On Watch

I am writing to you from Port Resolution, our anchorage at the island of Tanna. Tanna, well known for Mt.Yasur, an active volcano, and delicious coffee grown on the island, is only 135NM south east of Efate. On paper that would be an easy overnighter on Kate. In the real world it took three days of hard sailing to get here.

The delay was a combination of things; light winds, contrary currents, shitty sea state, no winds at all, fresh winds, bad tack angles. The usual bunch of suspects for a windward passage really, but frustrating none the less. While we sailed back and forth, tacking almost back on our own track and making very little headway, I had some time to think. It occurred to me that many of you may not know much about what goes on onboard underway.

On Kate we stand a 24 hour watch.

That means that regardless of the time of day or night, conditions, location or length of passage one of us is always awake and in the cockpit “watching.” We don’t rely on AIS or set radar alarms off shore so that we can both get a full night sleep. If I am seasick I don’t make Steve cover my watch I simply accept that I will be puking and try to get most of it over the rail. And most importantly we don’t sleep in the cockpit when we are supposed to be watching. Ever.

We prefer the classic 4 on, 4 off schedule and we keep the same hours on every trip. Here is what our watch schedule looks like:

0600-1000 Heather                                    1800-2200 Steve

1000-1400 Steve                                           2200-0200 Heather

1400-1800 Heather                                    0200-0600 Steve

There are as many variations to this schedule as people who sail, but this one works for us. Steve likes to have the sunset and sunrise watches and can sleep during the day, and for as long as I have been working on boats I have always been stuck with the midnight shift, so I am used to it. We almost always have dinner together and I often get up so we can share lunch as well.

We usually hot bunk.

A lovely way to say we alternately sleep in the same spot. On a small boat like Kate there is usually only one “good bunk”, the heel of the boat under sail is anywhere between 10-30 degrees and makes the high side of the boat uninhabitable. On cold nights like we had recently the other persons residual body heat trapped beneath the covers is welcome when you’ve just spent four hours bundled up against wind and salt spray. On hot tropical days it is kinda gross.

While on watch we always wear our life vests and tethers, even if it flat calm and sunny. And we have a rule that if you have to go forward of the cockpit in rough weather or after dark you tell the other person, even if that means waking them up. Like we always say, safety never takes a day off.

Time spent “on watch” is time spent literally watching.

Or perhaps it would be better to say paying attention. We have a wind vane which steers the boat on long passages. It stays on course by being set it to a wind angle not by electronics, if the wind direction changes the angle to the wind the vane is steering will not change but our course will. So the watchman has to pay attention to wind shifts and where the boat is going. There is also sail trim, boat handling and changes in the weather to take into account. Sailing near land you have to watch out for navigation aids, reefs, currents, islands/rocks and unmarked hazards. Then there are other boats, unmarked fishing bouys, ships, floating debris and animals such as whales to avoid.

There sounds like there is a lot going on, and there is. But there is also lots of time when the boat is sailing smoothly and conditions don’t require that much vigilance and you can find yourself lost in your thoughts and time slips by almost unnoticed. Sunday night I was having just such a midnight watch, and then I noticed a bright light on the horizon.

At dinner time we were sailing almost due south and as the sun sank in a fiery orange blaze we watched a green flash tint the clouds on the western horizon. On our port side the moon was rising at the same time into a cloudless sky. At 2000 we tacked east to avoid running into the north end of Tanna and sailed towards the small island of Aniwa.

When I came up on watch at 2200 it was a spectacularly clear night, the moon light dancing on the ocean, the winds and seas were light and cooperative. I was huddled in the corner against the fresh southerly breeze when I saw a bright light flash in the NE and then disappear. I stood up and scanned the horizon but saw nothing. It was bright enough to be a light house but the chart showed that there was nothing in that direction for several hundred miles. I was wondering if my mind was playing tricks on me when it flashed again, this time closer.

I grabbed the binoculars and called for Steve.

In the bright moon light I could clearly see two small local boats speeding our way, but they looked like they would cross our bow with room to spare. As soon as I said it out loud I could hear the noise of their outboard engines, they were close and now turning toward us, at full throttle.

The Ni-Vanuatu people are not known to be violent but it has been hard times in these islands since cyclone Pam blew through in March. I hoped it was a local fisherman coming to tell us to divert our course to miss his nets. I knew that no matter what we did they could out manoeuver us and certainly out run us.

The boats slowed and approached from the stern, one on either side. By now Steve was dressed and up on deck and I was starting to get worried. But then it was obvious that the drivers were not getting too close, they were being careful not to hit us. A light flicked on and a young man yelled “Halo!” over the roar of the ocean. It was a broken conversation, words lost into the noise of the night but we finally understood what the men wanted, and it was worse than I had expected.

They were from Aniwa and were searching for three boys that had “drifted away.”

They were wondering if we had seen anyone. The four men were dressed in tee shirts and searching for their friends in an open boat, with only flash light, miles from their island. The weather report for the area called for lows of 13 C that night, I was in full wet weather gear with two sweaters on underneath.

They asked if we would keep a watch out for their boys and help anyone we found floating and alive. I assured them we would help if we could, but unfortunately had nothing to report. They said thanks, bid us goodbye and sped away. For the next few hours I watched their spot light flicker on the horizon and kept a sharp eye on shapes and shadows that shifted in the sea.

As we sailed closer to land I saw two large fires burning, one on either end of the island. I wondered if they were signal fires, beacons to guide the lost boys home. At 0200 we changed watches and before I had a chance to get snuggled into bed I heard whistles and then engine noises. Poking my head up we watched as a boat sped past our stern and towards the island. Steve said a short time later the fires were extinguished. We hope that meant the boys were found, alive.

Four hours later I sat in the cockpit just after sunrise watching Mt.Yasur puff clouds of steam into the sky just off the bow. Time is distorted underway and in the bright morning light the events of the night seemed surreal. We’ll probably never know what happened to those boys who drifted away, but as we neared our safe harbour I hoped they had found refuge as well. For now we’ll be looking for them while we are on watch.



Sailing Towards Tanna

Leave a Reply