A ‘Must See’ on the Bucket List of Every Ocean Lover.
It’s quiet except for the sound of the wind whistling across the sails and the wash of the ocean as she passes beneath your keel. Standing the four to eight watch can be a spiritual experience, you feel lucky to be alive. The omnipresent fatigue is your only company as the rest of the crew are securely in their racks, taking advantage of a calm Pacific ocean this late night. The sail from Hawai’i to Tahiti has been a fair one. Kiribati and the Jarvis Islands were the last points of land to slip by off the starboard rail before crossing the equator into the southern hemisphere. Your heart is at peace, your brain is at rest, your hand is gently on the helm and your eyes stare just a few points off the starboard bow at the southern cross.
The Polynesian people have been navigating the great expanse of the South Pacific using the southern cross for thousands of years. Unlike in the northern hemisphere which has the Ursa Major or the north star from which to navigate, there is no southern polar star. The southern cross, known also by the Latin name Crux, and her two pointer stars help the celestial navigator’s eyes zero in on where south really is. If one were to draw a line along the the length of the cross and extend it approximately 4.5 times you would arrive at southern pole. A further help is taking a perpendicular line off of the pointer stars and extend that imaginary line. Where they meet is also the southern pole.
The group of stars that make up the cross are known as Acrux, Gacrux and Mimosa (two stars don’t have names). Because the southern cross is not opposite Ursa Major, they move across the night sky, rotating around the south pole. What most people don’t realize is that the southern cross can be seen in the winter and spring from the northern hemisphere south of 25 degrees north latitude, roughly the Tropic of Cancer or what is considered the tropics.
The southern cross holds much more meaning to people living in the southern hemisphere beyond navigation. The stars represent a way of life, they are a symbol of unity and a respect for the importance of sea born transportation and trade. To that end they appear on the national flags of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Brazil. There are countless, clubs, groups, teams and military units who also identify themselves closely with the cross.
The last time I looked up at the southern cross was from Herron Island a small island on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. My family and I all laid on our backs on a helicopter pad as a guide used a flashlight that was so bright it felt as if it were a laser pointer for the heavens. There she was, the southern cross in high definition. We had little light or air pollution to dull her existence. It can be easy to mistake a series of near stars, called the false cross, but that night she shined so bright we could not mistake her.
You may not have the chance to get to the southern hemisphere, but remember the cross can be seen from most of the Caribbean in late winter. If you make a rum run to the islands in that time frame you will most certainly be able to see the cross. Take it easy at the beach bar on a night that is clear, stay up late to catch a glimpse of the stars that have helped entire civilizations emigrate around the southern hemisphere and become some of the finest celestial navigators and merchant traders the world has ever seen. This is one of those stop and smell the roses moments of life for those of us salty souls who value our toes in flip flops more than our necks in ties.