Ocean Moon / by duncan mckenzie


Moonlight! We had the gift of moonlight, with a full moon mid-voyage. Night sailing is perhaps the greatest pleasure of the sailor, and a moon is the cream of night sailing. It is a time when the body is out of kilter, forced to stay awake in an unfamiliar zone. The darkness wakes the physical senses, the ear becomes hypersensitive to sounds. Our experience of those hours is very internalised; we become existential creatures journeying across a great surface, travelling in high allegory. Much colour is stripped away, leaving line and tone, the minimalist vector of the ocean horizon, the cut of the sails. 

The bright moon makes some of the stars less visible, and hides the glow of the phosphorescence. But the advantage is the horizon, a feeling of spaciousness, a ghostly beauty in the soft yet defined light, the fall of shadows, and the revelation of textures in the ocean’s surface. Being able to see takes away some of the oppressiveness of night, and when calm it presents a sea of tranquility.


Without a moon, helming in an ocean swell can be very difficult. One struggles to make out the horizon: where the stars stop and a total blackness begins. The person on helm must fall back on their inner ear and sense of balance, steering as if with eyes closed, desperately deciphering a sense of horizontal. 

One night on my previous crossing, a black hole appeared in the starry heavens above the boat. It must be the outline of a small cloud. That night it was moonless and so dark that one could barely make out the line of the horizon. We steered through inky blackness, and the only clue to the whereabouts of the water surface or horizontal plane was the V of phosphorescent electric green foam running either side of the boat’s bow. 

In its passing, the cloud brought a ten minute squall which overcame the boat, pressing the sails as the the wind doubled. For ten minutes the boat lurched dangerously, trying to turn sideways, and it took all my concentration to counter these effects, almost blind. I felt I was steering a racing chariot through a black Hades with green fire sparking off the wheels, terrible, exciting and surreal. Afterwards I collapsed into sleep.

On this passage, most nights that were moonlit were tranquil nights, the lack of cloud signifying fair weather. They were nights of half-sleepy contemplation, where the mind went out to infinity and then back to the mundane, the need for a snack, or a pee. 

Not all nights were moonlit. One cloudy night the wind picked up steadily over an hour, and the boat began to speed to 7 or 8 knots, barrelling and lurching, a fantastic bow wave flying. I wondered how much sleep Alan was getting in the sofa berth. As I clipped on and climbed onto the foredeck to reef the main sail, rain fell in sheets, driven by strong gusts of wind. It was a surreal experience to be blown and blasted whilst working the ropes by the mast in the light of a small head torch. But I felt safe in the middle of the boat, I knew the ropes. And it was a relief to get the boat under control again. Moments later the wind died away and soon the whole process had to be repeated in reverse.


We swapped shifts every night for variety so that we could experience the different three-hour slots. We agreed on the kindest regime: sleep 9-12pm, on deck 12-3am, sleep 3-6am, finally wake for the beauty of sunrise at 0730. But sometimes the conditions made for interesting sailing so I was loathe to go to sleep. Other times I was counting the minutes to waking Alan. 

Coming on deck in the middle of the night after a sleep, the crew about to go off-watch hands over with a little briefing of what’s been going on, what to look out for. For the person coming on watch, the incredible sleepiness of the outgoing person is almost comical. Words are few and half-baked, the need for rest is apparent.

It is the textures of the ocean’s surface that you really remember after moonlight. You can be straight-cutting a thousand miles of shining silk, or other times lurching and barreling through a disturbed surface of wind-blown animal hide, rising and falling, flying white meringues the foam tops of certain peaks. It is a sensual experience and the mind wanders through the not quite repeating patterns.