The Dawn Watch

After a long, taxing night at sea, the first light of dawn is always a welcome sight.

first light
First light is a welcome sight after a night at sea.Jen Brett

So, if this is “fair winds and a following sea” — pitching like a drunk college kid as we surf down dark, frothy waves — what would it feel like in rough winds, with waves on our beam? Terrifying, I suspect.

I have the dawn watch on this passage from Rangiroa to Bora Bora, the shift from 0300 to whenever my husband wakes up. As I stretch and yawn, I try to switch gears to the less comfortable reality of night sailing. I check the heading and make sure the sail plan is still the same: wing-on-wing with the wind dead behind us, careening down 10-foot swells as we sail toward the west. Even though our 43-foot monohull was on this same tack all day, something about the dense, moonless dark makes it feel as though the boat is going faster. And as though I’m less in control.

I check our speed: 4.5 knots. Maybe we aren’t going as fast as I thought. Next I mess with the genoa to see if I can sheet it in to ease the vicious side-to-side swings. No luck. I settle into a corner of the cockpit to brace against the rocking and focus on the stars overhead.

This watch is my favorite. You know the dark will end. You get to stare at Orion as he ushers in the rising sun. You can watch the water change from black to charcoal to gray to silver to blue as the sun peeps over the horizon. And best of all, you can drink coffee without worrying about whether you’ll be able to get back to sleep after your shift is over. I love coffee, and brewing a perfect little cup to savor is what I look forward to most during my watch.

I plot our position and calculate how long it will be until we reach our destination at the current speed: three days, 12 hours. I ignore the rattling in the lazarette, the dishes slamming to and fro below, and the occasional flap of the main when it backwinds. Instead, I turn on my favorite songs and sing along, write in my journal using the red light on my headlamp, and practice finding southern constellations. I read a bit on my Kindle.

At 0415, I notice we’re drifting off course. The autopilot is giving up, tired after trying to keep the heavy rudder in place through pushy water. It’s a common occurrence for the 20-year-old device. I hand-steer the boat for an hour, pretending I’m Capt. Cook guiding a tall ship through unknown waters. It’s fun to be in control of the boat, to feel her surf the swells, and to use stars as my navigation. But hand-steering is only romantic in small doses — my shoulders tire quickly. I’m grateful when the autopilot sputters back to life.

Around 0530, with dawn’s glow adding a rosy hue to the bottom of the black sky, I head below to put our scuffed espresso kettle on the gimbaled stove. As I add honey and boxed milk to my mug, a particularly jarring swell tilts the boat, sweeping the cup and the kettle across the galley. Wet grounds coat my hair, eyes, teeth, sleeves — casualties of the squirrelly sea. I go with easier instant coffee for round two, raising my cup in a toast to the rising sun.

— Brianna Randall