Our crossing to San Carlos was simple and easy. We’ve done enough now to be comfortable and relaxed in just about any situation. The only thing different about this crossing was that it was totally unanticipated. When the decision was made it was early afternoon and it was going to be a 70nm crossing. If we left right away we would arrive in the middle of the night so we decided to relax though the afternoon, have lunch, take a nap and then leave in the early evening in order to time our arrival for daylight. Now well underwayBill woke me at eleven pm for my watch and I quickly grabbed my gear and headed up on deck. As he passed me the watch he filled me in on our heading and I checked the chart plotter to get my bearings then Bill handed me our remote and headed below for some sleep.
One of our purchases before we started this journey was a new autopilot with a remote control. It is a handy little device about the size of a garage door opener. From any place on the boat with remote in hand you can you can switch back and forth from standby to auto and change course one degree at a time or with the push of a button alter your course in ten degree increments. It’s really a wonderful tool and has only two downfalls. 1.) The original designs accommodation for attaching a lanyard was a niche in the back with a tiny span of plastic about the width of a toothpick. Within a month or two with no abuse whatsoever that thin plastic piece broke leaving us with a remote that has the potential to not stay with the human doing the controls and 2.) The batteries wear out very quickly(and often do at the most inopportune times.)
The battery problem is simple enough to handle we just keep a stash of rechargeable batteries close by. Being unable to keep it attached to your person with a lanyard has been harder to solve. The thing wasn’t cheap so it’s policy not to put it in a pocket or take it out of the cockpit where it could potentially go over the side. [Electronics such as cell phones, IPods and remote controls evidently have evolved with a special sensor allowing said electronics to literally jump out of a humans grasp anytime they are within a few inches of a boats lifeline.] So though we have been in search of a fix for the defective lanyard since Neah Bay when in use the remote is always in someone’s hand or laying in the cockpit close by whoever is on watch.
This particular night crossing was moonless and dark and there was a light marine layer of fog which limited the view of the stars. I had looked at our course and checked for any potential dangers. There was nothing but open sea ahead: no islands, no rocks, no reefs or navigation lights, absolutely nothing between Island Bound and our destination in Guaymas an estimated eight hours to the east.
Course checked I settle into my watch and plump and push my cockpit cushion and chair just so, have my bottle of water and a snack at hand, place the remote control out of the way yet near my chair and plug myself into my IPod for some toe tapping country music (for night watch I try not to sing along, I really do.) Personally I choose not to read during my watch because the light ruins my night vision and for safety sake I try and keep my IPod volume low enough to still hear the sounds around me. Then all that is left for me to do until I wake Bill in four hours is follow the course and check the sea around me every few minutes looking for any signs of traffic, whales or bad weather.
I don’t know how other people manage their night watches but for me any real ability to see out into the night is limited. With a full moon you can see ahead of you but lacking that you are essentially driving along blind. For all intents and purposes your ability to see a whale or an object like a container floating in the water is virtually nonexistent. You MUST though keep a look out into the nothingness ahead of you for whatever you can see and especially for the navigation lights of other traffic.
So, there I am sailing along peering every few minutes off into the hazy murk not seeing any other traffic at all. If it had been a clear night I would have oriented myself to the stars above and ahead in order to give context to my course. This night everything was just dark and slightly foggy. Then about three hours into my watch I pick up the remote to check my course and realize that the batteries died and the autopilot was back on standby.
For you non sailors out there what that really means is no one was steering the boat!! I sprang up and searched around me then flung myself towards the chart plotter to see what our heading was and how far off I might be. Initially I had no idea how long the autopilot has been off but one look at the plotter made my heart race and jump into my throat.
On examination the plotter showed a rather circuitous route but because we were zoomed in for a close view it was hard to tell how far off we were from our original course. Once I zoomed out and had a good look at our course I was horrified. We weren’t on a collision course with anything thank God but I had managed to do two complete circles to the tune of about two hours of travel time. The two circles looked like a little girls ringlet or maybe a double pigs tail: a straight part, an almost perfect circle, a small straight leg, another near perfect circle and then straightening out again. Worse yet it was right there in black and white on our chart plotter.
The moral of this story is that regardless of how comfortable you are with passages and how sure you are that there are no obstacles near your route it is still important to look at the course every few minutes to be sure that you are in fact still headed in the right direction. Simple complacency could have brought disaster. I never imagined that scenario playing out: plugged into my IPod, no land or light references on our course, dead batteries, and no stars for orientation while I was checking the sea around me and somehow not even thinking to look at the plotter. It definitely makes me grateful that the damage was only to me pride. I know l will make other mistakes, big, little, new and old. Life is a learning process and the learning curve for me in this cruising life has been steep. But I can pretty much assure you that that particular mistake will not happen again on my watch. The rest of my watch passed slowly. Bill got a free extra hour of sleep.