Here is a piece I wrote while on passage from Alaska to Hawaii, but of course didn’t have the internet to post it in real time.
It is the fifth day of passage and I just now feel like my brain has re-solidified from its state of mush enough to write. For me, the first few days of passage are a lethargic grasping woozy time. I don’t try to write or do much of anything productive; I already know its futile. I spend my days reading and napping and watching the sky dreamily while I wait for the time to pass.
But by day five, life on passage blends with reality until it’s hard to remember what it is like not on passage. My brain accepts the constant motion as an incessant underlying condition to be largely ignored. My body adapts with short stuttering steps that propel me around effectively, though far from gracefully. It feels normal to brace against the edge of the counter, holding my upper body at a 20-degree angle to the world around me to scramble eggs. It is second nature not to set anything – anything – down without an edge nearby to keep it from sliding to the floor. I habitually anticipate the boat’s moves, reaching for my coffee cup to steady it moments before the boat yaws into the oncoming swell.
Even the strange sleep schedule starts to feel normal, and I feel rested despite never getting more than 4 or 5 hours of sleep at a time. With six people on board, we operate on a three-hour two-person watch rotation, which is both comfortable and sustainable. Janna and I stand watch together for three hours, then get six hours off before our next appointment (standing watch, again). We do one full rotation every nine hours, which means each day our watches shift times. This keeps it interesting and allows responsibilities like cooking dinner and doing dishes to rotate, along with the often more challenging graveyard shifts.
Despite this rotating schedule, I have found that maintaining some form of routine is crucial for my sanity and helps the time pass quickly. Some routine is embedding in our watch schedule: The 5:00-8:00 shift makes breakfast and coffee; the 9:00-11:00 does the dishes. The 11:00-14:00 shift makes lunch; the 14:00-17:00 cleans up the galley. The 17:00-20:00 cooks dinner, which we usually eat together in the cockpit; the 20:00-23:00 does those dishes. The 23:00-02:00 and 02:00-05:00 shifts are primarily focused on staying awake and alert in the deep darkness of our overwhelmingly cloudy moonless nights.
At each shift change, we fill out the log book with our position, speed, course, wind and weather details, barometric pressure, the essential DTD (distance to destination, our countdown to Hawaii) and notes about the watch that usually revolve around tasty meals made and consumed. Then we wake up or notify the next shift that they are coming on and make coffee, tea or hot cocoa for them if it’s morning time.
During my first daylight shift (5:00-8:00 or 8:00-11:00) I take notes for myself about the previous day, calculate how many miles we covered in the last 24 hours, check our onboard satellite email, send a few text messages and sip coffee slowly. When the wind is steady and traffic is light (which it generally is 1,000 miles from any land), there is plenty of time to entertain ourselves. Janna and I talk, make small changes to the sail trim in response to wind shifts, read or listen to audiobooks.
As a side note, audiobooks might be the single best technological advancement to have on a cruising boat (Ok, I guess GPS is pretty great too). They entertain without causing seasickness or wrecking night vision. With a good audio book, I look forward to night watches, and then they fly by. Janna and I have been listening to audiobooks together (each of us with a wireless earbud), cracking up together at the funny bits and occasionally shedding tears together when it gets intense. It has been a great way to share our experience, but without the energy required to keep a conversation compelling at three in the morning with someone you haven’t been more than 60 feet from in four months. There does come a time when you run out of things to talk about.
After our morning watch, I try to stay up and write. The boat is usually still quiet, and a colorful sunrise blended with a slow cup of coffee vitalizes me. I sit propped up in our bed, my back against the leeward side (that’s the low or downwind side of the boat) which minimizes the effort necessary to hold myself upright. In our cozy little aft cabin, life is underscored with a constant whir of water whipping by the hull and the dramatic groans of our autopilot holding us on course. They have become comforting sounds. But easing the genoa or unfurling the jib sounds like gunshots next to my eardrums. Sometimes we drop into the trough of a steep wave with a bang that shudders through the hull like an earthquake. In my periphery, our jackets and fleeces dance endlessly on their hooks in unison with the sway of the boat. Once I tire of writing, I read or nap or clamor up into the cockpit for company.
My afternoon watch is for socializing – most of the crew is usually awake from lunch to dinner. We play games, listen to music, fish, and sometimes get ambitious and hoist a spinnaker for a fun afternoon sail. I also try to get in at least a few minutes of some sort of physical activity – modified boat yoga (you try a warrior pose in six-foot seas), pushups, squats, whatever seems feasible given the sea state. While stutter-stepping forward to the bathroom often feels like a physical feat akin to climbing a mountain, in reality being on passage is an overwhelming sedentary experience. A few minutes of physical exertion for the sake of physical exertion is appreciated by my mind as much as my body.
The latitude is dropping fast. We have left behind the cold grey days and dark menacing swell of Alaska. The water temperature is climbing steadily, from 52 degrees in Dutch Harbor to 74 degrees today. The sea is impossibly blue. We have gone to great length to name or describe the shade of blue that surrounds us to the horizon in every direction, but the best I have come up with is “ocean blue”; a color so profound it can only be defined by itself.
The air has followed suit, a warm humid breeze carries us along and burns away months of cloud cover. In response, we have rolled back the walls of the cockpit enclosure and added beanbags to the back deck. We have dug out, from the depths of our belongings, shorts and t-shirts and sunscreen. Afternoons are often lolling and lazy, most of us sprawling about in the sunshine, still thawing out from the arctic.
We come together for dinner, always something fabulous that the 17:00-20:00 shift has cooked up for us; fresh tuna steaks with buttery broccoli or smoked salmon goulash or veggie burritos or Mexican mash. The conversation swirls around sail trim, priorities upon our Hawaii landfall, the delight of eating freshly caught tuna. The sun melts into the sea and, if we’re lucky, the stars twinkle into position. After dinner, the 20:00-23:00 watch cleans up and the late-night shift-ers try to get some sleep.
The dark late-night watches are sometimes long and sleepy, but often they are my favorite. The world is quiet (unless we are motoring, and then the world is droning and tedious) and its mesmerizing to watch DogBark! sail herself, galloping across the ocean miles with grace and ease. Without another source of light for 1,000 miles, the star gazing is like nowhere else on the planet. When the sky is clear, I lie on the back deck with a spinnaker bag as a pillow under a defined swath of the milky way and watch shooting stars and distant planets and passing satellites. I point to the constellations I know while our masthead light bobs among them like its own bright proud star.
The days melt together, punctuated by moments of excitement like landing our first albacore tuna, seeing a cargo ship’s light on the horizon, accelerating to 11 knots under a big colorful spinnaker, or spotting an albatross flying overhead. All these moments of sailing and fishing and watching and wobbling and eating and reading and sleeping fuse into hours and days of slow steady progress across the ocean. The miles tick by, the clouds slide away, the moon gets bigger, Hawaii gets closer. This is life at sea.