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Night Watch

I try not to listen to any podcasts during the day on long sails. I save them up. Savour them. They are my special treat, my midnight audio-snack. When Simon gently rubs my shoulder at 2am, quietly waking me up for my night watch shift, I am only groggy for a second until I realize that it’s time. Yes! Episode 4 of The West Wing Weekly. Excellent.

It doesn’t take long for us to do the handover. Simon updates me on anything he’s noticed and we check the gauges and charts together. We stand out in the cockpit for a moment, making sure we’re on the same page on key factors: how the boat is sailing, what the weather is doing and if there are any ships around. Simon then takes my place on the couch and I settle into my spot with my headphones in and podcast playing.

I find podcasts work really well for me during night watches. I put the volume down lower than usual so I can still hear if there are any changes to the noise of the engine or if an alarm goes off. My mind is busy and engaged, but I’m not using any light like I would if I was reading or watching a movie, so my eyes stay adjusted to the darkness and I can easily undertake the routine tasks involved in monitoring our journey.

My favourite podcasts for night watch so far have been (not necessarily in this order):

  1. The Moth (people telling true stories about their lives)
  2. This American Life (everyone’s favourite?!?)
  3. Revisionist History (by Malcolm Gladwell)
  4. Freakonomics (‘prepare to be enlightened, engaged, perhaps enraged, and definitely surprised’)
  5. Where Should We Begin? (by Esther Perel)
  6. The West Wing Weekly (an episode-by-episode discussion of The West Wing)

When I’m at sea I can’t drink any tea or coffee because caffeine triggers my seasickness. So overnight I drink really cold water to help keep me awake. I also keep a damp face washer in the fridge to wash my face and neck. I got the idea from hotels in Bali who often greet guests checking-in with cold face washers and a glass of fresh juice. The coolness is so refreshing in the sticky tropical heat.

But really, there is more going on during night watch than podcasts and ice-water. When sailing we are always really clear on who is responsible for the boat at each moment. During day sails, this is mostly Simon – I take over for an hour or two here and there when he needs a break. On longer passages, we share this role more. Simon is ultimately responsible for the boat as he is the Captain, so we do shifts because he needs to pace himself and get some deep rem sleep to sustain his role over several days and nights.

A typical night watch involves a regular monitoring routine, which occurs around every 10-15 minutes. First-off, I do a 360 degree scan of the horizon from the cockpit. I’m looking for anything that might have changed or appeared within view since the last check. I take note of any changes in the wind, the sea state, the sails or the sound of the engine.

Next, I come inside and check the engine gauges and nav-station tech gear. I check the engine temperature, the RPMs, the boat speed, water depth, the radar and the AIS. All this equipment is set up in one spot inside the boat. Finally, I track our progress on the navigation programs we have running on a laptop and a tablet, which are sitting on the table.

The gadgets and gauges.
The chart programs plotting our route.

I enjoy the task of monitoring boats, mostly cargo ships, as they pass us in the night. On the second last night of our passage to Darwin I made some notes on my experience of this. Here is the account:

I’m sitting on the couch when a flicker on the radar catches my attention. I take a closer look. There it is again. What is it? I go out into the cockpit to have a look around and to my surprise find two bright yellow lights shining on the horizon. They weren’t there last time I checked!

I wake Simon up straight away and fill him in. When he looks at the radar the second boat has just been picked up so they are both being displayed consistently now. The radar tells us the boat positions so we spend some time looking at the charts, plotting their position compared to ours. We go out to the cockpit and look through the binoculars to see if we can spot any green or red navigation lights. Once we can see these we can work out if they are coming towards us, away from us, or crossing in front of us – alas, no coloured lights are visible.

Even though they are showing up on the radar, the AIS isn’t picking them up yet so we don’t know what or who they are. An educated guess is fishing boats, maybe fishing for squid given they are lit up like a football stadium during a night game.

Simon notices that one of the boats has changed position. It’s moving across our path toward the other boat. We watch and do more calculations before Simon decides to change our course to give us some more distance from them.

Eventually, our AIS picks one up and tells us it’s a fishing vessel called Sea Pearl. The proximity alarm goes off. Way ahead of you there, tech gear! It’s possible that Sea Pearl turned their AIS transponder on so we could identify them. Often fishing boats don’t use their AIS as they don’t want anyone to know where they are fishing – odd logic as the high-beam lights tend to give them away.

Now that we know who they are and where they are going, we will pass these bright lights in the night without any concerns.

Our chart from 5 Nov during the passage to Timor when a cargo ship called Glorious Splender crossed in front of us. The little hand on the chart is pointing to the cargo ships location, we are the red dot. Glorious Splender is 170 metres long, we are 13.7 metres. What’s fascinating for me as a newby sailor is that although I’m tracking this ship and have all this information about it, in this case I never actual saw it because it was just over the horizon the whole time.

While most of each night watch is calm, quiet and uneventful, there are also some magic moments. For me, the most special times are seeing either shooting stars or bio-luminescent algae in the water. There is a comforting monotony to the black water, black sky, moon and twinkling stars. The same consistent view night after night. Then suddenly this is broken by a little piece of magic. A star falling through the sky. Or the appearance of sparkles at the edge of the wake the boat makes as it moves through the water. Glow-in-the-dark waves. It’s captivating.

It’s not all comforting though. I find it most challenging during the time between the sun setting and the moon rising, when it is so dark you can’t see the horizon. Everything beyond the edge of the boat is inky black. It’s disorienting. We could be astronauts in space. I may as well have my eyes closed. I find this time of night quite eerie and sometimes feel quite overwhelmed by the vastness of the empty space surrounding our little yacht in the wide open ocean. I’m always relieved when the moon rises and I can make out the horizon and once again I know the difference between the sky and the ocean – which way is up and which way is down.

Sailing with the light of the moon.

An Update On Our Travel Plans

The next blog post will be about our time in Timor-Leste, and will be followed by some stories of sailing in Indonesia, where we are now. We are currently on our way to Lombok, where we plan to leave our boat at a marina for a few months and fly home for Christmas and summer time.

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