Slumbering, bedding down, bunking, catnapping, zoning out, catching forty winks, and hitting the hay. Normal people call it sleeping: a state of inactivity or unconsciousness. Somewhere between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., individuals all over the world are sleeping and recharging their bodies and restless minds. Lucky them. I haven’t completely slept through a night in several months for we sailors choose to spend our night time hours doing something totally different – welcome to the phenomenon of night watches.
Yes, the night watch. During the black, silent, night time hours when we ought to be lying in a semi-horizontal position, relaxing or snuggling with that special someone, many of us are wide awake. Even more silly is that we sit outside, sometimes in pouring rain and chilly winds, staring into utter darkness. I’ve never been a fan of night watches. In fact, there are several things I dislike about them. Let us count the ways……..
Of loathing night watches at sea –
My night watch towards the end of the trip was the graveyard shift – the best hours for viewing the night sky but the worst for getting a decent nights’ sleep. Although I went to bed when the sun went down,
I never actually slept until about twenty minutes before my shift started. Instead, I spent the better part of six hours clicking on and clicking off my flashlight (kept under my pillow for such purposes) in order to check my watch and make for absolute certainty that I hadn’t fallen asleep and missed my time. However, it wasn’t until about thirty minutes before I was to hop out of bed that my eyes closed and I drifted off, only to snap back away, frantically grab my flashlight and click it on to check the time. Two minutes had passed.
“Time to get up Ash…on the count of 3……1..2…3.” I don’t move and squeeze my eyes even tighter. Maybe I’m dreaming and, in reality, have another glorious three hours of sleep. I pull the scratchy wool blanket up over my head and sink into my pillow for some more sweet dreaming…..bad idea. The sharp smell of mildew and damp wool brings me fully out of my drowsy state and I sit up much too quickly, banging my forehead on the ceiling yet again….another bruise. Now I’ll have one to match the other side of my forehead…a twin set of purple patches.
Having stalled for well over five minutes and sulked about my sore forehead, I finally launch myself off the bunk, banging my toe and catching my hair in the fan that I forgot to turn off AGAIN. I’m forever pulling stray hairs out of the treacherous white blades. Not only will I be covered in dotted bruises when I arrive in port, but I’ll be bald as well. So much for arriving tanned and pretty at the end of this trip. On the other hand, I hear they make some wonderful wigs in the Fijian islands…..
Putting on foul weather gear in the pitch blackness of night while half asleep is always an interesting experience. After so many long voyages at sea, one would think that I would at least have this matter covered with no problems…..nope. Most of the time, I’m sleeping in my bikini and blindly pull on my slippery, still half-soaked foul weather overalls without a preliminary first layer….not too warm and not too comfortable. I’ll be up the stairs and almost outside before realizing that I might need some extra warmth if not something partially dry to get me through the next several hours. Stumbling and cursing, I have to return to my claustrophobic stateroom, swallow my nausea and rummage through discarded paraphernalia to pull out some reasonably dry track pants, never mind the moldy aroma. I don’t know when they were washed last but they ought to do for tonight. Finally dressed, I stagger sleepily up the companionway stairs and stick my head out the door, checking the weather and mumbling hello to mum. I hate that she gets to go back to a warm bed. Lucky girl.
Lighting the galley stove takes three chances. I can’t find a tea bag and the milk has gone sour. Of course, the burning alcohol is empty and I have to fumble around and refill the canisters while holding the flashlight in my teeth. In the process, I spill half of the stove alcohol down the front of me and it quickly soaks into my bright yellow foul weather gear. Oh well, maybe the fumes will help keep me awake…..on second thought….they are making me more nauseous…..and I have to quickly poke my head outside for some fresh air.
I hate feeling seasick.
Grabbing my lukewarm mug of tea, I step into the cockpit just as we are broadsided by a oncoming swell. Trying to tuck my flyaway hair into my hat and struggling to hold my tea steady, I am thrown into the metal framing….bruising my shins and spilling my only source of caffeine for the remainder of the night. Mum struggles not to laugh as I scowl and ask about the weather, wind and course for the evening. The green glow from the compass lights up our faces and we look like eerie aliens – – eerie, wet aliens…….eerie, wet and seasick aliens as I quickly look around for my emergency bucket…..it tends to follow me everywhere these days……..did I mention that I hate being seasick?
Mum wishes a good night and slips inside to be warm and cozy. The rain starts and I thank my spontaneity for thinking to put on an extra layer of clothing – that college education was finally put to good use! I try to steer our course by compass but the steady green glow and revolving numbers only make me more queasy. Instead, I concentrate on the stars overhead, particularly the southern cross and use it to steer by for the remainder of the evening.
The few sips of tea remaining in my mug have grown cold but the tiny bit of caffeine helps wake me up a little bit at a time. In the middle of the night, there isn’t much else to think about except travel, sleep and food. A sailors favorite pastime is to imagine all the foods he or she will eat upon arriving at port. Images of chocolate cake, mom’s strawberry pie and lasagna roam through my head. I search my pockets for hidden treats and find a half soaked lollipop. It will have to do……although I hate not having chocolate cake on hand at one in the morning.
Of loving night watches at sea-
I love the night sky. The magic of sailing is stronger at night when the pulsing lights from above cast their magnificent glow. I love creating my own constellations and leaning my head back to follow a falling star as it lazily searches out the horizon and then dips below to their secret haven far away. There is nothing quite as spellbinding as the stars in the middle of the ocean. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world and I’m lucky to experience the beauty and grandeur here in the South Pacific.
I love the feel of the boat slipping quietly through the water, sloshing to and fro, catching a wave coasting into the trough. I love the flapping of the sails and clanking of halyards and sheets. The sounds are addictive and create a soft lullaby during the quiet night time hours. The water splashing behind the stern is the steady bass while the hum of the wheel and the bouncing of the jib sheets add in on harmony. I love the music of the sea.
Sometimes phosphorescence lights up our wake and I spend hour after hour staring into the greeny yellow waters, memorized by the tiny animals and watching them dance and frolic playfully behind Queequeg. It’s almost like a game for them to put on sparkling light show. Little do they know that I am enjoying them just as much as they enjoy dancing for me. I love that I’m able to experience their twinkling exhibitions night after night.
Bathed in blackness, I can never tell if we are actually moving or how fast we are pushing along. However, from the sounds around me that I’ve lived with for weeks and weeks and grown highly in tune to, I know that we are traveling, mile after mile, towards islands we want to reach and ports in the distance. I love the feeling of arriving somewhere new and unknown. If you’ve ever traveled, you agree that it is a wonderful feeling. I love realizing how small and insignificant our little boat is out in this grand ocean. We are truly at the mercy of the sea and it demands some level of respect.
Most of all, I love having endless hours with nothing to do but dream of future travels. As the dark, nighttime hours drift away, my fantasies take me to the desert plains of Africa and emerald slopes of Ireland, to the pyramids of Egypt and the startling blue waters of the Mediterranean, to the stark wilderness in Alaska and the hot oasis of Mexico…..east, west, north, and south….the dreaming is limitless. I smile contently and remember my past experiences, the truly awesome places I’ve seen, and the cultures that I’ve experienced…of the fantastic people I’ve met along the way and the best friends that I have sprinkled around the world.
I love being lucky enough to have these encounters.
…….and at the end of the my night watch, I absolutely LOVE the fact that I can go back to bed!