One of our duties on Bark Europa was to be on watch during our sail through the 450NM dreaded Drake Passage on our way to Antarctica. I had heard about the Drake and how extreme it can be. It’s known as one of the most difficult sailing passages in the world and the Dog Watch from 12 pm until 4 am sounded nasty. My Dog Watch, however, was remarkable! I was alive. The ship took on a life and made me feel in control and powerful. At the helm, I was controlling the wind and the sea and the sails. It was a huge rush. At 4:00 am after my watch, I could have run a marathon I was so full of adrenaline.
Our watch shift was four hours, and we were a half hour on either the helm or lookout and a half hour off. At the helm, we were told the course to steer, either from the person whom we were relieving or from the officer of the watch. This course was in a three figure notation such as 3-1-5 degrees, and also referred to the wind and the sails, or a landmark. We were able to hold a steady course by observing the compass, watching the wind and the sails, and by controlling the rudder angle.
The first half hour was at the helm sailing the ship. We worked in pairs and Andy was my partner. He’s a fifty something English fireman. Willing to step up and always thoughtful, he was a great partner, and I don’t imagine putting up with my constant singing and never ending questions was an easy task. He manned the helm first and he quickly became precise after only a few watches. I watched the compass and helped him stay on our course. 30 minutes flew by. I was anxious to give it a try but nervous of the responsibility.
We then had a hot cup of coffee while two others from our watch took over. The break between watch seemed to tick by more slowly than the actual watch.
Our next shift was on lookout. It’s definitely the easier part of the shift. There are lookout spots on the foredeck where you can watch for other ships, whales, ice, or basically anything that could harm or slow the ship. It may be less strenuous but it’s colder just standing there looking into the darkness. I tried to convince Andy to play games with me. He’s a fantastic person with a great personality but he drew the line at games like Two Truths and a Lie. I spent the better part of the watch dancing and singing on the spot. I bet Andy would be happy if he never heard Mr. Sun or anything from Frozen ever again. I was famished after 30 minutes.
We were thankful for a hot bowl of soup during our next rest. It took less than five minutes to down a bowl of vegetable soup and a cup of tea. I’m normally not a tea or coffee drinker but there is nothing more soothing than a warm cup in your hands after the bitter cold outside.
Then, it was my turn at the helm. I was way more nervous than Andy, but once I found a rhythm, it was exhilarating. It’s like finally going skydiving solo rather than tandem. You’re completely in control of life and death situations. I suppose after years of sailing it would be more like driving car but for now I’d compare it to skydiving. (Ok, maybe I wasn’t going to kill us if I was a few degrees off course but I was controlling the ship.)
I was wide awake during our last half hour of watch. We chatted about family, children, spouses, and careers during our break and during the following lookout. The four hours seemed more like one and the idea of sleeping was completely lost. I was falling in love with Europa and becoming a sailor.