Jim: ‘Kate, its 12:10am… your night watch has started!’…. Ugh… I have been lying here for three hours and ten minutes. I got to sleep about 40 minutes ago.
‘Is it like being on holiday all the time, or, how does it feel?’, a friend asked recently. I suppose if it’s like being on holiday, I've never been on a holiday like it. Yes, it is filled with lots of highs but it is our full time life now. We live on a boat together and we are always busy with something. That is, unless we are on a passage. Unlike when at anchor and exploring nearby land, or in a marina with a specific purpose to gather supplies or get work done, on passage, we are most ‘present’. With all the time in the world it seems and yet not much time for anything but cooking, eating, sailing and sleeping. Present is the word; when it is just us on the water, with nature, doing what the boat was made to do; sail long distances safely, quickly and efficiently (unless there is no wind of course!). I enjoy the preparation, the routine while underway and watching the boat perform. I love tweaking the sails and watching the speed going up and of course the buzz of making landfall after a tiring but satisfying journey.
Preparation and the first day underway
The day before a significant passage we try to be as organised as possible so that we are not running around right up until departure. If we are in a nice place, we will try to get the preparations out of the way and enjoy our last moments in that place. For example, we get all the necessary provisions on either the second last day or as early as possible on the last day. If there is any pre-cooking in the pressure cooker to be done, I try to do this before our departure. After a day on the beach or wherever it is we want to hang out, we have our last evening meal on-board as early as possible. This is not a time to paint the town red and have one last pizza, we find it better to do that the previous night. We eat early, watch tv and try to get to bed early too. Unless the weather suggests otherwise we leave in the morning on departure day.
It often takes a few hours for us and the boat to settle into a natural rhythm.. If the wind is not being consistent we may tweak the sail plan for a few hours before finding something that works. This can be a bit frustrating as we put sails up and down and the wind changes direction while increasing or decreasing. Once that aspect stabiIises (and assuming it does!) I prepare lunch to be ready at about 1pm depending on what time breakfast was eaten. Following lunch on the first day of the passage, the person who is most tired will normally have a nap. That is usually me. During the afternoon one of us is always officially on watch but who that is, is interchangeable. Afternoon is time for reading, planning, starting to prepare the evening meal. Jim usually takes a nap in the early evening and when he wakes I put out dinner for us both. Throughout the day we will probably have two trolling fishing lines out, unless of course our freezer is still full from the last catch. The lines are taken in when it gets dark. We certainly don’t want to be fighting a fish in the dark and trying to negotiate the sails and slow the boat down at the same time.
The magic of night
Once we have finished our evening meal and washing up is complete the official night watches begin. We turn off all the domestic boat lights and from this point on we both wear life jackets and the only light that is used to move around the boat is a red one which doesn’t interfere with our night vision. At 9pm I try to go to sleep for my three hour rest while Jim keeps watch. Three hours can fly by and is spent looking at AIS and charts, Radar and visually scanning the horizon from the port and starboard helms as well as making course adjustments to avoid other boats and sail adjustments to take advantage of changes to wind angle and strength. At about 12am Jim wakes me up and I brush my teeth and wash so I feel fresh and alert. He normally hands me a coffee and we discuss what has been happening the last few hours and anything to be particularly aware of. Then he is gone for his three hour rest. The boat now feels like a very different place. It is dark and if clear there is usually a sky full of stars to gaze at. For my three hours I do the same as mentioned above and I usually read quite a lot too. Sometimes I write a bit and jot ideas down for things to follow up on in the morning. If the sails need to be tweaked I will make the adjustments and alter course as necessary. If there is anything important I am unsure of I will wake Jim. Some places can be very busy with lots of tankers, cargo ships, almost invisible fishing vessels and fishing buoys to dodge. However other times there is not a soul around and the sight of a dolphin or turtle is the most significant thing we pass.
Break of day
Come Three am my first night watch is complete and I wake Jim. He then takes over until Six am and my next watch takes us up until Nine am. I love this watch because I get to see the sunrise and wake Jim for breakfast in the new day. Over breakfast, we discuss the night’s events. Of course it doesn’t always quite happens like this, idyllic as it sounds. Often on my first rest of the passage I am unable to sleep. I am not yet in the rhythm of the passage. Or, we have to completely change the sail set up and it is only safe to do so with both of us present so that the one that asleep gets woken and so on. Or, there is a lot of wind around and I or Jim cannot sleep so we are both up. Sleep is king but is very often disrupted through unforeseen events therefore when one person is resting we do everything we can not to interfere with their precious sleep unless needed; we will not play music for example and the person keeping watch will use the heads on the portside to avoid opening and closing doors beside the sleeping party. In addition, really if you aren’t doing something you need to do such as watch keeping, eating, cleaning etc you should be taking a nap to make up in advance for the bits of sleep you will surely miss during the course of your set rest time. So basically one of us is usually asleep or trying to get to sleep except during breakfast and dinner!
These passages are just magical. There is no getting away from yourself and your thoughts. Once you embrace that things like boredom become reflection and you start to realise that having time to just be is the biggest privilege of all. This is when you are most likely to catch a fish or see that whale. This is when you can watch the sunset, the moon rise and the sun rise in peace on the water. These passages are when you truly experience sailing at its best. It’s when we have made our best speed records and have had the space and time to experiment with sail set-ups. Out here on the water in the middle of the sea with no sight of land feels like a parallel universe where anything is possible and nothing else matters. It often seems though, that no sooner as you have established a rhythm it is time to arrive! And when you do finally make landfall the spell is broken and interrupted by a new, exciting reality of culture, food, shops and landscapes. You are almost always much more tired than you think. At port you are buzzing with adrenaline, excited to explore but you must force yourself to rest first. Once rested you have finally arrived and are free to roam. It makes you wonder though whether the journey or the destination is the highlight. I think we are addicted to both!