Saturday, September 20, 2008
Working the Night Shift
According to the publishers of the Concise English Oxford Dictionary, time is the most commonly used noun in the English language. I imagine them trolling the popular media for entries like “…most people don’t have the time to walk to work” or “…it’s time to think about your Christmas shopping list.”
On Circadia (whose name refers to a day’s measure of time) the day is split into two 6 hour day watches and three 4 hour night watches.
On night shifts, two of us “work” 8 pm-midnight, sleep, then 4 am-8 am, while the other pair does midnight to 4 am. (I haven’t lived by this schedule since I had babies. At the time, I felt like ordinary life was over, my days fractured into small units revolving around eating and sleeping).
We wake from a dead sleep and roll out of our lee berths. These are usually settees, but for a long passage, lee cloths are fastened on the open side, forming a little cradle that you can roll around in if the seas are rough or the boat is heeled.
We pull on our layers: fleece underwear, a wool sweater, a pile coat, heavy sailing overalls and coat, a fleece hat, a life jacket and a tether. The tether is our umbilical cord. It clips into lines of webbing which run the length of the boat. The seas have been calm for us so far, but the tether, like a car seat belt, is never optional.
The nights are chilly and four hours can seem very long, but there are rewards. Last night Kim and I watched our wake turn glow-stick-green with bioluminescence. Caught in the foam, silver flickers, clumps of plankton or small jellies; deeper, globes the size of crystal balls, turned on and off slowly, in response to the boat hull pushing them aside. They were probably more of the big jellies we passed earlier in the day—great fields of red bells with frilled tentacles trailing back in the current, like laundry blowing in a breeze.
Around 10 pm the waning moon rose and climbed up the notches of Orion’s belt. There were a couple of big planets and up there somewhere the satellites our new phone talks to. I decided to buy the Iridium Sat phone just before leaving. Too tempting—the possibility of carrying something that you could call home from anywhere on the planet. Turns out it’s not cheap to talk to satellites, but why should it be? We’ve hoisted new pieces of sky. I thought of the Kwakiutl’s notion of the heavens, the stars, holes in the roof of the world, through which they could see the light of the “overworld.” They were, I understand, in constant communication with the ancestors who lived there.
Of course it’s the things you can’t see that you think about most at night. Worry about. Watch for. But there are instruments for those as well. One of the clever things we have along (at least theoretically, as it has been malfunctioning) is something called AIS. This constantly scans the sea around us, looking for boats which have AIS transmissions, mostly commercial shipping.
There is something about freighters, their speed, their rootless-ness, that is malevolent. Or maybe it’s the stories of their autopilots set without watches, small boats mowed down while everyone on the freighter slept, or worse, carried on, knowing they had hit someone. It is reassuring to be able to see the shipping around you on the electronic chart. If you click on the AIS ship icon, you find it has a name, a length, a speed, and a bearing.
And then there is radar. The trick is to cast a fine-meshed electronic net, then pull it in, opening the mesh, to find the big fish that are lurking among the clutter, like the freighter I caught last night, heading north hugging the coast.
The rest of the boats we sighted were lit up and moving slowly, tuna fishing boats out of Coos Bay.
So far, our passage has been mostly windless and we have had to motor much of the time. That means we are travelling at an average speed of about 6 knots. It’s sort of like jogging down the coast. The boat never sleeps, however it too needs to be fed, and we must stop again to fuel up.
The weather report promises wind soon—lots of wind—in fact, too much. We are just about to round the notorious Cape Mendocino. Here the coast of North America takes one of its major turns and intersects with a great air outflow corridor from the continent. The winds for which it’s famous are forecast to come in in a couple of days—fierce northwesterlies which can blow 30-35 knots for days.
Tonight our night passage will take us to Eureka, where we’ll contemplate our next move.
Most common noun in this posting: night