Friday, March 20, 2015

The Night Watch

The Night Watch 
And the day watch and passaging in general

16 FEB 2015

We just did our run from the Dry Tortugas to Isla Mujeres in 54 hours, which means that we took watches, 4 on 4 off. This is a typical cruising couple watch schedule so there’s no real news here, but the experience is amplified on long passages. A quick overnight you can tough it out with loose watch discipline, but on long passages sticking to the schedule is important. And so there were lots of night and day watches to stand.

Which means when you are On, the boat is yours, day or night. On watch, we are both dealing with active route navigation, sail handling, and monitoring for ships-in-our-path and weather issues. Everything but sail handling is hugely simplified with our electronics, such as radar, AIS, and the chart plotter, especially at night when visual conning is limited to spotting the lights of ships or beacons. On Cerca Trova, all operation functions are available at the nav station in our main cabin, so on this last passage (in a cold snap in February) we ran the boat from inside. As for sail handling, we tend to shorten sail and then let it ride on the night watch because you can’t see the sails well and sail work beyond trimming of sheets often requires both of us, ie you have to wake up the off-watch person. Monitoring for collision risk and progress along the planned route doesn’t take much time, so we try to fill in with other things.

On the night watch I like to fill time with communications work. Partly because shortwave radio works a lot better at night, partly because it makes me feel connected despite being on a small boat on a large, dark ocean, and partly because it keeps me from fretting about all those boat systems that are failing but I just haven’t found yet. So when you get emails from us at 3am it’s because that’s when I got the radio-email to connect. And contacting the radio officers on the big ships crossing our route ensures that they actually know you are there. Jennifer actually had one ship kindly change course in such a way that they had to later yield to another on-coming ship such that they lost noticeable progress.

And when you are Off, you had best get some sleep.

But Jennifer and I have each our own extra functions aboard that we need to address when on passage, above and beyond running the boat, and we generally try to take care of those functions on the off watch and when there are no other boat-demands when On. Jenn handles provisions, food in general, and long range planning. I handle boat systems and navigational planning. Food on passage is pivotally important because a) there’s no food out there that you didn’t bring with you and b) well fed people do a lot better under stress, and passaging is clearly stressful on many levels. And preparing food while under way is uniquely difficult, which requires planning ahead for minimal cooking. Boat systems on passage are also critical. By that I mean battery, fuel and fresh water status, engines, pumps, weather, navionics and communication gear. The thing about boat systems on passage is that something always goes wacky, so vigilance is required to catch/fix/adapt the out-of-whack gear before real problems develop.

I am not sure when we will do our next passaging. Passaging is a rare thing for many cruisers because it’s generally difficult sailing due to the uncertainty of weather and routing barriers like the Gulf Stream or prevailing winds. If those barriers weren’t there then people would be going all over, all the time. “Gee Honey, let’s sail down to Columbia and check out Cartagena”, not.

But when we do, we will back on the night watches.