Letter from Ocean Watch: The Sweetest Dogwatch

A night shift north of the 70th parallel delivers a gorgeous, unreal sail. "Herb's Watch" for our July 23, 2009, _CW_Reckonings

Herbs midnight sun 368

In the land of the midnight sun, Around the Americas’ 64-foot steel cutter, Ocean Watch, enjoys a beautiful sail at 3 o’clock in the morning. Herb Mccormick

It’s 0600, and I’ve just roused the opposite watch from slumber. Here at the nav station, sunlight is streaming through the ports overhead. I’m sipping a cup of jury-rigged mocha: two parts Swiss Miss, one part instant Folgers. It’s going to be a long day, and on every watch change at this hour, I’d usually be diving for my bunk. But not this July morning. This morning I’m totally awake, totally jazzed. I’ve just finished up the sweetest dogwatch ever.

We’re six weeks out of Seattle now, on our hopeful journey Around the Americas. I was in charge of working out the watch schedule, and we’re using one I’ve come to like on raceboats with smallish crews, an arrangement that’s quite suitable for the six we’ve currently got on Ocean Watch. We’re running a pair of three-man teams, which some might consider overkill, but the levels of experience in the crew vary greatly; plus, we’ve been venturing into unknown waters for all of us, and ice-strewn ones at that.

The watches break down into three 4-hour shifts during the day (0600-1000, 1000-1400, and 1400-1800) and four 3-hour shifts at night (1800-2100, 2100-0000, 0000-0300, and 0300-0600). I like this system because it keeps things moving, relatively speaking, all night; the bases are covered if someone wants to dive below to check e-mail or make a sandwich; and it gives each watch a full eight hours off every other day. It’s not perfect, but it works for me.


All that said, the dogwatches-and thus far on this voyage, the two that cover the stretch from midnight to 6 a.m. are, generally speaking, equally heinous-are almost always forced marches, at least on this trip. It’s one thing when you’re sailing through the tropics, with celestial light shows overhead, but for most of our voyage north from Seattle, the nights have been cold and long, with dank, cloudy skies and little visual relief.
That is, until today.

We’re currently 12 miles north of the 70th parallel, in the land of the midnight sun. In other words, it never gets dark. When we came on at 0300, the sun had dipped low toward the horizon, then had hovered there for a couple of hours. But “sunset” was a big tease, with the usual daily ritual going unfulfilled. Instead, after skimming the horizon but never dipping beneath it, the sun began a slow ascent skyward. The low light was warm and radiant.
The breeze had just filled in, to about 12 knots. The opposite watch had set the genoa, but the engine was still idling over. As they disappeared below, we shut the beast down. Ocean Watch lost not a tick of speed, coursing through the barely rippled water at a steady 6 knots.

Slightly cracked off, on a close reach heading northeast toward the remote Alaskan port of Barrow, the northernmost town in the United States, we coursed beautifully into the ideal easterly breeze. The Seward Peninsula, off to starboard, kept the seas flat and the runway clean. It was like gliding over a long, blue carpet, effortless and free. It was the best sailing of the journey so far.


Sitting now and typing, I bask in the memory, the afterglow of a gorgeous, unreal sail. We’re in the Arctic, and I’m having a hard time grasping any of it. If every dogwatch were like this one, I’d never go to sleep.

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