On Watch

Back in the Gulf of Fonseca, we had the opportunity to do something we hadn’t done in quite a while or since – go sailing together! Wait, what?

Most of our passages down the Pacific Coast have been multi-day trips. Azimuth travels at about 5 miles per hour in moderate wind and we can count on about 100 miles per day. If the route has us in motion for more than six hours or so, we fall into the watch schedule to ensure we both stay rested for arrival or any other happenings that require all hands on deck. The final approach to land is perhaps the most precarious time due to vessel traffic, channel markers, fishing gear, and rocks sharing the waters.

Back in San Diego, we set our watch schedule to four hours on, four hours off. We shifted the start back by one hour because something about odd numbers makes it seem like the hours pass more quickly. Scott goes on watch at 2300, I take over at 0300, he’s back up at 0700, and so on. Our early bird and night owl tendencies are to our advantage and it’s generally quite pleasant to pass the time this way.

My favorite shift starts at 3 AM with a wake up from Scott and a mug of black tea. The stars and maybe the moon accompany me during the coolest part of the day. For the first couple hours, my mission is to stay awake and keep the boat moving. As the light increases by the inch, I begin to “wake up” the boat too. This may mean shaking out a reef in the sail, launching the spinnaker, or rarely if the wind is fickle and schedule requires it – turn on the engine. If energy allows, I wrap up my shift by making a hearty breakfast and then landing for the best nap of the day.

Partial track from our latest sail to Bocas del Toro, Panama. I stalled to arrive in the daylight and enjoyed some meandering sailing back and forth offshore.

Scott’s favorite shift starts at 2300. He enjoys the stargazing, cooler temps, and peacefulness of being at sea at night. Even in rough waters, this shift acts as a reminder of the unique experience of going out in the ocean and staying there for a few days. Cypress the cat’s favorite shift is probably 1500-1900. The fish seem to bite around late afternoon or early evening and she is sure to snap some scraps.

View from the cockpit, top to bottom: the red screen is an iPad, the red small panel is our wind instrument (speed and direction), the green is radar. We turn on a red light down below in case someone needs to get up suddenly. The strap going diagonally is lee cloth, holding Scott cozily on the setee.

While underway, the route is loaded via Navionics on the iPad and we can see vessels transmitting AIS on the same screen. In rainy or nighttime conditions, radar helps us spot other solid obstacles. The radio is on dual watch between channel 16 (coast guard, navy, and commercial hailing) and 22a (fellow cruising boats). We write at least one log entry each shift with lat/long position, wind speed and direction, weather conditions, distance made good, boat speed and heading, and a narrative of what’s going on. The main duties on watch are to keep the boat on course, sails trimmed, and avoid obstacles. This might involve shortening sail for increased weather, talking with other vessels by VHF radio to negotiate safe crossing, deciding to start or stop the engine as winds change, and being the first responder to whatever else happens during those hours. Bonus points for catching a fish or spotting some other wildlife.

The sun can be brutal out here, and most off-watch time is spent down below taking a siesta. The motion of the boat is most benign close to the mast, so we generally forego sleeping in our usual bed in the v-berth for the further aft settees. A few years ago, I sewed “lee clothes” that keep the napper on the couch even in rough seas. Combine these with an eye mask and a half pill of seasickness medication and mid-day naps are a breeze. The off-watch person usually takes care of a boat task or two, such as checking the oil if the engine is on, running the water maker, fixing a meal, or tidying up.

Our first overnight passage as a duo was delivering a catamaran from the Abacos in the Bahamas to the Florida Keys in 2017. I started sailing when I met Scott in spring 2015, and this was my first time skippering overnight. We traded off watches in one or two-hour increments and were pretty wiped out by the time we arrived. Working up to four-hour shifts over the years has been a boon for staying rested and letting the hours flow by. In case there are any aspiring ocean sailors out there, here are a few tips that helped us get there:

1) Increase familiarity with the route, weather, and point of sail: spend some time with the charts figuring out where you are headed and any obstacles along the way. If using electronic charts like we do, zoom in and out to see if lower zoom layers include obstructions, shallow depths, etc. When our route is heading close, we add a red mark on the charts to remind ourselves to zoom in. Studying the weather in advance and matching the route to more comfortable points of sail can do wonders to ease the passage. There is a bit of mental gymnastics to matching your route to the weather. We like using Fast Seas for departure planning and updated route guidance via Garmin InReach.

2) Communicate the handoff: it’s tempting to scurry off to bed at the end of watch, but a short debrief helps everyone. We point out any boats, lights, and other sights to help the other person get their bearings and give an overview of progress on the route. We also talk about the plan for the next four hours and conditions for changing the plan. Some examples: course changes for wind shifts, speeding up or slowing down to arrive in the daylight, turning the engine on or off.

3) Know your bail-out plan: one of the first things I do is get familiar with the sail setup, wind direction, and route. On long passages, our autopilot does the majority of the driving. This unit is controlled by +1, -1, +10, and -10 buttons that shift the boat’s compass heading. When sailing downwind and the wind suddenly shifts, a quick reaction may be required to avoid gybing. I like to know in advance if + or – gets me to safety, so that I can expend my reaction on getting to the autopilot unit and taking action. Other examples of a bail-out plan: what to do when the give-way vessel is unresponsive on the radio and not altering course, what wind speed to reef or unreef, and what conditions require waking the other person up.

Experiencing the ocean in these four hour increments is truly delightful and for us, one of the easier parts of voyaging long distances. We see the sun track across the sky, get familiar with the moon phases, and see as many versions of the water as there are days on it. The watch schedule also give us both lots of experience operating every part of the boat. It’s not all naps and sunbathing and Mahi Mahi on the line, but the times we have to hold fast through rough seas or rain or an upwind bash test us and bolster us in turn.

At the moment, the anchor is down in Bocas del Toro, Panama. We had a great time with Scott’s mom visiting, transiting the canal, and taking our first jump in the Caribbean. More blogs are coming soon as we enjoy bountiful free time and internet.

Published by Ash

Knitter, sailor, and sewist on the move from San Francisco to the Chesapeake Bay aboard a 36' sailboat named Azimuth.

3 thoughts on “On Watch

  1. Fantastic post. Reminds me of our watches. For us we did two 6 hour shifts during the day (6-12 and 12-6) then four 2 hour watches. 6-9, 9-12, 12-3, 3-6. You guys are such pros! Thanks for keeping up the posts


  2. I am learning SO MUCH about sailing and life on the sea through your adventure blog! Thanks for sharing. ❣️


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