It’s 4:07am. This is an hour that humans are built to spend lying horizontally, all muscles relaxed, mind whisked away to fairy tale land. It is an hour with an identity crisis, not yet morning, but hardly still nighttime. A forgotten hour, rarely thought of kindly. I had let out a small whimper last night when I set my watch alarm for 3:55am, collapsing on the settee behind the tightly strung lee cloth holding my exhausted body in place. It is an unfortunate hour.
I want to make it clear that this is not me complaining about my lot in life. As my wise sister likes to remind me: I chose this lifestyle. She also likes to remind me that while I am bundling up and hauling myself into the cockpit at an erroneous hour to brace myself against the jerky movement of my home for 3 hours, that I can think of her – soundly asleep in a king size bed in a house that doesn’t move. She is a wise and caring sister. So I am not complaining, because I could have chosen a different path that allowed me to be snuggled up in an oversized bed in a house that stays still dreaming of sugarplums and fairies. But I didn’t. So I’m not.
It’s 4:23am. The clock moves tremendously slow at this hour. Perhaps it is revenge taken by this forgotten time for feeling so very unappreciated. I sit and stare off blankly at the jolting stars beside us. I catch a glimpse of the double-planet, Mercury and Saturn aligned, bright and forceful over the horizon, but it is gone again in a blink, buried behind the side of the boat lurching away in the swell. I watch for it to return between rolls.
I am too lethargic to occupy myself at this hour. During my 7-10pm watch, I wrote in my journal and listened to an audio book. During my 7-11am shift, I added eye splices to our new docklines and finished a book. But now – now, I sit and wait. Wait for the swell to pass, wait for the stars to move, wait for the clock to progress.
It’s 4:53am. One hour down (well, nearly – those last 7 minutes may drag on interminably) two more to go. I lay my head awkwardly against the spinnaker bag and close my eyes, braced against a winch, and hope to doze off. The wind is blowing a pleasantly steady 18-23 knots. Our reefed jib works with the windvane to keep us moving at 5-6 knots in the (mostly) right direction. The seas counteract this collaboration, pushing our stern side to side and compelling us down waves at 8 or 9 knots. We are 35 hours into the 240-mile passage from Turtle Bay to Santa Maria Bay, with 42 miles to go. I’m ready to be there.
It’s 5:24am. I must have dozed off. My left hand, jammed between neck and cabintop, is numb. I rearrange my sore limbs, scan the horizon for traffic and gaze up at the moon, just less than half full and high overhead. It did not rise until well after midnight tonight, holding us in a deeper darkness than usual, a precursor for the nights of a new moon to come. Last week it was not just full, but Super, and our night passages felt little different than daytime, complete with shadows and enough reflection to read.
It’s 5:41am. A moment I have been eagerly anticipating. I can see the outline of the few puffy clouds on the eastern horizon, revealing the otherwise imperceptible brightening of the sky. I look to the right to see Orion’s last stand, the only constellation bold enough to stand up to the vibrant moon and ensuing sunrise. I remove the headlamp from my forehead, turn my chair to face forward and tuck the blanket around my legs to watch the show.
It’s 6:23am. There are yellows and pinks on the horizon. I can feel my mind awaken with the sharpening visual details around me – clouds, waves, seagulls, sails. I look around the cockpit, cluttered with the remnants of 3 people’s 4 dark watches: books, water bottles, gloves, a mug of tea, now abandoned and cold.
There is a mound – land – taking shape ahead of us in the lifting light. Bahia Santa Maria, our destination. I check the charts and do the math. 27 miles to go at 5-6 miles per hour offers a respectable mid-morning arrival. We have made good time on this passage. The wind filled in sooner and stronger than anticipated. Within three hours of setting out from Turtle Bay, the sail was full and the windvane was set. We have touched the wheel only once since then – to gybe yesterday morning. For the other 36 hours and 13 minutes, the windvane has been in charge.
It’s 6:39am. The sun has still not paraded over the hills, but it is undeniably daylight. I feel a new energy creeping in with the sun. I review a mental inventory of the groceries on board, compiling a menu for an untraditional thanksgiving meal. The sides are all there – garlic mashed potatoes, green beans, homemade rolls, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, chocolate chess pie. For the main dish, I’m hoping for a local fisherman with lobster for sale (usually a reasonable $1 per pound).
It’s 6:54am. There is a blinding orange orb in the eastern sky, almost fully formed. A new day begins and I have already forgotten the misery of 4am. My mind is on the day ahead; breakfast, anchoring, exploring, swimming and naps. Another pleasantly uneventful night watch behind me; another new setting for adventures ahead.