Northern Lights

Where Next?
Bob Williams
Sun 31 Aug 2014 23:14
Noon Position: 58 19.5 N 151 20.9 W
Course: North East Speed: 6 knots
Wind: North West F5 Fresh Breeze
Sea: slight Swell: negligible
Weather: sunny, cool
Day's run: 50 nm

Last night, as we drifted around becalmed, I would regularly poke my head out of the companionway for a look around, to make sure there were no other vessels about, and to see if there might be sufficient wind to get Sylph moving. On one such venture out into the cockpit, as I scanned the horizon, I was amazed to see striations of milky white light descending vertically from the clear night sky, their upper edges square and ragged, disappearing into a smooth dark bank on the northern horizon. Is this the famous northern lights I asked myself. Surely not, it is too early in the year, I am not far enough north, but, while perhaps not the most spectacular display one could imagine, I came to the conclusion there was no other explanation. It had to be the solar wind, the bombardment of the earth by the sun's charged particles, lighting up the atmosphere as it descended along the force lines of the earth's protective magnetic field. I was only watching an online video of the northern lights the day before, taken from the space station using time lapse photography. My vantage point was as low as one can get compared to the photographers over my head, but I felt no less privileged to witness this phenomenon of nature, a reminder of how fortunate I am to find myself on this very unusual lump of rock hurtling through space, whose complex attributes allows me to live as a conscious being on its surface, albeit for an all too brief span of time.

As for the terrestrial wind, the one which it seems I am fated to deal with for the better part of my allotted span, my assumption that if I waited long enough the forecast would come true turned out to be very reasonable. At 0230 this morning the breeze started to fill in from the forecast direction, north west. The seas were still flat and within the hour Sylph was making a very comfortable six knots. Even though Sylph was riding smoothly, given that the forecast was for twenty knots or so, I chose to be cautious and at 0430 I put a reef in the mainsail. It turned out to be premature for come dawn we were once more becalmed, this time with a confused sea coming from different directions causing Sylph to bounce around, sails slatting. We were only about five miles to the south east of Marmot Island and I thought it likely that the light winds and confused seas might be the result of a wind shadow effect, so rather than bounce around stuck in the one spot for goodness knows how long I flashed up the BRM and motored for half an hour. This seemed to do the trick for in the distance covered in this time, a mere two miles, the sea surface started to turn a dark and crinkly blue, a sure sign of a breeze.

Now we are well clear of Marmot Island, and the much larger Afognak behind it. Stevenson Entrance leading to the mildly infamous Shelikof Strait to its south and Cook Inlet to its north is allowing the wind to blow untrammelled. We have two reefs in the mainsail and the jib half furled. The seas are getting boisterous, one just broke clean over us, almost dousing the coffee I was sipping in the cockpit with salt water, and me along with it, but fortunately I was mostly under the cover of the dodger. If the wind does what it is meant to do, namely back further into the west, than we should be able to ease sheets a little more and the remainder of our passage to Resurrection Bay should be commensurately more comfortable.

Resurrection Bay looks interesting. Seward sits at its northern end, twenty miles from the entrance. The bay's sides sides are rugged and steep, with a large glacier dominating its western flank. I suspect the winds will be unpredictable once we enter inside. Perhaps we will be lucky and the wind will funnel up its entrance making for a fair breeze, but I suspect we will more likely encounter light winds and calms, interspersed with gusts coming down the valleys, and perhaps some williwaws spinning off its peaks, and Bear Glacier will no doubt funnel some chilly winds down its slopes into the sea. But that, with a little luck, is for tomorrow to reveal. For now we have the snow capped peaks of Kenai Peninsular, while still well over forty miles away, clearly visible to our north.

All is well.