I sat on the cockpit coaming, clear of the doghouse, where I could scan the horizon for fishing boats, ships or other yachts. In this position, I was also clear of the Bimini and, as the moon had not yet risen, I could clearly see the Milky Way and the Southern Cross. Sahula was beam reaching under yankee, staysail and mainsail, with Valerie, the windvane, in control. We were surging onward at a steady 7 knots over a relatively smooth sea. Far off to starboard, a dim glow marked the town of Mackay, Australia. To port, a large beacon flashed three times every 15 seconds. It indicates the entrance to Hydrographers Passage, which leads through Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and out to the Coral Sea.
It’s been two months since we sailed in through that passage on our voyage from New Zealand via Fiji and through Vanuatu so my friend and Sahula’s owner, David Haigh, could complete his 11-year circumnavigation at Townsville in northern Queensland. As the cyclone season approached, we were headed south, away from the threat of cyclones, and I was two hours into the first night watch of our passage toward Brisbane. I was not the least bit eager to change places with David, who was sound asleep in the main saloon. Instead, I spent the first hour trying to pin down exactly why I look forward to my three-hour stints alone on deck twice each night.
Night or day, I really enjoy being at sea. I look forward to stashing away my handbag and forgetting about shopping lists. I like being free of calendars and tight schedules. Though some of each day is taken up by the chores and responsibilities of being at sea, there are still hours left over when I can read a book or do absolutely nothing without feeling one bit guilty. And being cut off from the internet, telephones and outside contact? I like that too; though, for a few hours at the beginning of each passage, I wonder if I am letting some important business or friendship problem slide out of control. But soon I realize the world will get by just fine without me. But what I relish most are my night watches.
I like the process of snugging the boat down for the night, making sure everything is in its place so there are no rattles or thumps to disturb the off watch. I enjoy the joint decision-making as we consider shortening sail before dark, and then comes the inevitable warm reminder, “Don’t be worried about waking me immediately if things change.” A few minutes later, quiet reigns. I am in charge, in control, so to speak, all the time knowing assistance is close by.
On this night run, we decided against shortening sail. And then, the wind did get up. I reveled in the speed as Sahula reached across a relatively smooth sea at close to 8 knots. I was just thinking about how I might add another reef without waking David, thinking about which headsail I should roll in first if the windvane began having problems steering the boat. Then I noticed the wind had backed a bit. I readjusted the windvane to head farther off the wind, then eased the mainsail first, the jib next. Our speed dropped by a few tenths of a knot. The vane once again took complete control. After going out on deck to check that the mainsail wasn’t chaffing against the spreaders, I relaxed back into the corner of the cockpit with my headlamp and my book.
Of course, not all night watches go as smoothly as this. Sometimes the wind drops out, leaving the boat wallowing, and I struggle to keep the sails from slatting and waking the off watch. Sometimes a cross sea means I have to hand-steer for most of my watch. Sometimes I need help and have to wake someone who really needs their sleep. But the majority of night-watch problems can be handled alone.
As this thought wandered through my mind, I recalled the night long ago when I was switching watches as Larry and I were approaching the edge of the Agulhas Current. It was the last night of a nine-day passage between Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean and Richards Bay in South Africa. I was pretty sleepy as I came out on deck. I noted Taleisin was running along nicely wing and wing, making about 6.5 knots. The sea was modest, but 45 miles ahead, where the coast of Africa lay, constant bolts of lightning flashed behind a roiling bank of towering clouds. As the distant sound of thunder reached my ears, I said to Larry, “Maybe we should shorten down before you go below.”
“Nothing but a lot of noise,” Larry replied, as he climbed below, already halfway out of his sweatshirt. “Been grumbling like that most of my watch.”
Within minutes, I heard snoring. Another rumble of thunder. Might be my imagination, but that sounds closer, I thought. I decided to take down the jib, just in case. Thank god for the jib downhaul and the instant spinnaker pole arrangement. Jib down. Pole down. I slid out and secured the jib with gaskets around the bowsprit just as a fresh gust of wind sent Taleisin flying onward at hull speed. Better take a reef in the main was my next thought as I felt the first spray of rain. I rushed below and grabbed my foul-weather jacket. Back on deck, I had the mainsail reefed just before a crack of thunder split simultaneously with a bolt of lightning. The wind suddenly shifted. Then it began to howl. I rushed aft and unhooked the windvane self-steering gear. I pulled in the mainsheet. Taleisin headed into the wind, then slowed to lay hove to as sheets of warm tropical rain pounded down. Better get that damned jib off the headstay, I reminded myself. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. Then, as I was stuffing the unruly mass of wet Dacron into its sail bag, the wind veered and began to ease. By the time I heard the ship’s bell ring out six times, I had reset the jib, got it out on the pole, unreefed the mainsail, eased it out, and vanged it down—and soon we were sailing along nicely, wing and wing, making 6.5 knots.
