My job has many perks.
It also has it’s fair share of sweat, blood and tears.
But last week it provided an opportunity.
On the face of it being trapped in a boat on the Devon coast with 35 teenagers is probably many people’s definition of masochism.
Having to wear a wet suit most days and sit in a soggy dinghy avoiding the same teenagers, now armed with boats, is also up there with situations most people prefer to avoid.
But I had an escape route, for my time off I came equipped.
While other staff packed a laptop, books, dvds, coffee pots or a duvet, I brought my telescope.
Like a paranoid parent the journey down was fraught with tension.
I had put it securely in the school minibus but then had get on a coach with the kids. Never has my scope travelled in a separate vehicle. It’s moments like that when you realise how attached you are to some objects. Ridiculous really. Or maybe not.
Then there was the wait for the evening skies.
For weeks we have had terrible weather, endless cloud and almost limitless rain, but now I needed it to come good. I needed Devon to deliver. I was on the south coast of Devon, one small town lay behind a hill, a smattering of tiny villages and the empty horizon of the sea. If the weather played ball this would be a really dark sky.
The first night delivered but I was trapped on board.
Should I? A telescope on a ship? Would there be any point?
Amazingly the scope aligned and standing on the deck of an old Mersey ferry ,I shared Venus and Saturn with the students.
It was pretty unconventional, me looking through the finder scope, constantly adjusting for the pitch and roll of the waves, while the students stood at the eyepiece, but it worked.
Then came my chance, an evening off. The night began with a spectacular sunset, Venus burned through the sky like a search-light, it’s light reflecting off the water and in the north noctilucent cloud shone.
I sat in a small motor-launch cuddling my scope, making my way to a darkened quay-side.
After the promise of a pick up just before midnight I was alone and lost in an endless sky. One of the few benefits of urban astronomy is the ease of navigation, only the brightest stars can be seen, so constellations appear as their basic shape. Here I was lost. The sky was a wash with starlight and for the first hour I just let the scope cool and laid back and enjoyed the view, re-learning the sky, reacquainting myself with my 27 year-old planisphere.
What to look at? I only had a couple of hours and so I picked four objects.
First, two globular clusters; M13 and 92. I have a thing for globs. So distant, so old, so beautiful. I can see them in London but decided that I wanted to enjoy their full dark sky beauty here.
Then two galaxies, M51 and M64. These I have never really seen. I keep trying and M51 has appeared as a very faint fuzzy star in London but here I was sure I would see them properly.
The anticipation meant I had to align for a second time.
Finally it was perfect and I began my dark sky tour.
The whirlpool was stunning, but my view of M64 took my breath away.
As promised the boat did arrive out of the darkness and I crept back on to a sleeping ship wishing that all nights of astronomy could be like this.
The Globs? That’s for another post…