When the kids were young we taught them to say it’s not my favorite instead of I hate it. The rule came in handy when they were having dinner at friends. And to this day around any dinner table you may still hear one of them say it.
Night watch, it’s not my favorite.
It’s a weird sensation sitting in the dark relying on your instruments to inform you wh ships are out there, how close they will come near you (CPA), what speed you’re doing, wind direction, and storms on radar. As soon as the sun goes down, sailing in the dark freaks me out. It shouldn’t really; the same waves that were there a few minutes ago when the sun was up are still there and Windancer is the same sturdy boat in the dark as she is after the sun rises.
And yet it’s still not my favorite. First, there’s the question of sleep. I love to sleep. I have been known to sleep anywhere, anytime. Five years ago Jenny and I volunteered to raise a yellow lab named Sugar for Pacific Assistance Dogs. Sugar was perhaps the most beautiful puppy we had ever met. She came with many 10 week old puppy challenges – chewing, peeing indoors and goofy leash walks. However, one of her greatest strengths was her ability to sleep in the car. Simply open the passenger door, she would hop in, lie down on the floorboards, rest her chin by the gearshift and fall asleep. And as soon as you turned off the engine she would open her eyes, yawn and be ready to roar. I am Sugar. I can sleep anywhere and love my sleep. So on a night watch it means I’m going to get a little less sleep in the dark hours. Some might say that’s an OK thing because I can sleep during the day but I still hate it. Oops, it’s not my favourite.
Each boat handles watch schedule slightly differently. We work on three-hour shifts. If weather is calm, we eat at the galley table and then someone heads to the bridge for first watch. When we have new crew we often double up for the first and last hour, leaving the new crew alone for one hour until they get a handle on the boat and instruments.
Each of us passes time on our watch a little differently. We all bring up a phone or some sort of electronic device to listen to music, a podcast or maybe watch a movie. One headset in one ear, the other ear for the boat. Reading is a little harder as the light from your headlamp screws up your vision to keep an eye on the instruments. I have yet to move to an ereader; I’m still in love with the feel of books as 60 or 70 novels in the starboard hull prove. I am determined to read and give them away in the next few months. Dreaming of the space I will free up for food for the long passages.
As we sail from Curaçao to Santa Marta Columbia we are a crew of four – John, Connor and Nick Wright, a new crew member/close friend of Connor who sailed with us last Christmas and demonstrated his immense prowess on Windancer including his ability to fluff pillows on New Year’s after an evening at Foxy’s in the BVI. This should be our crew for the next 4 months on our way to French Polynesia
Moments before we cast off the lines in Curaçao this afternoon, I put half a Scopolamine patch behind my left ear to quell the seasickness. Yes, I still get seasick. Many sailors do, although from my conversations with cruisers it appears to inflict more women than men. And like night watch, every ship handles seasickness prevention slightly differently. I happen to like the patch; it doesn’t make me too drowsy, stops me from getting sick and once behind my ear, I don’t even really think about
Back to the night watch schedule thing. On longer passages we rotate forward by three hours. It’s a nice way to ensure one crew isn’t stuck with the evil 12 to 3 or 3 to 6. We don’t have a strict day watch schedule, one of us tends to be on the bridge at all times. That one of us really is John. He loves to sit up on the flybridge under the shade of the bimini and watch the seas.
Another downside of night watch it’s trying to sleep with the noise of a catamaran. Cats are famous for banging as water slaps between their hulls. And if you’re heading anywhere close to into the wind you can guarantee it sounds like a battering ram coming through the hull at any moment. On top of the cat slapping, there’s the creaking, a side effect of wooden floor boards. Add onto that the alarms: highwater alarm for the bilges. AIS alarm when a ship is approaching too close, target alarm notifying us that we’ve just hit our waypoint.
And it’s one of the few times you actually have to set a personal alarm to get up on time to your watch schedule. Not setting a personal alarm is one of my favorite things about being on Windancer. We rise when the sun rises, go to bed shortly after the sun sets, known as sailors midnight. We rarely know what day of the week it is.
A few months back, while in Vancouver for work, a colleague asked if I had changed after a year at sea. I don’t think I have too much – still caustic, still love to read, still on my phone too much. Maybe a bit more tolerant and definitely wearing less clothes. Traded my heals for Havianas, blow dryer for the wind and own more bathing suits right now than I have in my lifetime. But, what has changed is my perception of days. We live in a world where everyday is simply a day. No more work, work, work Monday to Friday to crash on the weekends. We work every day (client work for Ziggy, boat maintenance and passage planning for John). We also take off every day – snorkelling, diving, sun downers with other cruisers. Every day is just a day. This is perhaps, one of the most liberating experiences at sea.
Back to night watch, still not my favorite. I’m writing this blog on the 3 to 6 shift. And as the song goes, the darkest hour it’s just before dawn. And with the darkness comes the most beautiful stars every night. And with the darkness, comes the sound of the waves and wind. And with the darkness, comes the stillness, where I can get out of my head, think about nothing, think about everything. These are the joys of night watch.
It’s 6:05 AM and I’m just starting to see the contours of the water. We’re heading west for the first time in a long time and I’m waiting for the sun to come up behind me. It’s warm I’m wearing just shorts, T-shirt and a hoodie with my life vest on. I’m tethered to a jackline which is mandatory in the dark. Tea is still hot in my Yeti cup And I have yet to floss my teeth. My gums are never as healthy as when we do night watch; it’s what I do to kill the time.
Averaging 8 kn on a downwind course on the way to Columbia, the second last continent I am to visit.
It has been a pretty spectacular night. Calm seas, fair winds and it’s still not my favorite.
In case you’re wondering, Sugar is now living with a family in Calgary. She flunked out of doggy school, so did one of her sisters.