Back to nature – sextants and stars

Using a sextant to navigate

Using a sextant to navigate

It’s been far too long since I’ve posted, but in my defence it’s been a busy 6 months. I’ve got married and changed jobs, but I am missing my writing… so here I am!

So far in 2014 I’ve been feeling depressed about not getting outside – January is a rather dank and grey time of year in the UK! A couple of things have cheered me up – one was hearing the ever-charming survival expert (or ‘woodsman’) Ray Mears on Desert Island Discs (I know, I’m getting old), talking about his love of the outdoors, and the other is my dad’s new blog about his upcoming book Sextant.

Both sing the praises of not letting too much get in the way of the natural world. Ray and my dad agree that while technology like GPS can be incredibly useful, it can also blunt our experience of the world around us. My dad’s book is a love letter to the sextant, a tool used by sailors for centuries to navigate across the sea by the stars – something I’m sure Ray would approve of!

Even though I was listening to Ray’s thoughts on my digital radio, sealed in a train carriage shuttling through the middle of London on a grey January morning, I could hear in his voice the feeling of being out in a forest, and his love of getting away from civilisation without all the equipment that the modern world has given us. When you get the chance to be outside you don’t want to be seeing nature always through the filter of a camera lens or a GPS screen.

This really came home to me on a long sailing trip I took when I was 18. I was still a bit scared of the prospect of my first year at university, and tentatively asked my parents if I could defer my biology degree for a year. They were supportive but quite clear on the fact that I had to do something useful with my time – not just get a job and save some money.

So, to a biology nerd, it really did seem like it was meant to be when a family friend asked if I wanted to help crew his yacht on a trip that would take in… the Galapagos. Er, would I?? This has to be one of the biggest no-brainers I’ve ever encountered, and my university could hardly stand in the way of my chance to make the ultimate biology pilgrimage.

So a few months later I found myself on the deck of a yacht in the middle of the Pacific. Night had fallen, and the rest of the crew were asleep below. I was wearing my pyjamas, a literally balmy breeze was blowing (right on the nose, so we couldn’t sail – but you can’t have everything), and more stars than I had ever, ever seen were out in the sky above me.

All day we’d been steering by the electronic compass, trying to hold the yacht to a numbered course that would get us to the islands (we had days still to go before we reached them). There was nothing else to steer by – we were far out of sight of land. Using numbers on the compass just felt wrong somehow – it was awkward and irritating, I was always under or over-correcting as I steered and I certainly didn’t feel like a natural.

But at night everything changed. Lining up my course with a pattern in the unfamiliarly busy sky, it suddenly seemed easy. The stars stayed comfortingly in place, and I felt (rather grandly perhaps) that I was following in the wake of sailors from long before, and other creatures too. Just to top it all off, after I’d settled into a zen-like state of calm and contentment, some dolphins brought me back to earth with an amazing light show in the phosphorescent sea around the boat. If I’d been focusing on a lit-up instrument panel I might never have seen them.

This is a treasured memory of mine because it was something out of the ordinary – but you don’t have to be in the middle of nowhere to get outside. I’m going to make the effort to find that feeling when I can, even when it’s wet and cold and grey. Let’s hope I can keep that new year’s resolution…

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