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The challenge of the night watch 

Memories of a first solo night watch

It’s pitch black and I’m on my first solo night watch.  We’re sailing down the ‘Boot’ of Italy and I am acutely aware of the responsibility I have, now that I can’t see a thing – and the one question I have is, “Why don’t boats have headlights?”

We are cruising our catamaran around Europe and whilst I have two and a half years of day sailing and watches under my belt, nothing has quite prepared me for the challenge of my first solo watch at night.

As darkness descends, there’s a real heightening of the senses and your imagination goes into overdrive. Most other boats are already moored up, so only those like us with a purpose to get somewhere are still out on the water.  There’s a gentle hum of the odd fishing boat to look out for, a squawk from a passing bird but otherwise peace and quiet prevails.

Typically, for my first solo night watch the moon is hidden by clouds and it’s pitch black.  Not knowing if lobster pots or passing flotsam and jetsam lie ahead in the water is quite daunting. So again I wonder why I can’t just switch on some headlights in order to keep track ahead?

Instead I’m reliant on the boat’s AIS (Automatic Identification System), which alerts me of other nearby boats and ferries who are also on AIS.  I can see on the plotter how fast each boat is moving and where its nearest point of contact to us might be.  This makes the decision of altering course much easier.  There’s no marine law requiring private boats to carry AIS transmitters and, as such, many boats travel without it.  It is law however for larger commercial boats to have it, so with an AIS receiver you can at least stay one step ahead when it comes to spotting ferries, tankers or cruise ships.

My other aid is CH16 on the VHF, which gives information on the weather conditions as well any emergency transmissions that may need my attention.  The downside of keeping the VHF on is the constant misuse it receives. My watch is frustratingly accompanied by the sounds of wolf whistles, a lightsabre, cat noises and even Tarzan makes an appearance. Apparently this is bored crew on big tankers baiting each other over the airwaves, entertaining maybe, but it doesn’t help with the concentration.

Of course, at night, boats must travel with navigational lights on, so keeping your eyes peeled for any approaching lights in the darkness is essential. But in Italy, be prepared for the Coastguard to creep up on you, as just before midnight, out of the inky black comes the raw of an engine close to our port bow.  The high powered RIB put on its search lights, does a fast 360 circle round Two Drifters and then burns off into the night, leaving me calling Skipper for back-up.

As my watch ends a sense of relief and achievement comes over me.  I’ve done it.  The boat is safe and I’ve tackled another major sailing challenge. Now time for a few hours’ kip before my next shift.  While a night watch can be testing, there’s something very special at watching the sun rise on another glorious day at sea.

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