“Gonna be a sweet sound! Come. In. Down. On the NIGHT SHIFT!!”
Ahhh … Lionel Richie couldn’t have said it any better. We get asked about this a lot, so I thought, now – as we’re about to ease into our final night’s passage before the Keys – was as good a time as any to delve into it. Our night shifts. One of the first questions our friends and followers ask us when we start talking about making a 24-hour run is how you sail through the night: Do you have to stay up all night? Do you have to hold the wheel? Do you take shifts? Can you see? The answer to these questions are — No, no (most of the time), yes and yes (most of the time) — respectively.
A lot of people are curious, so let’s talk about it — our night shifts. I recommend you let this play in the background while we do. It just sets the right mood.
So, sailing at night. Usually, when Phillip and I set out for a passage it’s going to be an overnight passage, typically ranging from 18 to 24 or so hours and 100 nautical miles, plus or minus. While we have done two-dayers. Our longest run, from Pensacola to Port St. Joe during the first part of this trip – a whopping 44 hours – was a long haul for sure. But, typically, a shorter run suits us better. We met so many cruisers while on our trip, however, who were surprised by how often we make a 24-hour passage. It seems it is far more common for couples who cruise together to just make short, 5-7 hour jaunts during the day and anchor or moor up at the next stop before nightfall. It seemed we were the odd balls who liked to actually keep sailing after the sun sets.
But, while overnight passages were a bit of a necessity during our trip to the Keys (I mean, we DID have to get to the Keys AND back in less than two months), we kind of liked it. After three or four days docked up or anchored at one place, we would get a little restless and find ourselves excited about getting that boat going again. It’s what she loves to do, and we do too!
I’m proud to say since we purchased our Niagara 35′ back in April, 2013, we have sailed her approximately 1,500 nautical miles …. give or take, and successfully completed thirteen overnight passages.
So, to answer some of your questions and quench your curiosity – here’s how we do it. We do not stay up all night. We hold the wheel if Otto (our auto-pilot) won’t. And, we can usually see just fine, barring some heavy clouds or freaky fog. (You remember our sail into the black abyss coming into Port St. Joe):
And, we do take shifts. Two hours each at the helm, all through the night. Of course, that is NOW (now that I have duly earned my stripes as First Mate and Phillip trusts me more to hold the wheel).
That was certainly not the case in the beginning. Do recall that we had the infamous Mitch along during our first two overnight passages (from Punta Gorda to Carabelle) and that we had to hack the dinghy off in the middle of the Gulf during the second. Somehow, despite that debacle, I decided this whole sailing bit was still right for me. When we have three crew on-board, shifts are taken 2 on (two members up in the cockpit) and 1 off (sleeping down below). During Phillip and I’s first overnight passage together (from Carabelle to Panama City) he held the wheel firm while I sat up with him in the cockpit, which certainly didn’t hurt my feelings. Driving our big beautiful boat into the deep black yonder, being the one who would surely strike something and thereby being responsible for ruining all of our big travel-the-world plans, I was MORE than happy to just sit and be in no way in control, in charge, or in trouble if I screwed up. But, Phillip is a smart man and he knew if he was ever going to get a break, we were both going to have to break that habit. So, on our second overnight passage (from Panama City to the boat’s new home in Pensacola) he let me hold the wheel in small increments while he stretched out in the cockpit sleeping Eagle Eye style and jumping to attention at the slightest sound.
Can’t say that I blame him. We really don’t have the best of reputations …
But, thankfully I kept my wits about me and everything turned out just fine. Whew! Better than fine, really. It ended up being what we still call the best sail of our lives. So, fortunately or unfortunately – however you want to look at it – Phillip now feels I’m capable of holding the helm unsupervised for short shifts and he now often makes his way nice and easy down below to get a true nap while I take my night shifts up in the cockpit. We usually break them up into two-hour shifts, give or take, beginning around 8:00 or 9:00 in the evening. I like to take the first shift.
It’s kind of like getting something you’re dreading a bit over with early. The bad news before the good, so to speak. Not that we really dread it, but some shifts can seem long and be exhausting. When the sea-state is rough and Otto won’t hold, it can be tiring holding the wheel the entire time, particularly when there is fog or it’s cloudy and you can’t sail by the stars. My good buddy Mitch taught me that trick during our very first overnight passage together.
Say hey Mitch!
I’ve never forgotten it. If you are having to hold the wheel at night, it is much more enjoyable, by far, to sail by the stars. Make sure you are on your correct heading, then find a star or some fixed point on the horizon and place it somewhere on your boat–say on a stanchion or at the tip of the sail or between two spreaders. Then all you have to do is hold it there. Light, easy movements of the wheel to keep your point in place. Also, taking your eyes off of the glowing GPS or compass not only maintains your night vision but also makes you feel more at one with the night sky around you. You are literally sailing the way they used to back in the days of Columbus. It’s just you, the boat, the wind and the stars–such an incredibly freeing feeling. But, that’s why I say I hate a cloudy night. If you can’t see the stars, you can’t sail by them. Blinking away two hours while staring at the blinding GPS in the middle of the night is never anyone’s favorite thing to do, but it sometimes has to be done, so you do it.
