Night Watches

Wednesday May 14, 2014

night watch

Lately I’ve been reading lots of accounts, through Facebook groups or blogs themselves, of how many other people out there don’t enjoy night sails. No one ever goes into much explanation of why…just that they don’t feel comfortable with them or would prefer not to do them if they don’t have to. Being no stranger to them myself, I thought I’d take a moment to go over my own personal pros and cons of these supposedly apprehension causing passages.

I can’t say that I’ve had the luxury to be afraid or uncomfortable with them. Right from the beginning I was thrown into night watches without a choice. Our very first long distance excursion in Serendipity was an overnight sail from Muskegon to Milwaukee, back in 2010 with a couple of friends, complete with thunderstorms and sustained 30 knot winds. If that doesn’t prep you to be less afraid for what future night ventures might hold, I don’t know what will. Even our first leg of this journey was an overnight from Muskegon to South Manitou, a 120 mile jaunt. Maybe it was the nerves getting the better of me of having just left my whole life behind, but I remember going to bed just as the sun was setting with a very uneasy feeling in my stomach. When I woke up for my three hour shift and all I had to do was sit in the cockpit for the next three hours while we gently rocked back and forth in Lake Michigan as I stared up at the stars, I realized it wasn’t so bad.

Ever since then I’ve never really been fazed by night sails and actually prefer to take them when possible since why would you want to waste a whole day traveling on the water when you can do it at night and spend half that time sleeping instead? Friends had started asking me, especially once we got into the open waters of the Atlantic, Doesn’t it scare you to be out there in the dark where you can’t see anything? Wouldn’t you rather do it in the daylight? In reply I had to answer that it was actually better. Without being able to see anything, how could you be afraid of it? Those menacing graybeards that I had to stare down through the afternoon were now blended into oblivion. I couldn’t see them, and they couldn’t see me. In fact, on the really dark nights where you can only see a foot or two past the boat are the best because then you’re really just living in the space that is your boat instead of imagining all the empty miles between you and your next landfall.  It’s kind of like being in your own cocoon.

The only thing I have to do is make it through 3-4 hours while listening to music or a podcast until my shift is up and I can crawl back into bed and sleep half the night away. Sail changes rarely have to be made, maybe a little trimming or easing here and there, but for any of the major things I’d wake up Matt to help me, and what’s the difference between doing that in the dark vs daylight anyway?  Ok, maybe it was a little hard sometimes while going down the east coast, but once in the Bahamas we spent a few days rigging all lines to the cockpit, so it doesn’t need to be left unless something is really wrong.  Or the boom vang has to be brought from one side to the other.  But we run jacklines and wear harnesses, so that’s not usually a biggie.*

If I did have one contention of night sails though, it would be the fact that you do get an interrupted night of sleep. You can’t have your yin without your yang. Although I do love the fact that I can sleep half of the trip away, therein lies the problem as well. I’m only sleeping half of it. If you ever learn one major thing about me, it’s that I love my sleep and I am horrible under sleep deprivation. It can lead me to be moody, forgetful, or even downright sick. (Honestly, if I get less than six hours a night I get light headed and go into dry heaves at some point). If you ever got in the way of me and a good nights sleep, be prepared to be on the wrong end of the worst cussing, name calling, or possibly even property destruction that I can throw at you. (Ok, maybe I won’t actually destroy your property, but it will be the first thing to jump into my mind) That’s how much I love/need my sleep.

Not getting a full night’s sleep unfortunately goes hand in hand with night shifts, and it’s usually the debate I have in my mind on if it’s worth it. There are set schedules worked out on Serendipity where I sleep from 8 pm – 12 am, go on watch from 12 am – 4 am, and sleep again from 4 am – 8 am, meaning I should still get my eight hours in with just a four hour break. Which sounds perfect in theory. And that’s where everything is perfect, right?  In theory. Unless we’ve been on passage for at least two days I can’t actually force myself to fall asleep at the unholy hour of 8 pm. So I lay in my little bunk, rocking back and forth, for two to three hours until I finally manage to drift off, usually only gaining one hour of sleep until I have to be up again. The second day of passages we usually find ourselves sleeping away most of it, trying to catch up on the actual hours of sleep that we missed while waiting for it to come as we laid in our bunks the previous night.  It kind of reminds me of how I explained passages to our friend Nate before he joined us on a 380 mile journey from Grand Cayman to Utila, Honduras: “Passages are not exciting. They basically consist of sleeping, or counting down the hours until you can go to sleep again.”.

We’ve heard and sometimes realized ourselves that the longer you are on passage, the easier it is to fall into a routine, and after four to five days you’ve slipped into falling asleep when you’re supposed to, staying awake when you’re supposed to, and hopefully best of all, gaining your sea legs which means it’s much easier to move about the cabin without getting sick. That’s the big payoff that I’m hoping for.

So, between a few off tangents, there you have it, my feelings on night watches. If I can get my sleep schedule down and get a minimum of six hours in before being sent off to do anything that requires too much concentration, I am completely fine with them. Which kind of makes me laugh, although it’s kind of not funny, that because I’d had a collective two hours of sleep on our ride over from Bimini to Miami last night/this morning, I totally missed that I had us anchor right next to a submerged cable and almost right on top of it. My eyes were not even on the chart plotter, but instead of that wide open spot between a few boats in the anchorage. Let’s just hope I don’t suffer more severe consequences next time. I’ll let you know how it all goes once we pull into the Azores after four to five weeks at sea. Hopefully that schedule will have really settled in before I can do anything stupid.


*We also have a safety system that during non daylight hours, whoever is on watch in the cabin always has to be harnessed in.  No excuses.



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