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Overcoming the Fear of Sailing at Night

In spite of an anxiety-filled beginning, a sailor learns to love her night watches.

June 30, 2021
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Sailing into the sunset
Sailing into the sunset aboard Kate, a Newport 41, wasn’t ­always a relaxing experience. Heather Francis

I don’t remember much about our sail down the Baja coast in February 2009. This seems strange because it was five days and nights at sea, our first real passage aboard Kate, our Newport 41. The ship’s log says that we had a fresh 25- to 30-knot breeze for most of the trip. Thankfully, it was a downhill run, and the motion of the boat was comfortable but lively. My husband, Steve, who had much more experience than me, called it a sleigh ride. I thought it felt more like a rickety roller coaster.

The days passed uneventfully, but my solo midnight watches were haunted by stories from my childhood. I saw sea monsters in the green phosphorescence of the large waves that periodically broke close enough to where I sat that I got sprayed with salty monster spit. I heard voices in the cockpit drains, whispering to me the secrets of sailors who had been lost at sea. I sat for hours with my arms wrapped around a winch and my fingers fondling the catch on my safety tether.

I was overcome by everything. By the enormity of the ocean, by the fragility of our boat, by our crazy plan to sail across it. By the beauty of the night sky, by exhaustion, by excitement, by fear. And yet, when we threw down the anchor at 0400 in Cabo San Lucas, at the very southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, I wasn’t ready to stop. Despite the anxiety I experienced while underway, being at sea out of sight of land made me feel full and connected.

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Read More: from Heather Francis

Of course, I would spend many more nights on watch before I could put that feeling of wholeness into words. Nights that made us realize we were no longer looking for a home port because we were already home, no matter where we were. Nights that made the decision to turn our 18-month hiatus into a 12-year-and-still-counting way of life an easy one to make. Or perhaps it was the occasional nights spent ashore that made me realize how very unmoored I felt when not on the water.

This past year has been especially difficult. Due to travel restrictions, I’ve been separated not only from the ocean but also my partner. With my feet on solid ground for the past several months, I now feel as though I am completely adrift.

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But, like any good sailor, I know this storm will pass. Experience reminds me that soon I will be sailing in the right direction once again.

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