments of grace occur when, contra Pascal, the reason of the heart is at one with the reason of reason.1

 

I first became conscious of these qualities while crossing the Channel with my young friend Monica. The Plymouth breakwater dropped quickly into the distance as we set a course due south. The sea was moderately rough, with short, steep waves. Coral was well heeled in a fresh breeze so that from time to time the sea poured up over the leeward bow and cascaded along the side deck. Every now and then the wind blew a cap of white foam from a peak. As we drew away, the coast of Cornwall and Devon flattened behind us. The near headlands – Bolt and the Dodman – stood out; but the coast beyond – Start Point in the east and the Lizard in the far west – disappeared in the haze.

 

We settled down for the long crossing to L’Aberw’rach, braced in the cockpit, tucked under the sprayhood out of the wind, our minds moving into that quiet, meditative space that can be induced by the sea and the wind. There was nothing to do except make sure the boat kept sailing well and safely, keep an eye out for changes in the weather and for ships, plot our position every hour, eat a bit, sleep as much as we could. After supper we set up a rota so that one of us was on watch in the cockpit while the other rested below. I took the evening watch as we entered the main shipping lanes, where east- and west-going ships are separated to lower the risk of collision. Several ships steamed past westward on my watch but none came close enough to worry about. As darkness gathered I woke Monica – even though this was her first long sailing trip, she seemed already to have the sailor’s knack of grabbing sleep whenever possible.

 

As she came on deck I made sure she was well wrapped up against the cold – it would get chilly even though it was a summer night – and that her lifejacket was properly fitted, with a safety line attached to a strong point. ‘This is it!’ she said, with nervous excitement in her voice. ‘My first night watch!’ I knew this was the moment she had been anticipating, when she would be on deck in the dark on her own.

 

‘Call me if anything concerns you,’ I reminded her as I went below, and very sensibly she soon did so to check her interpretation of lights she saw coming from the west. A huge container ship emerged from the distance and passed very close in front of us, so we needed to spill wind from the mainsail to slow Coral down and let it go ahead. Often big ships are brightly lit, but this one showed little more than the red port navigation light and two white steaming lights on the masts. We watched as its vast presence, silhouetted darkly against the night sky, slipped past Coral’s bows. As soon as it was safe, I went below again and slept soundly for a couple of hours.

 

When I climbed up the companionway to relieve Monica I found her sitting in the deep, dark, moonless night enthralled, as if in a cloud of stars. The shipping lanes behind us, the only lights were the distant twinkling of fishing boats. The wind and rain of the past few days had left the sky startlingly clear. She told me excitedly that she had seen four planets drop below the western sky, and later three or four shooting stars. She pointed out another planet shining bright and steady in the southeast; and exclaimed how clearly the Great Bear stood in the sky. I followed her gaze, my attention expanding into the darkness, taking in the planets, the bright stars of the major constellations, and through the middle the path of the Milky Way, rising in the northeast, striding across the sky and coming down to meet the horizon in the southwest.

 

Monica went below to rest and I stared up at the stars for the next hour or so, remembering the poet Drew Dellinger’s cry ‘I want to write a love letter to the Milky Way!’2 and singing softly to myself the Rogers and Hart lyric:

Though I know that we meet every night

And you couldn’t have changed since the last time

To my joy and delight

It’s a new kind of love at first sight.

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