We have done an awful lot of nighttime sailing during this year, and will be doing 2-3 nights more on the last stretch to Hong Kong. In fact, most of the legs have required at least one night at sea.
Sailing during the night is a completely different experience than sailing during the day. Nighttime sailing has a beautiful, touching side to it, but it can also be a frightening experience to sail in the dark, particularly during days when the moon isn’t shining down on you and you are in waters that you are unfamiliar with (like us pretty much all the time this year) or the seas are rough or confused and the wind keeps changing.
Despite the beautiful sunsets, I personally really dislike the time around dusk. The colour of the sea always changes to a darker blue, eventually turning to black, and clouds that you didn’t even notice earlier start to look darker and more threatening. Your senses become heightened and you start to notice things that you did not notice before, such as odd noises from the rigging, or the irregular pattern of the waves. Most of all, it is the simple fact that you know that you have 12 hours of darkness in front of you, and that everything you do becomes more difficult and riskier during those 12 hours, that really builds up the apprehension during those evening moments.
Even though I dislike the time around dusk, I am able to appreciate the majesty of the night once I have grown used to the darkness. There are millions of stars to admire, and you can count the shooting stars every few minutes until you get tired of flexing your neck. Mr Finn’s personal record is 27 shooting stars during one night watch. Not only do you have stars up in the sky, but there are also “stars” in the ocean; the bioluminescence of plankton in our boat wake looks like a moving, bright starry sky also in the water. The sound of the boat (which you notice much better in the dark than during the day) making its way through the waves is better than any piece of music. At the best of times, you can also hear and just about make out the silhouettes of dolphins jumping in the waves made by the boat. When far from land, and alone on watch, you are hit by the serene realisation that you are just a tiny piece in the enormous puzzle that is the universe, and it is a very deep and beautiful sensation that is hard to find while on land.
As for practicalities, it is the time around dusk when a flurry of nighttime activities takes place. To minimise the need to move around when it is dark, we try to do everything possible during those last moments of light. We cook dinner right before it becomes dark. We rig the sails for whatever we think the nighttime weather is bringing with it (although fine-tuning the sails is something that we cannot escape during the night either), we make sure there is hot water in our thermos flask for the night, we send our emergency contacts information about our position, we read the newest Navtex messages, and so on.
We normally all hang around in the cockpit for an hour or two after sunset, and then Lil Sis goes to bed, and often so do I. Unless the sea is particularly rough or the wind very strong, Big Sis mostly goes on watch at this time, meaning that she sits at the wheel in the cockpit and is in charge of making sure that we do not collide with anything or anyone, and also has responsibility for making sure that we stay on course. Even though we have been to areas where there is significant shipping activity, she has handled it really well, as she has nerves of steel (much more so than me!) and a very logical approach to avoiding collisions. Mr Finn attempts to sleep at this time – if the weather is tricky, he might be catnapping in the cockpit, but mostly Big Sis let’s him sleep down below. When Big Sis gets tired around midnight (although she is known to have been on watch until 2 am), it is Mr Finn’s turn to be on watch. He stays in the cockpit normally until around 3.30 am, and then it is my turn to take the early morning watch basically until nature wakes up everyone else.
Even though we may dread them at times (particularly if we are already tired!), I know that we will all miss our nighttime watches once this year is over. We will try to really enjoy the last nights over to Hong Kong, and make sure that the feelings stirred up by those nights at sea are properly engrained in our memories.