Stars and light figure heavily in the winter celebrations of religions old and new, so it seemed appropriate to speak about the word star at sea on this holiday.
Of course there is starboard, the right side of the ship as you stand on deck facing the bow, and starfish which have five legs unlike their cousin sun-stars which can have up to twenty. Generally, though, when speaking of stars at sea one is literally talking about those shiny celestial bodies best admired at night or, as The Sailors Word Book so poetically phrases it:
Those innumerable bodies bespangling the heavens from pole to pole...
It goes without saying that stars have been indispensible to proper navigation for centuries.
Fixed stars seem to stay in one place in the sky night after night. These are the stars a seaman can use to find his way and they usually, in broad terms, include the particularly reliable planets such as Venus and Saturn.
Double stars are those close enough together in the sky that they cannot be distinguished from one another without a telescope. Sometimes this is an optical illusion; they may in fact be millions of light years away from one another in space. On other occasions they are actually astronomical double stars, close in proximity with one rotating around the other.
Temporary stars are heavenly bodies that have become visible, seemingly out of nowhere, and increased in brightness over the course of months or years. Just as suddenly, these stars will disappear from their place in the sky never to be seen again. The fascinating Scandinavian astronomer Tycho Brahe followed the life cycle of a particularly bright temporary star in 1527.
Variable stars, as the name implies, vary in brightness over a year or years. A frequently sited example in books on navigation is Mira Ceti.
Finally, there is that much coveted sign of good fortune at sea, the star glint. This is simply a visible meteorite, but the seafaring term gives it so much more meaning and romance that it is worth wishing on. Happy Holidays to you and yours, Brethren, and may a passing star glint give you joyful pause between now and the New Year.
Header: How the Buccaneers Kept Christmas by Howard Pyle