Night Passage

This is an old article I wrote many years ago as Jan and I began sailing. We made a multi-day passage from Ventura to San Diego and we still remember it as one of our favorite trips.


Against tradition, we started our voyage on a Friday. A salty old diesel mechanic at the marina foretold doom and tragedy for us but it looked like we finally had enough of break in the weather to run down from Ventura to San Diego. We went through the checklist one last time, topped off our tanks and said good-bye to our friends. Clearing the harbor buoy, we hoisted our jib and mizzen and soon beat to Anacapa Island with a rail in the water.

The sun began to set as we turned south at our first waypoint. Jan heated water for tea and made a pot of soup. I tried to lie down in the quarter berth when she took the first watch but mal de meer and excitement conspired against me. When I finally gave up and came back on deck the sky was dark but the moon was brilliant.

December is cold, even off the coast of southern California but we found a wool lap blanket and with another wool blanket wrapped around our shoulders, sitting idle at the wheel was tolerable. Our ensemble was accented with watch caps and gloves and we soon learned to appreciate our tall sea boots and wool socks. The old backpacker’s adage, “Dress loose and in layers” was apropos. A sweater over a wool shirt and long johns worn under a Gortex parka was perfect

As the night wore on I realized I should have fixed the light on the compass before we left. While it was a simple matter to steer by the stars it was a completely different affair when the clouds rolled in. We quickly used up a set of batteries in the GPS because we had to keep the backlight on almost constantly to help us find our way.

Five things were always by our sides through that first watch: a mug of cocoa kept warm in a stainless steel commuter cup, a bag of munchies (Jan preferred pistachios and I snacked on Cheetos), a wonderful pair of Fujinon 7 x 50 binoculars, a flashlight and our antique brass ship’s bell. We had a night vision scope but found the binoculars worked better. Night vision scopes are not binoculars and we really needed to check out distant navigation lights and enlarge shapes more than we needed to cut through the darkness. For a flashlight, we found a simple “mini-mag” light wouldn’t destroy our night vision when we checked the compass or searched for a dropped cookie. We had a huge spotlight handy for signaling or illuminating our sails but we never had to use it. The old bell was great for rousing help from below. The thick walls of our wooden boat absorbed sounds, including cries for help, but the bell never failed to call up another set of hands.

Later, Jan explained the night watch wasn’t at all what she expected. She thought she would be lonely and feel vulnerable all alone at the wheel during her watch. She was surprised to find that wasn’t the case. Instead, the ship was a snug cocoon wrapped in a blanket of stars. The sea was far more interesting than menacing. It was ever changing and almost hypnotic. The occasional sea life – a pod of playful dolphins or the exhale of a whale – broke the monotony. Far from boring, her first watch was enchanting. When I came back on deck, she was as tired as she would have been after a long horseback ride. She curled up content in her down bag and fell fast asleep.

The full moon set blood red an hour before dawn. We’d have to keep ahead of the storm that was chasing us to San Diego but Christmas morning found us passing Catalina just where we should have been. Jan made more cocoa and hot cereal while I set a tiny Christmas tree in the cockpit. We huddled together behind the wheel watching the new day dawn. That first night passage was the best Christmas present two sailors could have asked for!



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