When the conditions are not ideal and you’re holding the wheel tight the entire time, focused on the course, getting sleepy is not really a concern at all. Adrenaline and worry keep you wide awake, which is–in a way–a blessing.
There are other nights, though, where the wind is perfect, you can see all around you by way of moonlight, Otto is holding just fine and all you have to do is take a look around every few minutes.
Those are beautiful nights, but that’s when the need for sleep starts to set in. There is nothing more relaxing than a peaceful, gentle night under the stars to put your mind at ease and lull you off to La-La Land. But you must STAY AWAKE!!! SNAP OUT OF IT MATE!
On nights like that, I like to occupy myself with thought, at first. Think about something that’s been puzzling you for a while–some new project at work, a solution you need to reach for something, some sort of problem you need to solve and work on it. If it’s been nagging you, you’ll find your mind can easily burn through ten minutes thinking about it and time will fly.
And, hopefully you’ll come up with a solution, while you’re working through your shift (win-win). I hate to say “work” through your shift, but if sleep is closing in, that works for me. As a writer, I’m often stumped with character conflicts, bad plots, etc. and I like to try and work through those things during the solace of the night. It was during the overnight passages on our trip to the Keys that I came up with the new storyline, character and title for my novel. Let’s hope that one’s a winner.
But, thinking can be boring if you’re not really feeling it and staying awake is the most important part. So, if you don’t have any pesky puzzle sufficient enough to keep you awake exerting mental energies alone, I recommend food! Ahhh, yes. Food!
Snacks, yes, but healthy ones. Sorry. I know, the old Cookie Monster would not approve.
But, gorging on those tasty, sugary, carb-heavy snacks is just not a good idea when you’re trying to stay alert and focused. I like crackers – Triscuits or Cheez-Its – and I try to eat make myself eat them slowly.
I know, not easy for me. But, I nibble on them. Take my time. I mean, what else am I doing, right? It’s three in the morning and I’ve got another hour at the wheel. I eat one every few minutes and really suck the flavor out. Dried fruit is fun, too, because it’s so flavorful and hearty. Banana chips are a staple for us. But, whatever you snack on, I recommend you take small portions up into the cockpit with you. Bring a whole bag of cookies up there and you’ll be at the bottom in 15 minutes with an hour and 45 left to go on your shift.
And, trust me. This is coming from a gal who knows how to eat …
Winner, winner, chicken dinner!
We also keep a steady log book. Entries are made every hour on the Plaintiff’s Rest, or that’s the goal at least. We note our heading, GPS coordinates, the sea state, weather, etc. and any other occasional tidbit that seems worthy of jotting down.
When you’re up in the middle of the night, counting the minutes, you actually find you start to look forward to the end of the hour. Oooh, it’s almost time for another log entry! Yes, very exciting. But, hey – whatever works.
Gear is important, too. We usually wear our safety harnesses always at night.
And, we keep our knife, flashlight, jack lines if we need them, etc. all in the cockpit for easy access in case you-know-what hits the fan. A red flashlight is also highly recommended.
We try to use only the red light to check the engine temp or do anything that requires light (like the log book entries) to maintain our night vision.
And movement is good too. When you get up to take your “look-about,” be sure and stretch! Reach your arms up to the sky, bend over, arch your back, really stretch it out. Make yourself do a few calf raises, squats or squeeze your butt. Whatever it is, just do something that gets your blood moving for a bit. Workout a little if you want. And, my last resort, the final straw, the ace in the hole. When my head is dangerously bobbing and my eyelids feel like they weigh 1,000 pounds each, then I go for the Hail Mary — Dance, Dance Revolution Baby!
I put on some Black Eyed Peas and get down with my bad self. Just me, the moon, the stars and my friggin’ killer dance moves. Ooga Chocka!
But, the night shifts can be fun. Sometimes you have friends come and visit!
Like this flying fish that jumped on board during our trip to Port St. Joe!
And sometimes you just have to get a little crazy with it. I tried out goggles one night because the wind was drying out my eyes.
Yes, I know how good I look.
Some nights are tiring. You don’t really want to get up again after just an hour and a half of sleep, at 3:30 in the morning to hold the wheel in heavy winds. You don’t really want to, but you do, because you know you’re on an adventure. You’re traveling somewhere completely new. In just a few hours, you’ll watch the sunrise over the bow of the boat,
and the work of the night will make it all the more beautiful, all the more rewarding. The sky will be pinker, the air crisper and your coffee richer,
because you stuck it out. You served your shifts and sailed your boat under a blanket of stars into a new day.
That’s how we do it. Team-work. Once we get that boat going, we like to keep her going. 100 nautical miles usually. So, let’s hear from the masses. How do you all do it? Tell us about your night shifts.