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03 November 2010

Night Watch with Autopilot

Half an hour before I'm due on deck, my trusty little watch alarm feeps me awake out of my post-dinner, pre-watch snooze. I check the time just to make sure I've set it right ("...oh, just a few more minutes sleep?" my nap-muddled brain requests) but, no, it's 2:30 AM, just as it should be. I move a bit slowly, awakened like this at odd hours, I like the extra time.

I get dressed - socks and shoes, fleece pants, long-sleeved shirt; it was cool already at sunset, best to put on more than you need now than get chilled later - and gather up my foulies and PFD. Check pockets - yup, lip balm, knife, flashlight ("torch" in WT lingo) and MP3 player all accounted for. Putting on a headlamp with a red light, I turn out my cabin lights before opening the door, so as not to spill lots of bright light out in case Sean, who's on before me, is nearby. (Protect precious night vision!)

The boat's rolling quite a bit, a big change from when I went to sleep, so making a cup of tea is a small adventure involving careful placement of cup, teapot and all, mostly one-handed or with legs braced against the cabinets; getting milk from the fridge requires a first careful swing of the door to make sure nothing's loose from the shelves to go crashing to the floor. While the tea's steeping, covered and in the sink to protect from spills, a quick raid of the snack cabinet... let's see, cookies? Crackers? Seems like a cookie night, and I silently thank whoever thought to pick up the box of little yummy hazelnut and chocolate wafers. Perfect!

Tea-making gear stowed, I do the usual wave-induced staggering dance across the saloon to the companionway (stopping to look at the last few log entries to see what's what... looks pretty quiet) set tea and cookies safely on deck at the top of the ladder and sit down on the settee to gear up against the cool breeze. Sean briefs me - he's put in a new waypoint, wind's gone very light but now behind us (by morning we'll have the jibs up), keep an eye on the engine exhaust temp, no tankers in hours... a quiet night of motoring - and he heads below. Being the skipper, though, he putters at least another 15 minutes, and I hear him flipping switches at the electrical panel and lifting floor panels to check on the trusty old Mercedes engine, steadily chugging away beneath us.

Three hours seems long at the start, but the trick, for me, seems to be to distract myself with smaller chunks of activity. For now, still warm from being down below, I curl up with my mug of tea in an aft corner of the cockpit, enjoying the breeze and savoring each sip of hot tea. I eke out a good 15 minutes tea-drinking, remembering the cookies partway through (indeed, perfect little chocolate-covered tidbits). Time to check the engine temp (happy) and the radar and chart plotter. Hey! There's a boat on the AIS (which may or may not mean Automatic Information System, but which is a wonderfully useful system where boats squawk their location, course and speed, and bigger ones more details like how large they are, name, destination, etc.) This one's a big tanker, going in the opposite direction to our course, closest approach nearly 8 miles. I can just see the lights appear over the horizon, and the radar suddenly shows a little blip as well.

I settle down on the starboard side, straddling the cockpit coaming, the better to see forward for a while, and watch the tanker's lights slowly become clearer. Time for some music, perhaps? We'd had fun singing "Southern Cross" at the beach party back in Reunion, maybe some CSN. The tanker and the trio keep me company for a while until I notice, on a horizon scan, a big glow to the east. Should be about time for the moon (thin waning crescent) to be coming up, and, sure enough, a sharp point of light appears suddenly through a break in the clouds on the horizon.

4 AM, and time for the log. I spend a while fussing with the chart plotter - it reboots itself periodically, and must be told to re-follow the route, and whoever programmed the interface apparently had a job in the audio-visual industry beforehand... it's a bit cryptic, to say the least. But I get all the numbers squared away, tweak the autopilot a few degrees and head to the galley for a second cup of tea. Getting out the milk I re-discover the hard-boiled eggs Sof had boiled up yesterday - another perfect snack. The only thing better at the moment might be Sof's leftover meatballs, must remember to request those for dinner sometime!

Back on deck, horizon scan, engine temp, all good. Nothing on the AIS, and there's a nice break in the clouds, so I spend a while looking, naked-eye and with binocs, at the unfamiliar constellations. Am still mesmerized by the sight of the few familiar constellations being *upside down*, the moon's angle likewise shifted, even the sun angle during the day is reversed to the north. I try playing with the star-finder "personal planetarium" that Casey showed me the other day, but it can't quite get a GPS fix (it whinges about electrical interference, maybe it's the motor?) so that's out. Back to tea-drinking. CSN's getting a bit too mellow, so I switch to the perkier Greatest Hits by Steve Miller. That oughta keep me awake, I figure, and for good measure I stand up and hold on to the dodger, dancing a little and singing quietly along with the silly pop lyrics.

The MP3 player gets my attention, suddenly - uh-oh, low battery. Hmmm. Can't have silence for the last hour, now, can we? I head below for the computer and cable, and set it up to charge. Thankfully it can play and charge at the same time. As long as I'm tethered to the laptop, I try to come up with a bunch of screen settings that make the laptop usable on deck at night, but to no avail. Even the "black" settings are awfully bright to dark-adjusted eyes, and I can't quite seem to get rid of all the white edges on windows and things. (Darned Microsoft.) A project for another day.

The moon's risen higher, and I notice that the sky is no longer uniformly dark, either - sunrise is coming, slowly but surely. I remember someone - Matt, I think, from Crazy Horse - talking about the ancient egyptian myths where the sky goddess, Nut, gives birth to the sun god, Ra, every morning. Nut's household is clearly already up and lighting candles, preparing for the impending happy occasion - colors begin to appear, the eastern sky takes on a bit of yellow, then orange, moving towards pink.

I hear movement below, see some cabin lights come on; my replacement, Heidi, is up and about. Minutes later, a hand reaches through the open hatch in the cockpit side and grabs my ankle - I manage not to yelp, much to her disappointment. On deck together a few minutes later we watch the newly-reborn Ra climb into his day chariot and head off across the sky... it's a pretty morning. I pass on the small tidbits about waypoint, current and wind, head down to do the 6 AM log, do my dishes and roll into bed for a few more z's; I'm back on at noon for a 1-hour watch, then again at 5, and then off until 6 Thursday morning.

- Anne

(Today's actual sailing update: we're back to sailing [no motor, hurray] under two poled-out jibs in 12-15 knots of following breeze, with 2-3 meter seas. Nice downwind sailing, and after some morning clouds, have a lovely sunny afternoon. We're just south of Madagascar. Specifically:

03 Nov 2010 11:49 UTC
26 45.248 S
44 59.827 E

Oh, and we hooked up a large fish this morning, but it got away; may have been a marlin. Caught a dorado yesterday, and saw a shark surfing along in our wake a little while ago.)

P.S. Anne says "Happy Birthday, Syd!"