Sailing & Stargazing

Manitou Tall Ship

Stargazing was easy when I was a girl in the Panhandle of Texas. When my friends and I “slept out” under the inky-black sky, the Milky Way covered us with a blanket of glittering stars. We knew the Big and Little Dippers, but no one told us about other constellations. I discovered more about the night sky as den mother for David’s Cub Scout troop in the early 80s, though the sky over Arlington, Virginia was never very dark. A few years ago, I took an online course on the “Origin of the Universe” in an effort to understand our solar system. Marjo, my friend since first grade, and I also toured the McDonald Observatory in West Texas and saw their great night sky narration. Now I live just five miles from the Atlantic Ocean in South Florida and I want to know more about what I see in the wide sky over the beach. When Marjo suggested joining her on a “Star Lore” tall ship cruise on Lake Michigan, I eagerly agreed.

After our grand family reunion in Chicago over Labor Day weekend, Steve returned to Boynton Beach and I traveled to Marjo’s home in Kettering, Ohio, where she treated me to a wonderful parade of interesting people, parks, and museums, which I’ll write up in due course. On September 10, while Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida, we headed for Michigan. I kept in close touch with Steve, David, Leslie, 3-1/2-year-old twins Margot and Nina, and six others gathered at our house to face the storm together. By the time we boarded the Manitou on the 12th, I knew they were all safe with their homes undamaged. In fact, it sounded like they had had a great party without me!

Compared to the many veteran sailors among the 20 passengers on the Manitou, my sailing experience was scanty–only two or three short daytime cruises on the Chesapeake Bay years ago. Why did I think that sailing on a tall ship would be anything like our National Geographic tour of Glacier Bay, Alaska in 2013 or our Viking River Cruise in France last year? Sometimes I get nervous in close quarters, but I never imagined that on the Manitou, I would startle awake in the wee hours of the first morning in our tiny cabin feeling intense claustrophobia. I felt like I was in a coffin. I almost jumped ship, but decided to stay on the deck the rest of the night. “I’m no quitter,” I told myself, “I want to see the stars!”

Pouch Couch to the rescue! The next day fellow passenger Liana brought out a wonderful contraption her granddaughter enjoys. After Sasha inflated it in the wind, Liana said I could use it for a bed. It made my nights on the deck very comfortable, as long as I wore my ski parka and heavy socks–night temperatures were in the low 50s. As the crescent moon waned, I awoke frequently to see a sky appropriately dark for observing stars, planets, satellites, and two (!) shooting stars (okay, meteorites).

Mary Stewart Adams, Program Director and Star Lore Historian for the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, led our journey through the stars every afternoon and evening. Encouraging us to use our own naked eyes, with occasional binocular assists, she coaxed us to learn the names of the brightest stars and the stories of the most prominent constellations. With her help, we found the Summer Triangle of Vega, Deneb, and Altair. I’ll try to share this shape with granddaughter Violet, 8, when I see her soon. Mary told the stories of adjacent constellations Hercules, Lyra, Cygnus, and many more. She showed how the Big Dipper points the way to Polaris, while from its handle we could arc to Arcturus and then speed to Spica. I responded to her deep knowledge and enthusiasm, such as when she taught us how the days of the weeks relate to the seven most prominent bodies in the sky:

Sunday – Sun

Monday –  the Moon (lunes in Spanish, lundi in French)

Tuesday – Mars (martes in Spanish, mardi in French)

Wednesday – Mercury (miércoles in Spanish, mercredi in French)

Thursday – Jupiter (jueves in Spanish, Thor in Norse mythology)

Friday – Venus (viernes in Spanish, Freyja in Norse mythology)

Saturday – Saturn

Thus, Tuesday through Saturday remind us of the five fellow planets we can see unaided. This relationship seemed new to many of us. Such a practical approach is what I need to convey the stories of these planets’ namesakes to my grandchildren. Stories are easier to understand than the concepts I have studied online and heard discussed at Chautauqua. Our next task was harder: to learn to sing the names of eleven of the brightest ecliptic stars to the modified tune of Twinkle Twinkle*):

Hamal, Aldebaran, Alcyone, Pollux

Regulus, Spica, Zebunelgenubi

Antares, Algebi, Deneb Algebi, Skat

Chief Ecliptic Stars!

The frequency of Arabic names reminds us that many of the early astronomers named stars from desert locations. Could my seven-year-old grandson Thomas sing those names? Mary surmised that if he can say Obi Wan Kenobi, he can sing Zeb-u-nel-ge-NU-bi!