Larry was rubbing his eyes as he came out into the now-dry cockpit. He looked ahead, then at the sails. “Told you that thunder was just a lot of noise,” he said. I could tell he didn’t quite believe me as I told him of my adventures. But then I shined the flashlight on the big jib. Streaks of red antifouling paint showed where it had gotten away from me for a few minutes and dragged overboard.
“One good thing about having to make lots of sail changes,” Larry stated as he reached over and hugged me tightly, “made your watch go quickly, didn’t it?’
As I remembered that wild—but in many ways, empowering—watch, I reminded myself that I had 15 years of sailing on Taleisin to prepare me for those three hours alone on deck. Every piece of gear on her was built with me in mind. But things are far different on board Sahula, After just seven months of sailing on this boat, I am not fully comfortable with all the gear, and it was all installed for a singlehander who is 15 inches taller than me. Until I get a lot more sea time on board Sahula and we make a few changes to accommodate my lack of both height and strength, I am not the least reluctant to suggest shortening sails before dark, or calling for assistance.
On that night, I was pleased there was no reason to ask for help. I glanced below to where David still slept soundly, then went out on deck to check that the yankee and staysail telltales were lined up nicely. While I was on the foredeck, I took a look around to ensure there were no fishing boats or cargo ships nearby. Out on the foredeck, the boat seemed to be moving even faster than it did when I was aft, in the shelter of the doghouse. The stars were easier to see, the flashes of bioluminescence were brighter, and suddenly it dawned on me: It’s not just the feeling of control that makes me love night watches. There is an added bonus: Night watches like this one make me feel fully and completely alive.
Voyager and author Lin Pardey is a longtime CW contributor.
Tips for better night watches
Here are a few things I’ve learned over more than five decades of going to sea:
Even if you think you will reach port by midnight, get someone down below in the bunk by 2000. Things can change and delay your arrival—tides, currents, wind—and it will be good to have a well-rested crewmember when entering a new harbor.
As tempting as it is to enjoy music or recorded books, any device that uses earplugs also keeps you from hearing what is going on inside and outside the boat.
Allow time for the person coming on watch to wake fully. Give them a complete rundown on any information that could help them assess the situation before they take over. On one passage, Larry got a real fright when I didn’t inform him we’d just passed a huge oil-drilling barge that was under tow while 800 miles off the coast of Brazil. He went on deck, still slightly groggy, and couldn’t immediately process the overwhelming wall of lights just off our stern, nor could he figure out which way the very slow tow was moving. Instead, instinct made him think we were in danger. His shout brought me out of my bunk, so I lost far more sleep time than I would have if I had taken the time to point out what was happening, and show him my plotted course and that of the barge.
It is the watchkeeper’s job to check for and silence any sounds that could disturb the off watch. Search out clinking bottles or shifting pots and pans. I carry a bag full of sponges to stuff between bottles, cans and pans to shut them up.
If there is any way for the on watch to leave the helm—whether by leaving steering to the windvane or autopilot, or by tying the helm for a few moments—it pays to take a stroll through the boat past sleeping crew at least every hour. This seems to subconsciously reassure the sleeper that all is well. The watchstander can also take this opportunity to check for wayward pots, pans and rattles.
The captain who doesn’t quite trust his crew is rarely going to get enough rest. So take time before each voyage to ensure that each person on board knows basic sailing and emergency procedures. Let it be known that calling the captain on deck when something looks amiss is the right thing to do.
Nothing helps the person coming off watch fall asleep faster than climbing into a dry, warm sleeping bag. Work to keep it that way. If it has been a wet watch, dry yourself thoroughly before you climb into the bunk. Wash any salt water off your skin before you slide between the sheets, or you’ll soon have a clammy, salty bunk.
Have extra pillows available to use as padding around the sleeper’s shoulders when the motion is a bit rough.
If possible, rig up a dark curtain to create a true pilot berth. With the curtain, it is far easier for the off watch to go to sleep in spite of it still being light, or to keep sleeping if daylight occurs early.