FAQ #3: Night Watches

December 12, 2011

Q: How about pulling watch all alone with the family below… How is Victoria handling the watches… how long are you on deck for at night? Are you clipping in? How are you staying awake? What was the sea state like?

A: My  first overnight passage was from Monterrey to Morro Bay California, early on in our trip.  By morning I [Victoria] was so entirely exhausted that after dropping the anchor over the bow I just lay down to take a nap right there on the foredeck. I couldn’t even keep my eyes open enough to get back to the cockpit to sleep never mind peeling off my 14 layers of warm clothes to crawl into bed.

I have an impression that couples that cruise and do night passages might have an easier time than we do.  We generally split the night into three hour shifts starting around 8pm and trade off through the night. I imagine that couples without kids would get to make up their lost sleep during the day, but here on Convivia morning starts around 6 or 7 (passage or no) and although we can sometimes sneak in a nap, usually the lost sleep is made up for in coffee. On multi day passages (so far just 2-3 nights at a time) the days are passed easily with card games, bowls of popcorn, books, dress up, pretend, projects, and fishing and the passages are generally pretty darn easy. In rougher weather the kids nap or watch movies and we just push on through.

As night falls we clean up the cockpit, stuff napkins and towels between rattling dishes, quiet down any noises that might prevent the off watch person from sleeping, and sometimes make tea in a thermos for later on. Usually I’m in the cockpit during the kids’ bedtime while Tucker gets them all squared away. We switch off as needed but often one of us will sleep from 8-11 to get a jump on the night.  We haven’t used a formal schedule.  It always seems to work out and we’re flexible enough to just show up for watch or take a longer one as needed.

Although my first overnight was exhausting, and my second overnight, past Point Conception, very challenging with big swell and terrible visibility, the rest have been great. Essentially we set the sails and adjust the windvane and just keep watch. We look for windshifts (that would blow us off course), boats, check the electronic charts from time to time, look at the TTG feature to guess when we’ll arrive, check the AIS if we see any boats on the horizon (if they’re listed we can predict how close we’ll get to one another and call them on the VHF if they’re too close). But mostly we stargaze, marvel at the glow of the bioluminescence, and listen for the breath of dolphins coming to visit.  Now that we don’t need foul weather gear the transition from watch to sleep and back is quick and easy.

Staying awake on watch is easier now that we’ve worked out getting decent sleep when it’s our turn. I usually sleep on the settee in the saloon, low and centered on the boat. I find the v-berth, my normal bed, too loud and bumpy in all but the calmest conditions. Our settee pulls out and I’m wedged in next to the table without even needing a lee cloth. Tucker switches between the v-berth and the saloon. We tend to hot-bunk which is kind of a treat on a cool night (non-sailors it means to get into someone else’s warm bed instead of a fresh cool one).

To stay awake at night I sometimes listen to music (I get up after every song for a good look around) or read during my watch but usually I just enjoy the time I get all alone! In fact long before we set off cruising I was looking forward to night watches so that I’d have time by myself.

From time to time something out of the ordinary will happen that I’ll need to wake Tucker for a another set of eyes or a hand with something. When we were sailing from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas there were a number of ships and over a hundred sailboats to be on the lookout for. Sometimes their navigation lights were confusing (it turns out that someone did in fact have their masthead light on backwards) or I needed help figuring out just how far away the other boats were or if we’d cross paths. Being alone in the cockpit has definitely made me a better sailor. Tucker used to startle awake but now I wake him up with, “Everything’s okay, it’s just time for your watch.”

We took our friend Merileigh as an extra crew member on the Baja Ha-Ha.  Dividing up the night into thirds, and having a third person to play yet another game of Uno was really great!  We easily got enough rest and there were plenty of hands to do sail changes or make snacks any time we wanted. We are even  planning on taking her from Mexico to the Marquesas with us. Yep, 5 people on our cozy boat.

As for the safety detail, at night we always wear our PFDs and tether ourselves to our jacklines. We can clip in right from the companionway. When Tucker comes on watch I double check that he’s clipped in. We even have the fancy double tethers with two caribiners, meaning that even if we have to move around a line or piece of hardware we’re still attached to the boat. I couldn’t sleep without that reassurance!




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