I could feel it happening again. My heart rate increased, a lump grew in my throat, my mouth went dry, and I became easily frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find my balaclava to keep my head warm. Irrationally frustrated. At first, the sky was red and orange against the ocean’s deep blue, then it all started fading to pastels: pink, purple, grey. The gurgle of water against Sonrisa’s hull seems to turn into a growl. It’s panic hour.
This happened to me on our first night sail last April, and then I was seasick, too. On that trip, I came unglued at the seams and we eventually turned back. Neither Andrew nor I was expecting this reaction from me, but the ocean does funny things to perfectly sane people sometimes. This trip I knew it was a risk, so I was ready with a plan. It was time to start our night watch schedule.
I took some deep breaths and soothed myself. “Are you warm right now? Are you comfortable? Are you safe? Yes. Yes. Yes. Ok, so you will be ok.” As my internal monologue went. I set Andrew up with some beef broth, green ginger tea, and snacks for his watch and then went down below. I peeled off the heavy life jacket/harness and foul weather gear. I climbed into bed in my fleece. It was lighter, and more comfortable to be sure.
The boat was still moving erratically, heeled over quite a bit and plowing through the short but frequent waves right on her bow. Each time Sonrisa was tossed against a wave, cans, glasses, cups, equipment, silverware clanked and clattered. “Is a can of sardines in oil going to fly out and smash me in the face? Did I pack everything safely?” I was still worried, but in bed I could close my eyes. When I fall asleep, I am somewhere else. From 8:00 p.m. - 1:00 a.m. I sleep, then I dress in my cold weather gear again and go above to relieve Andrew from his watch. I’m not confident I can do this by myself.
Andrew gives me a full update of how the evening has gone so far, wind speed, shipping traffic, tips for managing the movement of the boat. Then he goes down below and it’s just me, Sonrisa and “Auto” our Simard auto pilot. I nestle myself down into my beanbag and huddle in three layers of wool, fleece, balaclava, ear warmer, gloves, and offshore foul weather gear.
The wind is still honking, and we are on a tack that will eventually take us into the shipping lanes with enormous tankers traveling from Long Beach to all ports of the world. I watch my GPS screen which includes AIS data. The AIS data tells me the name, direction, speed, and most importantly, the closest point of contact and the time I have until I reach the closest point of contact with these monster shipping vessels. With this information, I can judge whether I need to alter course or I’m good to sail further. Every 15 minutes or so, I stand up to scan the horizon in a 360 degree view to make sure I’m not on a collision course with any smaller boats who are not required to provide AIS data. Clear.
After a few hours, I am on course with a 395 foot shipping boat heading toward me at 14 konts. We will pass each other only .5 mile away, in approximately 19 minutes. That’s a little close for my comfort. I am slow, he is pretty fast, and if he alters course toward me, it will be hard for me to move out of his way quickly. So, I set up to change my course heading Northeast by 60 degrees through the wind so I will then be sailing to the Northwest (this is what sailors refer to as a "tack"). With the current against me, I end up more like due West. Some sail flapping and cussing on my part caused Andrew to come up to help. He got me squared away and went back down below. Ok, that wasn’t so bad. I sail on, making some west headway so that I can again turn Northeast and gain more northward ground before I run into the shipping lane again.
I make three/four more course changes through the night by myself without issue. David Sedaris continued to read his amusing stories in my left ear, my right ear out listening for other boats, changes in Sonrisa’s sounds, or requests from Andrew down below.
The moon is out and its silver shimmer follows Sonrisa over the waves. But soon, the moon sets and turns into a big orange ball on the horizon until it completely disappears. As it goes down, I wonder how I will react to the newly pitch black night. I wonder how long the night will remain pitch black. I listen to my audio book, continue my 15 minute traffic checks, adjust course and sails as necessary. This is going just fine. I am fine. “Are you warm right now? Are you comfortable? Are you safe? Yes. Yes. Yes. Ok.” I want to make sure Andrew gets a good amount of sleep, so I commit to staying at least until first light. Sunrise is at 6:30 a.m., so I calculate that will give him a solid five hours of sleep, and if I can make it to 7:30, that will get him six hours. I hunker down again.
Not too much later, I am surprised by the slightest glow starting in the eastern sky. Is that first light? I think it might be. I wait just a bit longer, and sure enough it was. I was so proud of myself for making it to first light. The sky turned pink, yellow and then blue, and I sailed on letting Andrew sleep until he woke up on his own. My first successful night watch is now in the books.
We repeat this process for two more nights (total) on this particular transit North and then South again. With two additional repetitions, it got easier for me. Panic hour seemed slightly less panic filled, and night went along faster. I am learning. I can’t say that I enjoy night passages, yet. I can see that there would be a lot to enjoy: the solitude, the time to think, the moon shimmering on the wind-rippled water, moonset, first light of day. I’m not there, yet, though. Right now, I still feel uncertain and afraid of everything. I still feel uncomfortable with the constant movement of the boat and annoyed by the clanking and clattering of all the cups, silverware, bottles and cans inside. We are out of our comfort zone by design, and it will take time to get comfortable with this new world.
While mountain biking in Santa Barbara, the thought occurred to me that my uncertainty is the same feeling I felt when I first started mountain biking. In the beginning, every rock and switchback was a source of concern. I had to think through the line I wanted to take, I wanted to bail off the bike and walk more often. I got tired and cranky on a long climb. Now, I know my rhythm and I can bike for miles and miles before I get tired and cranky. I am not afraid of most rocky spots; I can handle most switchbacks with ease. My body makes decisions for me that keeps my balance and speed without my mind consciously thinking it through. Mountain biking has become second nature. I hope living on a sailboat underway will someday feel similar. Give me six months; it will be better.