Current position of the SSV Robert C. Seamans. Click on the vessel to view position history. Use the tools, top right, to change the map style or view data layers.
SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans
Stanford@SEA: Dawn Watch
I wasn't quite overjoyed to hear that Watch Group A had been assigned the 0100-0700 shift on our first evening underway. The excitement of our previous night onboard and the beauty of Moorea's jagged peaks was not lost on me, but I was exhausted. Hours in the hot sun and still air sapped my energy as we rehearsed the ship's procedures, and none of us could wait to finally lift anchor and depart for Iles Maria that afternoon. But that night, instead of passing out in our bunks, the ten members of my watch group would be taking on the responsibilities of the ship: changing sails, manning the helm, conducting boat checks, staffing the science lab, and so on. We were all undoubtedly excited to begin our journey, but doing so on a couple hours of sleep was not ideal.
My bunk felt like a furnace when I finally fell asleep at 2200. The lights of Moorea had faded gently into the wind behind us, and my classmates were busy jettisoning their dinners from the quarterdeck. At 0050 I ascended the ladder still half-asleep and blind. Time for dawn watch.
I don't think I'll soon forget the moment I stepped on deck. Moorea was long gone, leaving only banks of cumulus to ring the horizon encircling our ship. Stars shone through the tears in a cloudy ceiling and the moon's pale light perfectly halved my sphere of vision into grey sky above and black sea below. Waves disappeared into the shadows of my imperfect sight and left the ocean as void as the night sky it opposed. My eyes adjusted and I found the quarterdeck situated at the exact center of this perfect sphere, no longer burdened by the visual clutter of sunlight and land. It was a perfect simplicity that focused my mind on the vessel beneath my feet, the cool wind at my back, and the invisible swells rolling off the bow. After our day enclosed in the hot lee of Moorea, it was electrifying.
Watch Group A stood steeped in moonlight and watched three ghostly sails hold the wind. It was 0100, and Sam and I began the first of our hourly boat checks. We stumbled about the deck tugging on life rings ("Yep, that's a life ring") and testing fire hose valves ("Wait, did we just break it?"), and then headed down below for the engine room check. In what was not my proudest moment, I stared at the main engine instrument panel for a solid minute wondering why all of the readouts were zero. Sam politely reminded me that the engine was off. We were, in fact, sailing. "This will be like the last watch on the Titanic," Sam chuckled. But there will be plenty of practice to come.
At 0230 I was sent to relieve Adam as forward lookout. By now the converging rings of cumulus left only a few last windows to the celestial dome, through which I glimpsed a shooting star carving its pale green notch in the dark. It lingered briefly before the blackness flooded back in and reclaimed the inch-long streak. The Southern Cross laid on its side directly in line with the tilting bow, reclining imperceptibly into its shroud of clouds, and I watched it sink as I took to the platform. Forward lookout at dawn is a rare moment of presence and solitude during busy shifts-the horizon is your concern, geometric at heart, and your eyes and mind wander freely over the shape of the bow cross-cutting the sea and stars. With every rise you feel like you can peer down over the horizon, and with every crashing fall you feel the might of the ocean push back on you.
I stood as lookout for thirty fleeting minutes. 0300 and not a single tired fiber in my body. I felt instead a focused presence of mind, the invigorating feeling that I could stay on deck for hours as our ship crossed the Pacific, neither shore nor soul in sight. I wasn't mourning my missing hours of sleep-rather, I was endlessly glad to be awake and present. A call came from the quarterdeck for the next boat check and I headed aft under the sweeping shapes of the sails. Still four hours to go, and I'd never felt better.