Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Now: Night Watch, Memoir of a Passage

Suzanne Knecht may not be quite typical of the cruisers we're meeting in the Western Caribbean these days - heaven forbid that any of us be typical of anything!

There are several similarities, though. She's a middle-aged woman who cruised in large part to be supportive of her lawyer husband. They bought their boat - a Moody 42 center cockpit - new, and had it professionally outfitted. They departed as part of a fleet cruise, although they were the only ones who actually finished on schedule. A friend served as full-time crew, and they had regular visitors too. The entire circumnavigation took just two years. Suzanne missed her grandchildren and her dog. And when she got back to San Francisco, she said, only partly in jest: "We've done it, and now I never have to sail under this bridge again."

Suzanne's book is a little light on some details; she's more interested in people and places than on how the boat accomplishes its chores. I imagine her perched upon a flying carpet, well separated from the nuts and bolts of the enabling mechanism. Night Watch was just a tool; for Blue and Dot, who built D'Vara from the ground up, the connection was more intimate.

The Moody of course has an auxiliary diesel engine, which could easily be twenty times the horsepower of D'Vara's. Night Watch carried 85 gallons of diesel, so the motoring range at a guess would be maybe 5-600 miles, and they never ran out.

This 1992 vessel has a watermaker, solar panels, and Autohelm self-steering linked to a Global Positioning System. It's got two showers and two heads equipped with pressure water and a hot water heater. The galley, like D'Vara's has a fridge; also Night Watch has a freezer, maybe even a microwave and stuff like blenders and mixers. Maybe it's even got a generator. All the conveniences of home, other than space, you might say. Convenience-wise, I'd say D'Vara was more like camping, or living in the back of a VW camper.

I'll bet there's an 'most-weather' plastic-windowed enclosure over Night Watch's center cockpit, making for a relatively high and dry watch station. Aboard D'Vara standing a watch likely meant out in the open, hands on the tiller time. I'd assume that the sail inventory and running rigging is complete and entirely synthetic; in two years nothing rotted or frayed or even showed signs of wear, at least that Suzanne mentioned. Probably nothing needed replacing underway and I don't think anyone went up the mast either, at least in an emergency.

As a travelogue, having circumnavigated along the same basic route, and come to many of the same conclusions about certain destinations myself, I found Suzanne's book interesting reading. Reading it, you can tell her book is self-published, but decently done. Thankfully, her personality is more savory than sugar; she's not a whiner but also not afraid to glare. She's the kind of woman I'd make a beeline to chat with if I saw her at a cocktail party, to enjoy her sharp and pertinent observations, and the others too!

Compare/contrast: The Bradfields aboard D'Vara worked long and hard to get safely through the dreaded Torres Straits at the top of Australia. They were intimidated and hampered by uncertain tides and currents, squalls, missing sextant sights.Night Watch, on the other hand, arrived there at night, yet decided to continue on through in the dark of night, rather than wait for daylight visibility.

Suzanne, acting as navigator, marked up a chart with courses and bearings, then entered waypoints into the GPS to double-check her calculations. The GPS set the route that the Autohelm then steered in the dark night through the barely awash sandbars, rocks, wrecks and myriad other hazards that have brought these waters their dire reputation. Of the four people standing watches that night, two never touched the wheel. It was an intense night, but I'll bet Dot could tell Suzanne something further about intensity.

Possibly, unspoken in the background, was the thought that if Night Watch did get in trouble, they could enlist some of their technology(the liferaft for one!). They could call for help, search, rescue, pickup - and get it- from the Australian Coast Guard or other shipping. Dot and Blue would have been on their own, and knew it, which may have clarified their minds thoroughly.

Parenthetically I'll add that aboard Galivant, we have a GPS, which gets our (presumably) exact position from satellites. And we have an Autohelm (an electrical arm attached to a compass brain which steers the boat on the set course while motoring). We also have a (Monitor brand)windvane, which steers when the sails are up and drawing, responding to keep the boat in its same relationship to the wind, rather than mindlessly toeing the same straight line despite changing conditions as the Autohelm does. We do not allow the two latter to speak to the GPS: "the Cabots speak only to the Lowells and the Lowells speak only to God".

The idea that a machine would be in charge throughout the difficult Torres Straits passage gives me the chills. But to be fair, these steering devices, the electrical Autohelm and the mechanical windvane, are probably more reliable and accurate than most people at the helm, including me. In fact, the helmsperson is perhaps more free to look around, check bearings, etc. And the GPS may be a better calculator than a person. It's a bit of a snob thing, and I should get over it! Or never fly again. Actual humans were involved in actually checking the data, and undistractable machines did what we think they do best.

Would the Bradfields have been pleased to make their passages aboard the Moody with its electronics and luxurious accommodation? Perhaps, is my guess, especially if they weren't paying the bills! But not necessarily. They were totally involved, had what they wanted, and the satisfaction of working as a well-oiled unit. Would Suzanne be a happy camper on D'Vara? Not for long.

What exactly is gained or lost when the emphasis shifts to comfort and a tick-mark on the bucket list? In the intervening 40-odd years, perhaps some of us have lost the knack of divining our way by the hairs on our neck, the clouds in the sky and the swirling tea-leaves of the ocean, not to mention the Pub. 249 tables, the jerry jug and the sculling oar. Living and travelling on a sailboat these days is easier and more comfortable. When "the fleet" gathers, the talk is mainly of obtaining and maintaining creature comforts and technological assistance.

Something is gained, but something is lost. I can't quite say what either of those things might be. Is it biased to say that people who know less can accomplish more now? That's not necessarily a bad thing. Still, I admire more the people who worked harder to do what I am doing today, even while I don't necessarily want to work that hard. I do think all this reliance on machines and electronics can dumb the people behind them down, at least in the skills that used to be important. Just another of life's little compromises.

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