Night Watch 2

Three of us came up on deck a little before midnight to take our four hour watch with the mate in charge. It was scarcely dark, more like a misty evening than the middle of the night. Colour had disappeared completely, the horizon was a vague smudge, the navigation light on the foremast swung against an overcast sky. Every now and then the ghostly presence of a fulmar flew silently close by the rigging. There was little to be seen off the boat: the white foam of Tecla’s bow wave, the flashing light of a weather buoy; the indistinct lights of a ship on the horizon.

We had left the Shetlands late that afternoon and motored between Yell and Unst, past Muckle Flugga, the most northern rock of the British Isles, and on directly into the northerly wind. The skipper wanted to be well to windward before setting course for the Faroe Islands on a starboard tack. The marine diesel thrummed under our feet, sending up whiffs of exhaust fume. Tecla pitched into the moderate seas, spray broke over the bows, sea water ran on the decks. For a while there was little we could do but keep out of the cold wind as best we could.

After an hour the skipper came on deck. He looked around, slowed the engine, checked the wind, and decided it was time to sail. Tecla was already carrying mizen and stay sails, so we were set to work hoisting the others. First we went forward to the jib. One team pulled the tack out along the bowsprit, while the rest of us hauled on the halliard to raise the head. At first, the sail went up easily, but grew heavier as more sail rose from the deck and the wind caught it. Getting it tight to the crew’s satisfaction was even harder work.

We then turned to the main, a heavy four cornered canvas with a gaff spar, hoist on one halliard at the throat and another at the peak. With the deck heaving under our feet, we hauled away at one rope, then another. At times I felt there was no strength in my arms, certainly not to get everything as tightly hoist as the crew wanted. Often it seemed that the line we were hauling on was already impossibly rigid. But each time we found a way to get our collective strength together and haul in that extra six inches that made all the difference. We returned to one rope after another—halliards, jiggers, sheets, preventers—to ensure everything was setting well. At last we were finished, the engine silenced, and we returned, now hot and sweaty, to rest on the bench in the stern. Tecla surged westward for the Faroes, the motion now easier with the sails balancing the ship against the wind.

Now we were invited to take turns on the wheel, steering the ship on a compass course set by the skipper. We sat behind the wheel, exposed to the wind, learning the trick of keeping the ship on course. It was important not to stare at the compass—for that is a sure was to lose all sense of direction—but to look forward at the ship’s heading, glancing from time to time at the compass for confirmation. But for none of us was this easy: Tecla is long keeled and usually keeps a steady course, but once she wandered away, or her bows are struck with a particularly heavy wave, it took a while for her to respond to the rudder. Then it was easy to over-correct so she went off course in the opposite direction. Or to do what I did on one embarrassing occasion, becoming confused as to which way to turn the wheel and take the ship right off course, bringing the skipper back on deck in alarm.

By two thirty we noticed that the sky was lightening again, but there was nothing but sea and more sea. The rigging creaked, sometimes even sounding like a human voice, easy to imagine some apparition from the sea calling us. Shadows appeared on the surface of the water, seeming like the floating islands of mythology, only to fade back into ordinary waves as we peered more closely.

As it got lighter the seabirds appeared. We were followed by a flock of fulmars swooping low into the waves, turning sharply with one wing tip just not touching the surface, then soaring over the wave tops with a couple of wing beats. For a while the fulmars were joined by gannets, flying higher over the stern keeping place with regular flaps of their long wings. Both birds were endlessly enthralling.

At four our colleagues came on deck to relieve us. It was by then almost daylight, the long day across the North Atlantic ahead of us. We climbed back down the companionway, discarded our layers of fleece and waterproof, and disappeared into the warmth of our duvets until we heard the sounds of breakfast prepared in the galley.


  1. Such a special reading sitting here in damp gloucestershire!

  2. says:

    Lovely Peter, thank you for sharing your night watch with us! You wouldn’t have steered the wrong way with a tiller! Good to hear your night sweats are keeping you warm if not exhausted!

    Love and best wishes,

    Steve and Mel

    Sent from my iPad


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