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Offshore Sailing
Nightwatch, Lightwatch

By Laura Watts
sand14.com

The sea and sky both sparkled with stars in a black, liquid void. One held our course above, the other raced along to mark our midnight passage below.

The bioluminescence flickered and then glowed, green and gold along our wake, spreading out from the bow like a haunting aurora. I was on the nightwatch, somewhere in a brief, dark moment between dusk and dawn in a North Sea midsummer.In the four hours of the watch, I stood at the helm, eyes gripping the horizon as I kept course, or sat aft with my hands nailed to a cup of hot cocoa.

In those long, slow moving hours, I saw a flaming moon rise, a crescent that burned hotter, becoming yellow and then white as it rose above the gunwhale.

The ships compass it up at night on an offshore voyage

I saw meteors falling.

I saw the Sun floating ahead, red and vast as its future burned-out self.

I saw the sea become as iridescent as opal. Light, distracting light – even a satellite passing overhead – were wonders that kept the shivering, eternal, eekingly slow minutes of the nightwatch ticking along.

Helming a night watch offshore.

Although we were eight on the boat, we became a watch crew of four–the others just ghosts slipping past me on the change, pale and tired in companionable silence.

We began in thermals and oilskins, motoring into a becalmed sea that could have been glass, wishing for wind. Then came four more hours of sleep when the crew changed; five more hours of daywatch on deck seeing clouds form and the sea begin to fracture. Then five more hours of afternoon sleep, when I stuffed my bright portholes with the sides of a Shreddies box (trust me, perfect fit for the portholes in the ‘engineering cupboard’ bunk); followed by four more hours on nightwatch, this time finding the Trinovante fishaker sail up, vast and billowing to starboard, the jib hungry for air.

The freshening wind that blew us northeast, heading for Scandinavia, now came with a relentless chill. It sent Su forward, into one of the multitude of below and sideways decks – Trinovante is a tardis of near infinite storage, ask Su about the fifty lost cans of chickpeas – she returned with our Arctic all-in-one, all-weather suits which we pulled on at speed. And so, in our Arctic spacesuits, Stugeron tablets assisting with the ever-shifting gravity aboard, we ‘astronauts of the night’ went on.

Night sailing at the wheel of a tall ship.

I learned how the turning of the day becomes meaningless, only the turning of the watch counting out the separation between waking and not.

I learned how to sleep when the ship sounds as though it is being slammed with asteroids, and rolls and yaws in a cosmic wind – when gravity is no longer down but sideways as the ship heels over and digs into its course, knots building.

I learned how to move about a cabin, hand over hand, when gravity is tossed about like dice.

I learned the crucial art of getting out of my bunk, dressed, limbs through my Arctic suit and boots, and out on deck, in under the time it took my body to start registering a tell-tale queasiness.

I learned to live without brushing my teeth for a couple of days – my priorities reset to either being warm and dry in my bunk, or neither on deck.

I learned how to forget to shiver when the sheet for the fishaker sail snapped half an hour before the end of a nightwatch – (one of those ‘almost never happens’ things that does happen onboard a boat in the middle of the North Sea) – and we all became wide-awake and gratefully distracted from the cold.

And all I remembered – all I remember now – is the twilight of dawn, Venus rising, and taking down my Shreddies box curtains to see a line of white wind turbines through the porthole, the sign of land, and the sign of our destination: Denmark. And, in that moment, I realised I will miss all those lights on the nightwatch.