A Day at Sea

by Bob Ashton

I wake from a deep and much needed sleep. A rocking motion reminds me that I’m sailing well out to sea. It’s light. I’d go back to sleep but my crew is on watch, has been for hours and I must replace him. I know his mood – sleepy, eager for relief. I know. I’ve been there. But I’ve a couple of minutes to reflect. The motion is delightful. I’m wedged in the “V” between the mattress and bulkhead, a position long perfected to minimize my body rolling. Eyes closed, I review the sounds. Primary is the rushing of water past my ear only inches away through the fiberglass hull. The boat is moving well, good. Then the chirp, chirp of the gears in ‘Harvey,’ the autopilot I named for the invisible rabbit of movie and Broadway fame. (He’s an electronic box, steers the boat most of the time – relieving us humans of that drudgery.) All is well. Have to get up. I’ll get a nap later.

I pull myself out of the bunk, put on shorts and a tee shirt. Don’t need shoes yet. I’ll get them if the motion or weather picks up. With two feet on the sole (floor) and one hand for balance, I reach for the coffee pot lashed each night on the stove and pour a mug full. Mug goes up on deck so I have two hands for the ladder as I climb to topsides. I’m first greeted with the early sun. Warming – not hot – yet. Next, the morning breeze, cool, bracing – so far.

I’m on a long distance sail between the Galapagos and Marquesas Islands, hundreds of miles from any land, just where I want to be. I’m roughly halfway across the longest open water leg of what I’m hoping will turn into a sail around the world, the dream of many sailors. Will I make it? Some challenges I’ve overcome—heavy weather, equipment failure— and I know there will be lots ahead. Always in the back of my mind. A quick look around reveals the light blue of the tropical sea set off by white caps. The sky and clouds compliment. It’s all that trade wind sailing should be. The trade winds blow East to West. So, since sailing with the wind is easier than against it, circumnavigators go the same way. It also happens to be an area of normally great weather.

After a brief chat, the crew (there are just two of us on this leg), eagerly awaiting my relief (rather than my companionship) dives below for a quick bite and bunk time. This is my favorite part of the day. I take a seat near the helm but no need to touch it. Harvey is doing a fine job. I can see most of the horizon and the instruments confirming speed and direction. Harvey’s control, a simple dial I can turn with two fingers, is an easy reach. The boat is moving well. No traffic on the horizon. The sounds of the water and wind speak of energy, the great horsepower that I can control so easily.

I don my safety harness and clip to the jack lines for my daily inspection around the deck. I find three flying fish bodies; they flew to escape a predator, only to find my vessel’s deck. Too bad they’re inedible. The jack lines have no evidence of chafe or wear. No problems.

I settle back in the cockpit and take in the scene. There is so much I find appealing. The sea has its own fascination. The white of the white caps seem the perfect contrast to the ocean blue. In these weather conditions, the fair weather cumulous clouds similarly compliment the sky. No human artist could improve it. For awhile I need no other entertainment.

My crew below and asleep, my company is birds. The kittiwake, booby, even a rare condor wander past. Evolution provides them with the tools to survive here, to navigate, find food. I need so much technology I feel embarrassed to be invading their property. I overcome it but muse on what awesome abilities they have we so little comprehend. During these moments I can understand the appeal for the single hander, this feeling of total control, self sufficiency. But the likelihood of bad weather, fatigue, injury or gear and safety problems dims the appeal for me. Besides, I like company.

I try to read. But nature seems to make concentration difficult. I’m drawn to the slightest change, noise. If the wind changes I may need to adjust a sail. If it increases, I may need to reef. I have to glance around the horizon every few minutes to watch for traffic. It’s not demanding but it is absorbing. I hear the gasp of a dolphin going past the cockpit on his way to the bow. I have to go up and attempt communication. Dolphins seem fascinated by the bow. Why? I’ve never heard an explanation.

The morning goes on. Eventually my crew reappears. A chat is now welcome. A vessel breaks the horizon. We track its angle from us. Its bearing changes in a few minutes. No collision likely, and soon it’s gone.

There are some chores. Each day someone sweeps the floor below. Sink is draining slowly, need to clean the trap. Light bulb burned out. (Amazing how many different bulbs a boat has and we have to have spares for all.)  Time for the “net” when boats on roughly the same path, within radio range, which is several hundred miles, agree to contact each other once each day. It’s the daily comfort that there are others ‘out there’ with advice or help if necessary. We go days without seeing anyone – the essence of solitude—yet today some forty voices respond sequentially. “Any emergencies?” Not today. Just brief chats on weather or current wherever the voice is located.

Evening arrives and dinner. My crew happens to be a great fisherman. He pulls some two to three foot morsel over the rail every few days. Fresh fish of many sorts decorate our table. Tonight there’s relatively manageable motion, and we decide to have a glass of wine. This is a no-no for some sailors; one glass won’t hurt us. We’re hungry, and though many parts of dinner came out of a can, it’s delicious.

Dinner often occurred about sundown. I had rigged a light in the cockpit which permitted eating after dark but had the effect of shutting out the world beyond the boat. We regularly watched for lights, of course. Dinner over, I was generally the washer. I had my way of using minimum fresh water. Now began the night watches. Whoever was ‘on’ the afternoon got the first watch off, to be roused later for the next.

Many have written of the thrill of night watches, the thrill of a clear sky so seldom observed by city dwellers; or punctuated by meteors has its reward. It’s easy to stare at the spectacle for some time. After ten or twenty or more, the night watch is little more than hard work. I’ll miss sailing but not the long night watches. With normal sleep cycles long destroyed, the dark of night still urges sleep. I’ve spent many an hour pinching, slapping, anything to keep awake ‘til relieved.

Tonight, I’m off watch after dinner so right to bed. About 10 p.m. I’m awakened with a shout, “Wind’s up, raining. Need to reef.” I have to get up and help. Routine, but now, reef in, it’s back to sleep. As I drop off I grin to myself of friends back home who would never understand why I’m doing this, why I really like it. And this is the easy part. On past legs there were torrential rains, calms, reefs to spot, islands to find or avoid. All this mixed with heavy weather made for scary moments or hours. There will be more such trials ahead, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Tonight I have the 3 a.m. watch. The impending pain of the time in the dark penetrates as crew shakes my shoulder. I struggle up, pour some coffee and take my place in the cockpit. Glancing around, all is in order, sailing well but nothing to do. Keep eyes open. Watch for lights, any wind changes. I make occasional adjustments to sail set or direction. Still little to do. Will dawn ever come? Seems eons away. Hang in there.

Finally! A hint of light in the East! There is an end. As the world gradually emerges from blackness my whole mood changes. Soon, some deep red color adds to the gray. Then more. It seems to be both agonizingly slow yet dramatically fast. Soon, deep reds go to pink. (In the Hollywood version will there be trombones?) Then white. (Trumpets?) An edge of the sun itself peaks over the horizon. Day has arrived. The agonies of the night watch are over, forgotten. The joy of the whole picture emerges, from watching the sea move by, to the excitement of approaching lands, to sharing with friends—all alleviate the trials.

I love this life – where I am. I couldn’t be happier.

Robert Ashton is trained as a Mechanical Engineer. On retirement, he purchased forty foot sailboat and sailed around the world. Resulting book actually sells. This piece attempts some emotional details – lacking in the book.