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Offshore sailor gets a celestial nightlight

Jan 1, 2003

I was standing night watch on one of those breathtaking, starlit nights. There was a light breeze from our port quarter, and I was in a quiet, pensive mood. We were headed south toward the Windward Passage east of Cuba aboard Susie-Q3, an Oyster 53.

Standing up on the cockpit seats, I leaned against the dodger and scanned the horizon for ships. None to be seen. Perfect visibility. The autopilot kicked now and then, mainsail slatted, bright phosphorescence in our wake. Peaceful, rambling thoughts.

Suddenly, the cockpit was illuminated by a bright light from astern; my silhouette was clearly imprinted on the coach roof. I whirled around to my left and was blinded by a bright searchlight...must be a helicopter. But then I realized that it was moving fast, very fast, horizontally across the sky. Then it fragmented and died out.

This was the closest I've ever been to an incoming meteor. It was very bright with a pale green hue that turned a little orange as it fragmented. It was at an altitude of about 30° and was about half of the sun's diameter at midday. I estimate that it was less than a mile from our stern.

Just another one of those intangible benefits of ocean sailing.

Tom Tursi is the director of The Maryland School of Sailing and Seamanship in Rock Hall, Md.