Issue: October 2006
OFF THE CHARTS: Star Light, Star . . . Oh Whatever




Here's the thing about watching a meteor shower: You have to stay awake. It's the least you can do; nature's doing her part, right? The heavenly dome darkens with the setting of the sun, itself an event compelling a certain reverence; at some yacht clubs they mark the moment with a cannon blast that can provoke a quick, thrilling defibrillation in the unprepared. (Personally I think your heart should stop for a moment when you see the sun lower itself grandly into the horizon, exit hemisphere west.)

Then comes the night. And with it, in the month of August, the Perseid meteor shower. It's called the Perseid after the constellation hosting the action: Perseus. But the meteors themselves really have nothing to do with Perseus; they're bits of flaming space hairballs coughed up by the comet Swift-Tuttle - which flies around the universe like a sort of astral Pig-Pen, trailing a cosmic dust cloud of flies, bugs and debris (well, okay, just the debris really). Earth glides through this messy wake every year in July and August. All those little bits of stuff hit the atmosphere at speeds up to 132,000 mph. At that rate, even a speck of lint will flame out like Jack Abramoff. At the shower's peak, the night sky looks like it's raining stars.

On Luna we plan part of our cruising schedule in August around this annual celestial extravaganza, and this year it looked like everything was going to fall into place: The shower's peak was to fall on a Saturday night, NOAA was predicting clear skies, light winds and perfect temperatures, the full moon was on the wane.

We were anchored in a favorite spot far from the intrusive loom of any city, or any waterfront McMansion lit up like a Broadway opening. We'd had a brisk paddle in the kayaks, seen bald eagles playing nearby, watched half a dozen osprey tournament fishing, enjoyed a refreshing cockpit shower, grilled steak and a nice bottle of wine. The sun set like an aria. All was ready.

The kids were in good spirits. There was just one thing.

"I hope I can stay awake," I said.

"The heck with that, I'm making coffee," Johnny said.

"Are you insane? You'll be up all night!"

"That's the idea, right? I've waited twenty years to see this thing peak on a night this perfect."

"Well, okay," I said dubiously. "I will if you will."

Coffee dutifully quaffed, we headed forward with blankets and pillows and proceeded to somehow wedge all four of us into a pie-shaped pile on Luna's foredeck.

"So where's Perseus?" Johnny asked.

"Somewhere over there I think," I said, waving toward the north. I must have been close because a moment later we saw a streak of light dropping across the sky. And then another. And another. Then two at the same time, one shooting east and one west. It wasn't exactly raining meteors yet, but we filled the lulls watching satellites cruise across the heavens like shiny drones (obviously man-made, no exuberant flash or wildness to them, just doin' their job, ma'am, nothing more, nothing less). The moon, a glowing cantaloupe, rose in the east, and the evening breeze played lightly across our faces - all was gorgeous.

And I was falling asleep. Any minute now, I thought, any minute that coffee will kick in, I'll be wide awake. . . .

When I did wake up the moon was high in the sky and all around me pressed the potato-sack weight of sleeping bodies. The Clarke family had done a collective face-plant. We looked like one of those dog bed photos in an L.L. Bean catalog, a pile of puppies blissfully adrift. I'm sure the meteors were still up there showering away, but nobody on Luna's bow was paying attention anymore.  

Oh well, there's always next year. Coffee anyone?