Running With the Southern Cross
Updated: Jan 13, 2022
Got out of town on a boat, going to Southern islands Sailing a reach before a following sea She was making for the trades on the outside
And the downhill run to Papeete
--Stephen Stills, “Southern Cross”
There is nothing wrong with praying, especially at sea. Whether motorsailing or simply driven by the wind, much of sailing under way comes down to this: stasis. While there are endless tasks—keeping a sharp lookout, trimming sails, monitoring systems, analyzing that new resistance you feel in the helm—there are also endless opportunities for the mind to wander. Match a wandering mind with a hyper-sensitive smarty-pants and put them on a boat in the ocean and opportunities for wayward thought abound. Prayer—in any form, including mantras, meditations, musings, and more—serves as a calming balm to endure life at 5.7 knots of speed.
Of course I knew what the Southern Cross constellation was; as a kid I was an avid amateur astronomer. And as a kid who grew up in a small fishing village, I knew what constellations—especially that one—meant to sailors. So when we arrived in Grenada, I was keen to try and spot it in the night sky. I saw it on a June night and showed Chantal. And it started a thought about where I was on earth and why I felt excitement at human interpretation of an arrangement of stars light years away. Spirits were using me, larger voices calling.
We were thinking about prayer as our sailing began in Grenada on December 1, when we left our mooring ball in Woburn Bay. It was our fledgling sortie, and we were green. We needed the torrents of universal spirituality. After stops in Tyrell Bay, Carriacou, Sandy Island, Clifton Harbour and Chatham Bay on Union Island (SVG), we arrived in Bequia, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, on the winter solstice. We hoped to stay there through the New Year, then begin looking for a weather window to move to Martinique for the winter. The sail from Bequia to Martinique was a distance of 92 nautical miles.
Why Martinique? Part practical, part emotional, as perhaps every goal should be. There were several large systems on the boat that needed sorting. The windlass (whose woes have been documented) and/or chain needed replacing. The propane system needed a solenoid installed for safety. And the chest freezer might be able to be returned to service if we found the right parts at the right price. Le Marin in Martinique is a massive sailing center, with scores maritime resources all centrally located, making it appealing for novices like us to source work.
There was food. In Grenada, we complained about the things we could not find when we could get to the IGA in St. Georges: fresh green salads, good cheese, yogurt, long grain rice. And when we could get these things, it meant an uncomfortable bus ride schlepping heavy bags. We defaulted into ordering online and having them delivered to the marina, where at least we could have a couple of drinks while waiting. But often there were many items out of stock. And in the subset of food was wine and beer. Good wine does not exist on Grenada.
There were emotional reasons, too. Martinique was part of France, one of the DOM-TOMs: departement et territroire d’outre mer: overseas departments and territories, as Hawai’i is to the U.S. For us, that meant a return to French culture, at least West Indies style. We had first experienced this several years ago when we chartered a sailboat and captain and sailed from Guadeloupe to Marie Gallant to Les Saintes. We loved the mixture of island lifestyle and French influence, and we resolved then to try and recapture something like it again. In a way, that was the original spark that began our journey toward sailing.
I had forgotten about the Southern Cross. At some point I had become distracted with the worldly, the boat work, the thinking about me and my needs, my goals, my desires. I had moved on. Sometimes it would make an appearance in my mind and I would feel a pang of regret. But mostly it had faded below my horizon. Its importance had fallen out of balance.
And so we found ourselves in Bequia, a beautiful island in the Grenadines. We loved it there, but we were looking north, for a weather window, something that was sporadic at this time of the year. The Christmas Winds were fresh out of the northeast, and since that was our direction of travel, it meant waiting, hoping for winds to drop to the east, or even a little south of east. This usually happens on a more permanent basis toward the end of January. A part of us would be willing to wait, but it would take patience, a word that has become an anagram for sailing.
Our friend invited us over onto his catamaran, a 45-foot Lagoon, for New Year’s Eve. It was a lovely evening, and at one point he turned to me and said, “Do you know you can see the Southern Cross? Right over there”—he pointed to the southwest—“at about 5 in the morning. I saw it this morning. Very cool.” My head snapped around: I had forgotten about trying to find the Southern Cross. But the next morning—New Year’s Day—I was up, out in the cockpit, leaning into the night, searching. There is was, as distinctive as ever filling my heat with joy and wonder, as if I had prayed for this very moment to arrive. It was a good omen, or so I hoped.
