The Fourth of July has never been my favorite holiday. I was always too hot, assaulted by insects, or crowded in by others to truly enjoy the fireworks. And given that pyrotechnics and boats don’t mix, I was not expecting or wishing that the holiday would be observed by more than a brief announcement during class. So it came as a surprise to me when Capt. Rick said that we would be testing some expired flares off of the quarterdeck at 1930 in celebration. Following a blissful six hours looking at zooplankton in the air-conditioned lab (I found an unidentified zooplankton during the 100 count! It looks like a tiny horseshoe crab!) and one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen, we all walked up to the quarterdeck, the equatorial dark falling fast around us. It was one of those still summer nights where, despite the fact that we were sailing around six knots under the jib, staysails, topsail and the main, it felt like we were barely moving at all. Then there was an enormous crack and the first flare went off to leeward, catching all of us, except Captain Rick, unawares (I think he got a kick out of surprising us). One by one the flares went off, corkscrewed up and floated slowly down to the western horizon, the red lights winking out in succession. They were beautiful; but the real treat came afterwards. The stars were out.
I had never seen so many stars before in my life. Even in the clearest, most remote places I have been to on land, there have always been trees, mountains, clouds in the way. Buildings and light pollution have always come with the night sky, in tandem with it, making humankind’s mark on the heavens. Here, there is nothing. Nothing that has grown; nothing we have built. In the hour before the full moon rose, it was just us and the stars. I listened as Sil, a deckhand who is also a proud member of B watch, point out constellations to all of us who know nothing of stars. Hokule’a, the Hawai’ian star of happiness, perched above our mainmast. The summer triangle peaked just above our stern, while Leo, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor settled to our starboard. Cygnus, the swan, marked the beginning of the Milky Way, spanning gloriously across our port side all the way to the bow. The Southern Cross twinkled, its kite pointing the direction we were headed. But the one constellation that struck me in particular was Scorpio. It’s enormous: I counted sixteen stars in it, four for the head, three for the body and nine for its tail curling like a fishhook. According to the myth, Orion, the hunter, was so bloodthirsty that he began killing every animal he could find. As punishment, Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, had him killed by a giant scorpion, and then put both Orion and the scorpion in the night sky, always chasing each other, never seen at one time. And this is why I kept looking over our port side: Orion was not there. Growing up in Massachusetts, Orion is one of the few constellations I can identify. He was always there with his bloody Betelgeuse shoulder, accompanying me on evening walks, summer hikes, during midwinter owl-spotting trips with my father, the woods quieted with snow. But now we have gone so far that the skies have not come with us. I had always assumed, selfishly, that wherever I went, the skies would remain with me. But of course they have not. Humankind means nothing to them, and they remain ignorant of our existence and the meaning we place upon them. And yet it’s impossible, surrounded by shipmates, to feel the burden of my own insignificance. With the ship, our remoteness becomes exploration, not solitude. Under our sails, we could support the weight of the sky. It is incredible. I stood there on the quarterdeck for about an hour, wandering from one side to the other in awe, seeing the constellations rise and catching the occasional shooting star over the horizon. The moon rose, shining a full bright orange, dimming the glory of the stars, but only by a little. Then the watch changed, we gybed and then hove to so the scientists could cast the neuston net tow. Reality seeped back in. I went down below to have a full night’s sleep for morning watch at 0700. The next day went by quickly. There were some squalls, some artwork, some homework, some arguing about free will while I was at the helm, and I only got pooped on by boobies twice—so it was a good day. One of the deckhands, Becca, has started a political campaign during our trip, advocating that we coexist with the boobies instead of wishing them violence for pooping everywhere. As my research project concerns birds, I feel obligated to join the coexist party, but I have a great amount of sympathy for the opposition. Besides, Becca made propaganda to support her cause, and it’s very convincing. But the stars have stuck with me for all of today. It was a glorious thing to see. I hope Sil is all right with me asking him more questions about the constellations. I need to know everything about them now. By Abby tenBroek, B watch, Smith College All right, now for the shoutouts: To Clay and Dorothy, Marshall says hello and sends his love. To Jeffrey and Stephen and Ga Iris, Elijah sends all of his love and a “<3” To Sam’s folks, he says “Hello from Sam aka Scupper Boy.” You will learn more about Scupper Boy soon… And to Mom, Dad, and Ness, hello! I hope your summer is starting out well, and I can’t wait to tell you absolutely everything. To Ness and Kylah, good luck preparing for school! You got this!! I love you all so much!