Keeping Watch

Dec 2012

Keeping Watch

In 2012, there was an accident in the Newport to Ensenada Race that goes from southern California to Mexico. The accident has personal meaning to me because it occurred off North Coronado Island, an island off San Diego I anchored off once. US Sailing did a report on the causes. There are several lessons to be learned from the report that are relevant to anyone who has stood watch at night.

Experienced sailors were on one of the boats, the Aegean, (and one was from Bradenton, FL, where I live). All four were lost. It was a mystery because they just disappeared until the next day when very little, very shredded wreckage was discovered. Only one body was found. What really happened is just educated guesswork. I wonder if someone didn’t just fall asleep.

GPS tracking showed the boat went on a straight line into the island’s rocks late at night. US SAILING’S final determination was that “ ‘a key element of the accident was likely an inadequate lookout,’ and that it is likely that Aegean inadvertently motored beyond a waypoint set before North Coronado Island.”

I’ve been on watch at night several dozen times, all passages along coasts and overnight trips to offshore islands. I sometimes wonder if it’s easier to fall asleep in these types of passages than longer ones, because you aren’t used to it—like the Aegean sailors. You’re used to sleeping at night and being awake during the day—a normal schedule held by most earthlings, as compared to the seasoned passagemaker.

On of my earlier overnight trips was to the Bahamas in 1979 with my girlfriend. We knew an overnighter would be tough, because we did it the night before going down the coast from Lake Worth Inlet to Miami. We were next crossing to the Bahamas. It’s hard with just two people, because two help each other, but sleep becomes important, too. Solo sailors must have it tough.

We were so tired on the coastal passage that we struggled to stay awake and drank lots of coffee, both getting very little sleep, keeping each other awake. We arrived in Miami the next day and slept what seemed like all day. That night, on our trip to the Bahamas, we planned to both stay awake together as much as possible, but we knew we needed to get some sleep. We agreed—and promised—that if either one of us, while on watch that night alone, felt the least bit sleepy, one would wake up the other to either switch, or keep the other one awake. We had to overcome the feeling that arises so often that you’ll make it alone and your partner can sleep. We did several overnight passages during our three months in the Bahamas and never had a problem, because we kept to this plan.

The worst night of the whole trip was that first night down the coast, when I wanted to doze off many times, but my girlfriend was there staying awake to help. Our inexperience made us more apprehensive about what would happen if we fell asleep, as we were quite concerned about it. But we both learned to love night watches.

Night passages and watches are one of life’s greatest pleasures. Too bad about the Aegean.