Tom Cunliffe
Sailing Today|April 2021
Night watch on a long offshore passage is a real test of will and concentration but a memorable night encounter underlined the need for vigilance to Tom
TOM CUNLIFFE

According to Rule 5 of the Colregs, we must keep a lookout at all times by all available means. There’s no ambiguity there, yet the realities of short-handed sailing can be a long way from the ideals of the wise people who drafted the rules.

Yachts are not alone in occasionally sailing close to this particular wind. Early in my career, I served as mate aboard a coasting ship. Out of a crew of five, including the cook, only the skipper and myself were qualified to keep watch. The deckhands came cheap but had no looking-out skills, so we two managed with alternative sessions. The Old Man liked a good spell on the Dreamland train so we stood five-hour shifts during the hours of darkness. He opted for morning and evening while I stood from 2200 until 0300, a grim proposition in rough winter weather. A visit to the heads would have eased my pain and a snack around midnight might have been nice, but the cook was invariably snoring in his bunk. After five hours with only the beat of the diesel for company I was close to hallucinating.

I expect there are rules about such practices nowadays, but the point is that when you or I see a ship steaming our way on a dark night, the possibility still exists that she may not be crewed by a full complement of the MCA’s finest.

My wife and I first ventured into deep water shortly before my brief merchant service. We were very young, with no idea that ships might be conned by sleep-deprived zombies or, if the guys had slunk off to brew themselves a coffee, nobody but the autopilot. Fifty years ago many respected ocean passagemakers considered enjoying ‘all night in’ to be sensible practice for short-handed crews far from the shipping lanes. As unimpeachable an authority as Eric Hiscock advocated heaving to and turning in when tiredness became a serious problem. Peter Pye concurred. These folk would hang up a hurricane lantern to scare off any steamer that fate sent their way, say their prayers and hit the pit. With the glib assumption of personal immortality that youth confers, I bought into this madness.

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