The Last Night Watch

Klaus Hympendahl
Sun 15 Mar 2009 08:45
The Last Night Watch

Tonight I'll take my last night watch, between midnight and 2am. Tikopia is finally in sight and sometime in the early morning we'll pass through the narrow passage in the outer reef and this 5-month adventure will be over. By the time you read this I'll probably be on the beach, which is hard to believe.

Living on this boat, camped and basic as it is has become so normal, so routine it's going to be strange sleeping in a bed or going to the toilet in the middle of the night without a canopy of stars overhead. Sailing between picture-postcard images of paradise has been amazing, the consistent, wonderfully-warm, island welcomes life-changing and a huge privilege. I'm really going to miss it, just as I'll miss the simple living, wearing only shorts, walking barefoot and travelling with a bagful of possessions. I'll miss the freedom and isolation of the sea and I'll miss sitting alone steering alone across the Pacific at night.

On these boats someone is always at the helm. 24-7, at night and in bad weather everyone has to take a turn. 2-3 hour slots are the norm. Being woken in the middle of the night takes a few days to get used to, but then the rhythm of the boat takes over and you forget there was any other way to pass the night.

Those hours alone at the helm can be special. We live almost constantly on about 20m of deck space 5 x 4m of deck space and it can feel like a goldfish bowl. At night you have it to yourself. It's the only time on the boat you have space to be alone.

In the good times, when the skies are clear and the wind blows into perfectly balanced sails, this beautiful boat will glide along a steady course almost by herself. These are the night watches when you have time make a drink, get something to eat, write a letter and gaze across the stars and ocean. Occasionally something magical happens. I've sat transfixed watching dolphins race between the hulls exciting phosphorescent plankton as they move to leave silver trails like underwater fireworks. I've seen jellyfish rise from the depths sending out pulses of light as the go past and heard a long, melancholy whale song.

On calm nights the only sounds are ripples slapping against the hulls, the crew's snoring and muttering and a thousand creaks and groans coming from the boat, sounds that can play tricks on you. For weeks I thought I could hear Radio 4 coming from somewhere under the deck and a strange muttering from the aft locker. It's a weird, eerie feeling, like having voices in your head, but without the lithium, that are only banished when the wind picked up.

On clear nights the whole Milky Way spreads itself across the sky so clearly. It's awe-inspiring, mind boggling and frightening to contemplate. When there's a moon the stars may pale, but you can see for miles and the ocean in the sea twinkles in the reflected starlight as if sparks are passing across the waves. On these nights the boat feels like an island, safe and unsinkable. There's a special sense of isolation, of cohesion with the sea and you steer by the stars on autopilot whilst your mind wanders through a thousand thoughts, dreams and schemes and ponderings.

Often I think of the adventures and places to come, the journey past, present and future. Then I also think of friends and family, love and sex, of work and half-baked dreams for books, films and business empires. More and more I think of Clare who is left in England and plot schemes for our future, plans for great adventures and long trips where budgets and time don't matter. In my mind I've sketched out the beautiful house I want to build with a roof terrace where I'll throw wild parties. I've been working on my perfect boat, then found myself chuckling about larks with friends that happened over a decade ago or remembered random stories recounted to me over cups of tea or pints down The Loaf. Time doesn't drag, it flies by.

These are the good times. There are other, very different nights, and there have been many, when it all goes south. There's no light, the sea rough and it's nothing but trouble. Suddenly the cockpit is cramped and uncomfortable and you steer into the blackness with only a compass to guide you. The waves you hear coming, but never see them before they hit you. Sometimes you can hear the roar of coming rain and ready yourself for it. At other times there is just enough light to see the dark, black clouds gathering around you before a fierce, blustery squall hits and you have to drag people from their cabins to change sails in a hurry.

A string of bad nights and you begin to dread the night. Clouds at sunset sends shivers down your spine and paranoia spreads at the slightest change of wind speed. Rum doesn't help, whisky a little. It's at times like these that you wish the time away and pray that the weather holds off just long enough for some other poor soul to take their place at the helm.

My watch begins in an hour.

Matt Fletcher