This is a composite vignette from three distance races, the 2017 Marblehead-to-Halifax Race, the 2018 Newport-to-Bermuda Race, and the 2019 Stamford-Vineyard Race, in which old shipmates — old in acquaintance and old in years — sailed together.
It’s fifteen minutes before the change of the middle watch. Frank unclips his tether and climbs below to brace in the galley, fill the kettle, start the gimballed stove, heat water, wake the morning watch. The boat surges ahead in steady deepwater waves, nearly rail-down, close-reaching with a single reef in the main. The foot of the genoa is hoisted on the topping lift to clear the glowing water thrown to leeward by the bow. There’s phosphorescence in the arrow-straight wake, stars up among high clouds. The night is chilly, but the breeze is fresh, settled, steady, and soon the sky will brighten.
A red light glows in the nav station; Frank is updating the log as the water heats. The oncoming watch starts reaching for handholds, swinging legs out of bunks. Those on the high side lower themselves to the cabin sole, feeling with their knees for the table to stop them. Those on the low side have to grab, pull, rise, settle back, brace. Legs into pants, pants into bibs, feet into boots. Glasses, contact lenses, small beams and glows from headlamps and flashlights carefully shielded. Mumbles, yawns, quiet words, no wasted movement; everyone knows where to reach, where to sit, where to settle, wedge, brace in a tilted, pitching world in order to gear up, stay clear, get ready.
There are so many years of offshore experience in this crew —centuries, forsooth, among port and starboard watches, skipper, and navigator—that everything is done with no more ado than a chuckle. If there are aches and pains they can be saved for an organ recital over a rum some other time. Make a lane, pass it along, lean back, lend a hand, dos-à-dos, pas de quatre. “Al, here’s your other boot. I thought it was a pillow.” “Charlie, coffee or cocoa?”
In eight or ten minutes the oncoming watch is in foul-weather gear, safety gear, boots, hats, gloves. They’re starting to clamber up the companionway, taking turns with the offgoing watch headed down toward the still-warm bunks. Hot drinks are passed up, the helm is handed over. The new watchstanders clip in and settle at their stations, quickly absorbed in the last and darkest hour of the night, the fine, focused sailing, the promise of a blue ocean dawn and a booming day ahead.
Frank is standing deep in the companionway, reporting position, sailtrim, weather, course to steer, speed to find. The off-watch is quick to skin off boots and seek their bunks, pulling upwards, slinging legs across lee-cloths, cinching hitches and hooks to keep themselves secure, or lowering themselves into leeward berths, stuffing padding against drawers and bulkheads, lying awake for a few seconds under loosely settled bags or blankets, feeling the rhythm of the boat plunging through the waves, knowing that other old hands are on deck, keeping the boat as fast and safe as any watch ever could.