*For an “astronomically correct” version of Twinkle, Twinkle, that our First Mate Ryan sang to us, click on this YouTube video.

Mary, her sister Kathy, and I are “eclipse chasers.” Mary traveled to Oregon and Kathy, to the Smoky Mountains, to see the Solar Eclipse I saw in South Carolina. Mary challenged me to understand that that eclipse was part of the Saros Series 145, that happens every 18 years, 11 days, and 8 hours (1945, 1963, 1981, 1999, and 2017). This one was unusual because it spanned the entire lower 48 states and no other country.

As we watched the sunset, Mary reminded us that the sun was really not the body turning–it was the Earth, rotating on its axis. So she quoted a poem by Tennyson I’d never heard:

Sunset, September 14
Move eastward, happy earth, and leave
   Your orange sunset waning slow;
From fringes of the faded eve,
   O, happy planet, eastward go;
Till over thy dark shoulder glow
   Thy silver sister-world, and rise
   To glass herself in dewy eyes
That watch me from the glen below.

Ah, bear me with thee, smoothly born,
  Dip forward under starry light,
And move me to my marriage-morn,
   And round again to happy night.

Then as the stars came out, she treated us to John Keats’ poem, “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art.” Early the next morning on the deck, I squinted at the crescent moon and saw a shining moonbeam extend itself to me (try it yourself). Ravished by the beauty of morning star Venus, I sang the hymn that compares Christ to a morning star:

Venus, morning star, viewed from Grand Traverse Bay, Michigan

1. O Morning Star, how fair and bright
thou beamest forth in truth and light,
O Sovereign meek and lowly!
Thou Root of Jesse, David’s Son,
my Lord and Master, thou has won
my heart to serve thee solely!
Thou art holy,
fair and glorious, all-victorious,
rich in blessing,
rule and might o’er all possessing.

Sailing on the Manitou was much more than stargazing. I got acquainted with some fabulous folks, all Midwesterners. We avoided any talk about politics, but I appreciated long chats with a lifelong member of the United Auto Workers, a fireman, two nurses, and a woman who works online with a Boston marketing firm. It’s fair to say that I was much more curious about their lives, than they were about mine. Together we felt the wind in our hair, ate good food, shared interesting books (particularly, Longitude by Dava Sobel, and Great Stories of the Great Lakes by Dwight Boyer), sang, and danced. I certainly gained respect for the space limitations of early sailors; First Mate Ryan had sailed on the replicas of Columbus’s tiny ships, the Niña and Pinta, that I saw in Charleston in May. Icing on the cake was when Ryan and three other crew members led a sing-along on the last evening and invited me to play along on Harriet’s Bodhran (Irish drum).

Click on this album of Manitou photos to see our fun times and lovely views. As for me, my life is changed. I will look at the night sky more often, treasure the beauty that lies beyond our dear earth, and learn more star lore to savor and pass on. I started this morning.

Morning Star Venus, viewed from Boynton Beach FL, September 19, 2017, 6:36 am

Our sail began and ended at latitude 44º47′ North, 85º38′ West. This morning in Boynton Beach I watched the morning sky at 26º 32″ North, 80º 2″ West. At 5:30 am, the same constellations I saw on Grand Traverse Bay were higher in the sky. In the still surface of Lake Michigan, I saw Orion’s reflection, but not in the still-feisty Atlantic Ocean. I again saw Sirius, the brightest star, in Canis Major, but also found Procyon in Canis Minor, which was too low to see at Michigan’s latitude. Since the moon was new, I could see Castor and Pollux in Gemini, not far from Orion. Those twin stars inspired me to learn their story to tell my twin granddaughters. Regulus in Leo was bright enough to hold its own next to glowing Venus, with Mars, too, shining more faintly below. I intend to point those three bright lights to grandson Stephen the next time I see him.

I’m not equipped to take photos of the night sky, but what a beautiful dawn my camera beheld. I hope that you will join me in continuing the legacy of the Manitou, by looking for special stars each night and for fellow planets shining brightly each morning.

Dawn, Boynton Beach FL, September 19, 2017, 6:52 am

Addendum November 22, 2017: Our Quail Ridge Chorus has a lovely new song by Victor Johnson–his setting of Christina Rossetti’s lovely poem, “What Do the Stars Do?”

What do the stars do
Up in the sky,
Higher than the wind can blow,
Or the clouds can fly?
Each star in its own glory
Circles, circles still;
As it was lit to shine and set,
And do its Maker’s will.





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