FAQ: How do you do night watches?

Cruising aboard a sailboat entails very little actual sailing—mostly it’s getting to a destination as quickly as possible and then enjoying it as slowly as possible. Liza Copeland in her books about her family’s around-the-world travels estimated that they actually sailed only a years’ worth of days in their eight-year circumnavigation. Still, unless you’re just island-hopping or skipping down a coastline, eventually you’re going to have to make at least one overnight passage to get to your destination. Timing can be tricky. You want to arrive with enough daylight to navigate channels or around coral, and just generally to have enough time to get settled comfortably. So you have to guess how fast you’re going to go and then time your departure accordingly. But because wind speed and direction are subject to change, you may go faster or slower than you estimated.

Sometimes, for folks crossing the Gulf Stream, leaving at sunset and going all night makes sense. You have to have someone keeping watch at all hours, to keep an eye on sails, weather, passing ships, to listen to the VHF and to navigate. Since we’re always shorthanded, that means taking turns sleeping. Different couples have worked it out different ways. We are already experts at night watches. This may sound arrogant, since this is only our second overnight trip, but we’ve survived having four newborns and know how to function on very little sleep and pass like ships in the night (ha ha). Of course, so far, the weather has been pleasant and the autopilot and GPS do most of the work.

Here’s how it seems to work best.  Since I’m a night owl, and love star-gazing, I take the sunset-to-midnight shift. Night sailing is what drew me into this bizarre lifestyle to begin with (I’ve told the story in a previous entry). The stars, the bioluminescence in the water, and the rare solitude to me are a wonderful part of sailing. I can listen to music, read a book, write, or just think. My sailing-mom friend Vicki gave some good advice, which I have followed: set a “snooze alarm” on your watch, so that you look around the horizon at least every ten to fifteen minutes. That helps if I’m reading or otherwise distracted, or simply having a hard time keeping my eyes open. A bucket with a comfy “seat” in the cockpit helps, too; since I’m pregnant, I would be going below every fifteen minutes to use the head.

I get Jay’s pot of coffee ready and he takes over at midnight. I usually get up at 3:30 and have a snack and cup of tea. This is the dawn watch—another privilege, but also a practicality. Since I have to be up and available for the kids, it makes sense for me to take a short early morning watch and then catch a two-hour nap before I’m on duty as mom. Jay takes over at sunrise while I snooze, and then he does most of the sailing and navigating during the day. I am a good napper, so I can catch up on sleep in the afternoon.

All that said, I still don’t feel ready to cross an ocean with this young family of ours. A couple of days like this are a pleasurable break in routine—a chance to use my new laser pointer to show a kid a constellation at 4 AM, to play dominoes in the cockpit instead of correcting spelling, and to make easy, snack-y food instead of cooking regular meals. But for weeks on end? I’m sure you get used to the routines and a life at sea, but at present, I am satisfied to enjoy this time as a rarity and not a regularity!