Our weather window arrived. We cleared out of Bequia on a Wednesday morning. Three good days were predicted, with the hint of winds moving to the south of east by Thursday. Our first sail would be to Chateaubelair, 21 nautical miles away, a half-day sail. For the first two hours, we enjoyed a gorgeous sail in the Bequia channel. Pure wind sailing, making 6 to 7 knots with small seas that came around to push us along.
Then, we were becalmed, and the wind actually backed out 350-0, if not dying completely. We motorsailed over glassy waters, past the stunning St. Vincent countryside, until we reached Chateaubelair. There we were greeted by two boat boys, one an old drunk, the other a sweet young man of 17. They pointed out an anchorage for us, near where two other boats anchored, on the north side of the bay. We tipped them $10EC each for the effort, and had one of the better sleeps on anchor we have experienced.
I was up early the next morning, five a.m. We planned an 0600 exit, but it was soon clear that there would not be enough light for us to clear out. So I looked for the Southern Cross. But the evening had been rainy, and that continued into the dawn, with light struggling to illuminate the space-side of clouds. My search was in vain.
We sailed out of Chateaubelair and immediately we were in rainy weather, trying to figure out the best route. We peeked at other boats in the area, but there were a variety of sail plans deployed. Squalls battered us, and we donned foul weather geat and PFDs. We again sailed the rhumb line, but now we question that: We should have sailed a zigzag pattern to maximize winds. But we were dealing with the weather, too. Result: motorsail.
Eventually we approached St. Lucia and the skies cleared and we had one glorious hour of sailing where we touched 9.6 knots on a pure beam reach. But then we found ourselves becalmed in the shadow of the Pitons, and we motorsailed the balance of the way to Rodney Bay. At 52 nautical miles, this was our longest sail yet.
I missed the pre-dawn darkness in Rodney Bay. By the time I opened my eyes it was 0630, late for me to rise. Out on deck I could see only a washed-out sky devoid of all stars except a lingering planet glowing on the western horizon. But I did not linger on my disappointment in missing the Southern Cross; we wanted to be at sea by nine in order to reach Ste. Anne, Martinique in the early afternoon. I squished down the sadness and got busy on board.
Rodney Bay to Ste. Anne: Gorgeous. Perhaps the nicest sailing weather we have had. Winds were at 090 to 100, and our course was 035, putting the wind slightly forward of the beam. 10-15 knots, sometimes gusting to 20. Seas were a little bigger than anticipated upon leaving Rodney Bay, and for the first two hours they kept us busy. But the sailing was glorious, making 6-7 knots with the wind forward of the beam. And once we figured out the sail plan, it was a real Ronco kind of sail: Set it and forget it.
There was a little excitement upon reaching Martinique, as a squall threatened to blow through, forcing us to reduce sail, but it missed us, and we motored into the anchorage at Ste. Anne and found a nice spot. We then dinghied in to the check-in station, filled out our forms, and went to Leader Price to provision. We bought a ton of stuff, including charcuterie, cheeses, rum, wine, sausage, and more. We had arrived.
We will be here in Martinique for a while, working on some repairs for the boat and her crew. By the end of March we will be ready to move on.
The next morning I found the Southern Cross waiting for me, though it was nearly down to the low hills of southern Martinique. But its tilt was unmistakable, its pattern a comforting arrangement of familiarity. I didn’t realize that my search for this random arrangement of stars had become my prayer for the three days at sea; but seeing it this morning returned me to that essential meditation, the idea that there was something out there bigger than us, bigger than the ocean, and we had only to accept it when it came to us.
We are finding things every day. The camino is stretching out before us, giving, receding. It plays with us. It demands faith. It demands prayer. And sometimes, it sings to us:
When you see the Southern Cross for the first time You understand now why you came this way 'Cause the truth you might be running from is so small But it's as big as the promise The promise of a coming day.