Looking back at our couple of months at sea, I realize we haven’t said much about being on watch. And seeing as how watch is one of the primary responsibilities that distinguishes blue-water cruising from any other kind of sailing—chartering, one-design racing, day-sailing or what have you, I feel like I should lend some time to it. And when better to do so than while I sit here, in pitch-black darkness, monitoring the horizon for specks of light, on watch?
On any boat, watch-keeping is divided into shifts, the scheme of which change according to number of crew, sea conditions and crew condition. On Kijro, considering the 12 hours of daily darkness near the equator, and the three of us on board, night watches were divided into 4-hour shifts, with first watch beginning at 8 p.m. On Tahina, we’ve followed a similar structure, but given that we are now four, we each take a 3-hour shift, allowing for a bit more rest time each evening and a little less chance of accidentally dozing off during the three solitary hours spent on deck in the dark. During the day, we do informal watches, where someone is always made aware if someone else will be napping or going down below for awhile, so they know to keep an eye out.
The number one duty when keeping watch is to stay aware of what’s happening on the water. You never know when a tanker will appear on the horizon headed in your direction, and given the remote chance that you are on a collision course, the time elapsed from when you see its lights to the time that tankers anchor-chain hole chomps eats your mast for breakfast and your boat is lifted into the air and crushed to smithereens by the thousands of tons of power thrust forth by its bow bulb, is only about 15 minutes. Therefore, despite the tiny chances of the right circumstances for boat crunching actually occurring, there is NO NAPPING on watch.
Other watch duties include:
- Making a cruising log entry as you come on and off watch, and if you change sail or engine configuration. This allows the captain to track wind patterns, course directions, last positions, cruising speed, etc, if not for the reason of making and informed response to an equipment breakdown, then at least for the fun of tracking boat stats.
- Checking wind conditions (speed and direction) to assure you are flying the proper sail configuration and able to maintain your preferred course.
- Monitoring your GPS track and compass direction to be sure the rest of the boat doesnt wake up in Colombia instead of Galapagos.
- Keeping an eye on engine gauges (if you are so unlucky with breeze as to be motoring, as we are now). .
- Checking for chafe. Chafed lines are a sailors worst enemy on a long passage, as there is nowhere to get spares, except from your spares locker, and all the rocking and rubbing for 24-hours a day can lead to lines that snap at the most inopportune of squally moments.
These tasks can all be done in more or less 15-30 seconds, and repeating it in unbroken cycles tends to get boring, leading to bleary-eyed sleep-starved madness, so, I try to keep things interesting by rolling through a number of entertainment options I’ve discovered over the course of the evenings. So far, in my two nights on watch on Tahina, I have:
- Counted 4 shooting stars
- Rocked out to Toto, Madonna, Heart, Amos Lee and Great Big Sea
- Finished one Maarten Van Troost novel (The Sex Lives of Cannibals, about living in Kiribati)
- Done 6 sets of sit ups, and 4 sets of bicycles
- Examined 5 starry nebulae through Franks 15x image-stabilized binoculars (We could even see tiny little Mercury, hanging out a little down and to the right of Venus. And the Pleiades don’t even resemble a teeny dipper when you’re up close.)
- Yawned > 60 times
- Danced alone to Cantaloop
- Written one blog post
- Failed to coherently write one freelance assignment