Red light spills into the pitch black cabin as the door opens with a loud knock, I am half awake and it’s my watch. I pull on heavy waterproof trousers encrusted with salt, forgoing the sweater to ensure I stay awake. Being too warm is the Achilles heel of the nocturnal sailor.
I find the man I am replacing at the chart table. He is making a position mark in pencil on a large paper illustration of the Portuguese coastline. The yacht’s leather bound log-book is open with the latest longitude and latitude, neatly written below my own entries in atrocious scrawl. Pointing to the screen in front with a pencil, he explains the past three hours activities. A Portuguese fishing fleet a few miles away keeps changing direction, but they’re moving slowly and nothing else is in sight. They will probably keep to themselves, but the thought of getting caught in trailing nets is enough to make me take a second look. He’s tried calling them on the radio, but they don’t speak English.
We both climb the steps to the cockpit. The air has a sharp bite, but the only wind is that the yacht generates moving across an almost eery flat calm. No sails tonight, just the hum of the engine beneath layers of soundproofing. At the wheel, an invisible helmsman tends to the steering with mechanised adjustments. The autopilot is keeping course. I clip myself to a strongpoint on the deck and we climb up onto the seats for an unobstructed view. Leaning heavily on the spray hood, like friends propping up a bar, gives an all round view. The only lights ahead are our own navigation lamps glowing red and green at the bow. To port, two miles away, I count three of the five fishing boats from the chart table screen. It should be quiet for the next three hours. I take over, my companion at the bar heads to his cabin to sleep.
After checking everything over again in a familiar rhythm, I turn the volume on the communications radio high, putting one earphone in my left ear and pressing play in my pocket. Herring gulls and the sound of an orchestral Sleepy Lagoon. The unmistakeable beginning of Radio 4’s Desert Island Disks, British institution and theme to the beginning of many a solo watch. I check the screen again for the fishing fleet and bring them into focus through a pair of weighty German lenses as Kirsty Young flirts with David Beckham in a stuffy London studio.
Every skipper runs their night-watches differently on a long passage. I prefer to stand them alone and crew to do the same. The boundaries of responsibility are clearer and a watch alone at night is time to think that life ashore rarely grants us. In a one eared theatre so far from land, Desert Island Discs’s characters are somehow more impressive, their lives amplified by the perspective being at sea provides.
After several climbs below to log positions, make multiple warm drinks and check the yacht’s systems; three hours has gone by and a new day at sea has begun.