In this dark wet cockpit the autopilot and I have come to an agreement. I will stay awake, and it will not get any more broken. Neither side of the deal is easy to keep up. It is 0300, and pitch black, and the coffee has worn off. And the autopilot is only a machine, and machines cannot agree to deals, let alone keep them.
We have been at sea for a week. The breeze, which here in the north-eastern quadrant of the Azores high should be blowing gently from over my left shoulder, is howling on the nose, hard and spiteful, and has been for the five days. The autopilot, which should be steering us through these wet black night hours, has taken to disengaging itself suddenly and without orders, leaving the boat in irons, or worse, hurrying off down the wind lee rail under, bringing the skipper out of the hatch like a jack-in-the box asking what the blank blank is going on while banging his fist on the bridgedeck, or maybe it is just his heart thumping.
There are no stars. The bow is a sharp white knife blade hacking at the swells, crunching up hard sheets of spray that float aft in lumps. The deal is this. I let the autopilot steer us, my hands lightly on the wheel. When I feel it lurch and try to spin because the machine has disengaged, I grip a spoke and keep the compass needle on 20º, which one of these days will bring the Bishop Rock up over the horizon.
Onward, heeled, the mainsail tilted huge and pale against the sky. The plunge of the bow into the next wave, the heave as it comes clear, then the long swoop into the trough to tear a white plume out of the black sea. The faint glimmer of chemical green in the spray as it hisses past the starboard nav light. On again, down again. They should be exhilarating, these great hissing slides, but nothing is really exhilarating at the moment because we are so tired. The standby helm is sleeping on one of the downhill cockpit seats, layered in silk and wool and fleece and oilskins, hood up, only her nose showing, and it would not be kind to wake her, even to suggest someone made a cup of coffee, which right this moment is all that stands between me and sleep. Besides, if she gets her kip she might fry us a breakfast when we go off watch, and a breakfast would be a very good thing, although the bread is soda bread and the eggs, never models of freshness, might be somewhat iffy. Still, the bacon is all right, as it is not so much bacon as Spanish ham, the raw kind, and the mind fills with pigs rooting under soft green cork oaks, and the eyelids droop
-Clunk, says the autopilot, and the wheel kicks loose. I wake up and grab it before it can get away. The heart pounds. Steer, slam into a bigger-than-usual sea. A packet of water sails aft, slap in the eye and down the front of the oilskins, icy on the skin. Splutter, curse, blink it out of the eyes, wonder what it is about this sailing thing that people enjoy. Blink again. There is a strange flicker to the vision. Glasses to the eyes.
It is not the vision that is flickering. On the horizon ahead, something paler than the night sweeps across the sky. Lighthouse.
'Land ho,' I croak, quietly, because no one will be listening. I am awake now, steering. Up comes the Bishop, a loom, a wink, then a pencil, with behind it the bright grey stripe of the dawn.
Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly.