Not many places are as captivating as a boat’s bridge at 3am. It’s here, four coffees and six packs of M&Ms deep, the world’s most intriguing problems are debated while steaming into the darkness. Why hasn’t the see-through toaster caught on? Would you rather have no arms or no legs? If the owners turned out to be your real parents, would you still eat with the crew?
Talking rubbish will forever be fascinating, but when you’re new to the superyacht game, there’s a lot more to be gained from a night watch than just a few laughs. For someone still trying to get their head around what’s going on inside and outside the bridge, finishing a stint at the helm with a mind crammed full of newfound skills and knowledge is incredibly rewarding. If your teacher is sound and you have the ability to absorb information, then these skills will see you steering multi-million dollar vessels around the world, and back, in due time.
But what happens when you’re required to take the bow by the horns sooner than expected? The captain has handed over the keys, offered some words of encouragement, ‘you break it, you buy it’, and gone to bed leaving a boat half the size of a rugby field in your unqualified hands.
Some will argue that’s simply a great learning experience for any new deckhand. Others will cry insanity. So where is the line between trial by fire and safety drawn? Learning from mistakes is often the best way, but a mistake in the bridge might also earn a spot on the six o’clock news, for all the wrong reasons.
I was thrown in the deep end. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. I’d barely had time to relieve myself in the kiddie pool before I was hauled to the top of the 10-metre diving board, escorted to the edge, stuffed into a cannon and shot headfirst into the deep end.
For insurance reasons, my boat needed to get from A-B (B was 480-nautical miles away) by a date that allowed for no stops. We were shorthanded and the captain had opted out of the watch cycle which meant at one point three of us split 17 straight hours on the bridge. Ludicrous, I know.
I had sat through plenty of night watches before but always with a qualified crew member, capable of diffusing a tricky situation with as much ease as cooking a piece of bread in a see-through toaster. I’d always felt safe. This particular night however, I was teamed up with a fellow deckhand who had eight years in the industry, although his watching keeping abilities far from reflected that. Any decisions, and their consequences, would be up to the both of us. And just to ensure I was in the deepest part of the deep end, we had the pleasure of a six hour watch, 0100-0700.
Armed with pointy sticks, the nerves began to attack. This wasn’t mum handing over the keys to the Peugeot and asking me to whip around the block to pick-up the dry cleaning. This was a massive sign of trust (or stupidity) from the captain. And who was I to one; say no to the captain and two; say no to an incredible learning opportunity? Back yourself, right? Some people spend years on a boat without this sort of responsibility in the bridge. I had been onboard just long enough to figure out where the plates lived in the crew-mess. God knows where the bowls were supposed to go.
Coffee in hand, we took to the bridge. My watch-mate is of the opinion if he’s not at the helm when something goes wrong, he can’t be to blame, so I took the hot seat and we settled in and began to dodge a few boats, keep our distance from some menacing reefs and solve a few more of the world’s problems. Powering through a poorly charted area of south-east Asia at 10 knots, the number of underpowered lights from fishing vessels began to grow.
And as the waters became increasingly cluttered, the GPS sparked an argument with the paper chart that saw them refuse to talk to one another for two hours. I had questions galore. The answers coming from my senior watchmate weren’t stacking up though. That anxious feeling that sometimes comes with flying began to fester. The feeling that stirs when the person in the seat next to you stakes claim to the entire dividing elbow rest and you’re left to spend the flight sitting awkwardly, shoulders pushed together, hands resting uncomfortably on your thighs, not wanting to cause a scene.
The anxious feeling climaxed when I returned to the bridge from a coffee run to find a fishing boat crossing our starboard bow just a few hundred metres away. Unlike on an aeroplane, questions over spatial awareness were asked. Nothing is what it seems at night, but the six o’clock news headlines running through my mind seemed very real.
Eventually, the sun oozed out of the ocean, just as we approached our anchorage unharmed. It was a mixed bag of feelings. Frustration at my watchmate was at the fore and I hoped, so long as I was still learning, never to do another night on the bridge with him. Anger at the captain for putting us in such a situation was suppressed, while a sense of achievement was hard to keep at bay. Above all else though, confusion ran riot. Was this the right way to go about learning? Had the captain dropped me in it knowing I’d be fine and this would ultimately just be a great confidence booster? I still can’t decide.
We’d made it though, our boat was floating and no fishing vessels were harmed in the process. In this industry you do what’s required to get the job done. That’s yachting. Any old salt will tell you straight off the bat that safety is the number one priority in all situations. Talk to them long enough and you’ll be regaled with stories where safety was nowhere to be seen but they’re still here to tell the tale, and probably more sea-savvy as a result.
So where is the line drawn? When do time constraints, pleasing the boss and saving a penny or two really take a backseat to the safety of the boat and those aboard? If you can answer that, then I’d love to hear your thoughts on the downfall of the see-through toaster too.
For more by Eugene the Deckie, read 'On par with the boss'