sailing at sea at sunset in schooner

My New Surreal World – On Night Watch

Posted on Posted in Ocean Tales, Sailing

Standing watch alone tonight, my new world looks surreal. The moon isn’t up yet, and dark cloudy skies blanket the dark roily ocean. All I can see is the splash of white foam over the bowsprit, lit greenish-pink by our navigation lights as we pitch and roll up, over, down, sideways. Two white birds circle our bow, flirting with the foam.

These birds give me peace in the dark seas at 1:00am. They’re masked boobies (yes, that’s the techincal name) 400 miles from the nearest land. The pair show no signs of tiring as they ride the wind wave our bow creates. What the hell are they doing here? What the hell am I doing here? Who’s idea was this, anyway? Oh, wait…it was mine. I stifle a yawn, trying to take a cue from the tireless birds keeping me company.

My watch partner, Rob, is passed out in the forward berth, calming his seasick. The rest of the crew is below, asleep or trying to be. The creak of the sails hard against the wind and the moon rising through rain clouds makes me feel like I’m in a movie. Is this really my reality? It sure is. We’re one week into a 4-5 week ocean corssing. And this week is the toughest part — not just mentally and physically as crew members adjust to the demands of the sea, but sailing-wise, too.

From Panama to the Galapagos, we had to traverse the dreaded ITCZ (inter-tropical convergence zone), an unstable lightening and storm-prone area where northern and southern hemisphere weather patterns collide at the equator. And the wind and waves aren’t really in our favor, which means motor-sailing, rolly-queasy seas, and nights like this one with salty waves breaking over the bow as we point our nose hard against the wind. It’s not the kick-back-with-a-cocktail tradewind sailing many people associate with crossing the Pacific.

We hope to hit those easier tradewinds tomorrow, the magical and fabled winds that smooth the ride and push us 3,330 more miles across the Pacific. But the wind is a fickle mistress, no matter how much we beg, praise, cajole, threaten. She’s got her own agenda, and ours doesn’t factor in. Luckily my agenda is pretty loose: get to some cool islands sometime soon.

So far? It’s been interesting. No seasickness for me, though Rob’s been feeling not-so-hot about half the time. Not as scary as I’d thought, either: I love the waves, the ocean, the rain, the clouds. And not as sedentary as I was worried about it, since my muscles are constantly firing to adjust to the perpetual motion and keep me from falling off the boat.

But the voyage is also a little more frustrating than I’d thought, in terms of having to make constant decisions on course, sail trim, or whether to use the motor. Luckily, all of our week-long backpacks and river trips in the wilderness taught Rob and me how to live with little water, cook creatively with odd provisions, live communally with others 24/7, and deal with fluctuating emotions in demanding circumstances. The key phrase in that last sentence is “week-long,” though.

The next couple of weeks at sea will be where the rubber meets the road. Where we settle into routines, responsibilities, the roll of the boat. Where the fresh produce runs out and we start on the canned peas. Where the novelty of surreal night watches wears thin. Where the birds stop visiting our bow as we lose all scent of land. Where the salt crystals start to layer in epic proportions, crusting our clothes, pillows, eyes, senses.

I sure can’t wait to see how this story unfolds.

NOTE: We’re currently stopped in the Galapagos for a brief provisioning stop.  It took 8 days to sail from Panama to San Cristobal Island here, and we expect it will take 25-35 days to reach the Marquesas when we leave here tomorrow.

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