4am Shift

[Aug 22] I feel a tremendous surge of optimism right now, like life is
beginning again and the future is a whole spectrum full of opportunity.
I feel young, energised, and excited.

What a brilliant night, complete with monsoonal rains, strong squalls,
bright stars, an almost full moon, and magical airs.

The booby died this evening, on deck. Were the surrounding storms a
response to his dying, or his death a response to the storms?

On my first shift the winds became so slight that our large genoa
flapped and flopped, seeking some consistent force of air. But behind us
I could see a heavy black ridge approaching, dark line in the sky. And
behind that: grey blank.

I watched the clouds progress upon us, in both awe and trepidation.
Perhaps it'll blow through and be nothing, my imagination over-zealous.
Steadily it gained on us, taking no hostages.

I call to Andy, are you still awake? He's not. I go inside, nudge him,
ask a little louder. Conditions are still eerily calm outside. And he's
definitely not awake. I think- I can do this on my own, it's nothing on
previous weather we've experienced. But we do still have the genoa up.
Now, right now, would be the time to take it down and change for a
smaller sail. Before the squall hits. But I can't do that on my own, or
won't, especially not at night-time.

I decide to wait, see it through. The ocean is relatively flat and wind
alone, I keep reminding myself, can't knock us over. Or not for long.

The black line is almost upon us. Directly above I still see stars and
puffy clouds. But that picture stops abruptly with what looks like an
enormous, expansive, manta ray flying above. Silent elegant gliding
motion with no apparrent propulsion. Or so it seems.

The manta is now directly overhead and still conditions are okay. The
wind speed has picked up a little, maybe a few spots of rain. But I am
wide awake with adrenalin racing through me.

I don't want to do this alone.
I do want to do this alone.
I don't want to do this alone.

Before I even know what I've done, I've called his name, loudly, twice.
But when he wakes and orientates himself I pretend he woke himself. "No,
no, nothing to worry about, there's just another system coming through
and I think it's about to pick up. Yeah, I'm fine, no need to get up
[subtext: but please stay awake, or wakeable]".

Slowly he rouses, stretches, pokes his head out of the hatch: nothing
too alarming going on yet. And then the rains start and the winds howl.
He's inside, hatches battened [I have him just where I want him], and
I'm outside, wet wet wet. We go through it together. I'm very glad he's

It takes about twenty minutes for the manta's front edge to be
definitely ahead of us. I can still see stars to my left, weirdly, but
we are definitely remaining under the manta's long cloak. There are no
signs of it ending.

Somewhat reluctantly Andy comes outside to change the sail. The rains
have temporarily eased and winds are once again manageable, but we can
see only grey clag to the horizon. The wind direction has shifted and at
a minimum we need to put the sail on the other side, which involves
first repositioning the pole. And if we're going to do all that it's
prudent to consider changing the sail at the same time.

But before all else, the bird. He's made himself quite at home on the
foredeck where there's about to be a lot of action. If he isn't first
hit by a dropping sail then he'll be knocked by a long pole or
accidentally tripped over and kicked.

He attacks when Andy encourages him to move. Boat hook action required,
and eventually he is nudged to a place of safety. Still he doesn't fly

The genoa is dropped and removed, pole repositioned, jib hanked on, new
sail raised…. and the manta finally passes by. Stars reappear once
again and we crawl along at three knots.

Andy's now been with me for an hour and his watch would be about to
start. Anyway, he's wide awake and boiling hot from running around on
deck so he chooses to stay up. As I prepare to rest I see him through
the window talking to the bird, gently reaching out to touch it. No sign
of attack. Not long after I hear a gentle plop as the bird is reunited
with the sea.

It is sad.


And slow, slow, progress.

I know Andy is considering the genoa again. Wisely, he decides to first
have a cup of tea. Thank god for British rituals. The kettle boils, I
make tea, we watch the stars and feel the boat lolling nowhere. He's
watching the speed on the GPS. I'm guessing the wager he's made: if it
doesn't reach five knots by the end of this cup, I'm changing the sail.

Slurp. Sip. Silence.

A puff. Or two. Four knots, four and a half. Three point two.

A stronger puff. A five! A five point five. A four point five. And the
tea is finished. The smaller sail stays.

