It’s three in the morning and someone is at my bunk, whispering my name.
“Natalie.” A woman.
“Natalie,” Rebecca repeats. “You have thirty minutes until watch. It’s cold. Bring your jacket.” I resist the urge to pull my comforter over back over my head. I know that the watch before me, who have been on since eleven, won’t be released until I am up on deck.
That’s the way “watch” works aboard the Sullivan: after nine hours off, part of the crew has a four or five hour shift. Each watch we work is at a different time, and we get a full night’s sleep every third night. The crew is split evenly into watches, and there is always a crew on watch. Having the 3-8 am shift means I’ll go on watch again after dinner, around 6 pm. I pull myself out of my bunk and start searching for my sweater in the dark.
Getting ready for Evening Watch on the Sullivan
By the time I make it into the lit galley someone has already brewed a fresh pot of coffee. I get in line and squint at the clock. The Northwest wind is more forceful than I’m used to, but the waves are coming straight at the ship and we don’t have too much rock. By the time I climb back up on deck, we’ve assembled into “muster”: a small meeting of all the crewmembers on watch that shift, led by one of the mates. My eyes begin to adjust to the night, and I can make out their faces: Beth Deal, Kevin Slocum, Wynne Hedlesky, and then there’s me.
Cloudy Night Watch Sky, 3 am
Some of the duties while on watch are straightforward, such as standing bow. Standing bow helps ensure that the Sullivan doesn’t run into anything: radio towers, bouys, lighthouses, and most importantly, other ships. It means scanning the horizon, staring at the water line for your assigned hour and reporting any obstacles within view. It’s plain work, especially at night, but requires a high level of attention to detail and part of why those standing bow are relieved after only an hour. You must be totally awake, because the lives of the crew may come down to you spotting something in time to avoid it.
Being at the helm or steering the Sullivan, if you can believe it, is less taxing. That said, I’ve learned it takes practice to stay within five degrees of an ordered course with our finicky helm, a wheel that jerks left or right when the waves hit it. Boat checks are our final duty while on watch, and they are anything but plain. Performed every hour, boat checks are a full scan of the ship’s under-deck compartments: the dank bilges, heads (or bathrooms), and a trip into the sweltering engine room to record the oil pressure, voltage and temperature of our dual engines.
Needless to say, being on watch is exhausting. Crewmembers sleep for most of the nine hours that they are not on watch, yet there’s not a better job on the ship. I’ve grown much closer to the crew, as we’re often paired off for duties: deep conversation in the dark at the bow just before dawn, or joking our way through a stinky head check. And since beginning watch, I’m more confident in my role on the Sullivan, and feel that I’m finally getting into the routine of sailing life. But most of all, standing watch has taught me to respect the Sullivan itself. Because ships, like the Lakes themselves, are large but delicate things, operating on the simple rule that if you respect it, it will respect you back.
Yet it’s getting more difficult to think of her as a “thing”. In some way, she is alive to me—our Sullivan—with her hissing toilets, creaking masts, diesel scent, and rigging that sings when the wind is high enough.