Thank god for tea. An hour later a huge squall has come through and Andy
is soaked from head to toe, hand-steering the boat because the wind
direction keeps shifting, his feet ankle deep in rainwater in the cockpit.

From inside I hear the sail being pulled across to the starboard side
again, with no pole, and the wind on our side. We're screaming along.

I get up- are you okay? Can I help? I'm not sure, he says (unusually).
So I keep him company. In fact, I do nothing practical and say little,
but I stay present. The same as I wanted from him earlier. There is
comfort in companionship, and knowledge that we could act quickly if

It wasn't required. After about fifteen minutes the worst passed and I
lie down again, leaving him to his shift. He wakes me at 3am, there's
been a momentary lull so he'll have some rest (and my shift is due to
start now anyway). He's been hand-steering all this time.

I take over. Ten minutes in, another squall. Rain, wind, crazy
directions, steer downwind, keep the boat with the wind, wearing a full
foul-weather jacket but still feeling wet.

It's great. I whoop. "You okay?" he calls. "Just great" I holler. It's
only wind, the sea is still quite flat, and wind can't knock me over.
Let's ride this baby! West, north-west, whoa, why's the wind over there
now? South-west, south. Full South and the wind's behind me, then it
comes back from the east and we're going west again. Long ago I learnt
to make that arrow work for me. It still points counterintuitively, to
my mind, so I just head for the tail.

I recall that first storm off the coast of Chile, a crash course in
steering downwind. We had no sails up, three looped 100m ropes (warps)
dragging behind, and still were making nine and ten knots surfing down

By comparison, this is child's play. I'm not scared, I'm even enjoying
myself. Bring on the clutch control, jump on that free-wheeling bicycle,
fly with the wind.

It's over before I'm exhausted, I still feel adrenalin pulsing through
me. By 4am we have remarkably pleasant conditions again. By 4.30 the
boat is steering herself, perfectly, bang on course. It's now 5.30 and I
see stars in all directions. I have been writing for a fair while and
not touched a thing.

The night made me alert. Arm hairs stand on end, eyes are wide open,
head clear and awake. Somewhere between adrenalin rushing through my
veins and the wind settling down I start daydreaming, vividly.

This is one of my favourite activities. I am fully alert, watching the
sky, the GPS, the sail, the compass, feeling the wind and the chill in
the air. My attention is not immediately needed for the present but it
could be any minute so reading a book or listening to a podcast are out
of the question. And anyway, they don't tally with my current state of
chemical composition.

I dream of futures, and presents, and sometimes the past. I talk with my
son as he leaves home to explore the world, and find that I am crying. I
spend years exploring the oceans and its people with Andy, on a small
boat. We make documentaries. I write stories. (Why? In search of
purpose? Justification? Or a genuine desire to share these wonders?) He
learns ancient survival skills and I learn to read the clouds and
constellations. Next I am deeply engrossed in my work again, always
climate change related. People and climate, influencing each other. I
discover that whenever my fantasy work takes over, as it has also in the
past, I lose my sense of today. I lose the magic of now. I have kids
again. This time they don't go to school, but learn from toads and
oceans. Clearly I've been influenced by an essay I read earlier today:
Small Silences by Edward Hoagland (Harper's Magazine July 2004, Best
American Science Writing 2005). My mind continues to leap and spiral,
and I feel effused with potential and joy, … glee? Hoagland writes,

"Some people scarcely know what to do with their bonus time – doubled
life spans plus round-the-clock availability of artificial light-
because nature doesn't deal in bonuses. The sun rises and sets when it
did a million years ago, with daylight altering by immemorial increments
as the planet rolls. It doesn't award you an extra hour if you have a
deadline. Can you make it? nature asks instead, if it says anything at
all. But secondly, and curiously, I think, it speaks in terms of glee.
Glee is like the froth on beer or cocoa. Not especially necessary or
Darwinian, it's not the carrot that balances the stick, because quieter
forms of contentment exist to reward efficiency. Glee is effervescence.
It's bubbles in the water – beyond efficiency- which your thirst doesn't
actually need.

Bubbles are physics, not biology, and glee, if the analogy is to carry
far, may be an artesian force more primordial than evolutionary. To me,
it's not a marker for genetic advantages such as earning more, but an
indicator that life – the thread of Creation, the relic current that has
lasted all this way- is ebullient."