​A day in the life of Visit Seattle: Assistant Watch Leader

16 April 2016

We catch up with home port entry Visit Seattle to discover a typical 48 hours on board for the crew and Skipper while awaiting a North Pacific storm.

This diary entry is from Assistant Watch Leader and Leg 1 and 6 crew member, John McCaffery, a 29-year-old Research Fellow from Aberdeenshire, Scotland when the team crossed the International Date Line.

5 April 2016
Race 9: The Seattle Pacific Challenge - Qingdao, China to Seattle, USA

Hi, I'm John, assistant Watch Leader on Visit Seattle. This is what one watch cycle looks like for us. On the boat we run a 48 hour watch, starting at 12 noon so that is where I shall begin. The two days break down into a long day (16 hours on, 8 off) and a short day (8 hours on, 16 off).


Happy Hour. Weather permitting both watches are on deck from around 1145 to 1215. The Skipper tells us the scheds (where the fleet is positioned across the track), and an update on progress and world news. Also an opportunity to share anything that needs to be shared with the whole crew. Today the topic of conversation is the incoming low pressure system. We are told we have the afternoon watch to prepare then the weather will start to build dramatically. We are on the long day today so we will be the afternoon watch.

Afternoon Watch
1200 – 1800

The way the weather works out here is that a constant stream of low pressure systems build at the north of Japan or above Siberia then sweep east, across the Pacific, circling anti-clockwise. For us this has meant we have generally been hit by a low pressure system, had 6-12 hours of storm, then 2-3 days of high winds, then 12 hours or so of calmer conditions before the cycle starts again.

Today we are in the calm before the storm stage. After three days of sailing into 30 knot+ winds, the whole crew is pretty exhausted so the watch starts slowly with music up on deck. Toward the end of the watch we start to make preparations for the incoming storm. The forecast indicates it will be a big one so the staysail is cleared off the deck and the bright orange storm jib is rigged in its place. Its brother, the trisail, is also brought up, ready to be rigged to hoist up the mast.

Evening Watch
1800 – 2200

Below decks after our afternoon watch, we get fed pasta with a tomato and prosciutto sauce, then it's time for bed. Knowing the storm is coming some are keyed up, finding it hard to settle. Others just want to get as much rest as possible.

Graveyard Shift
2200 – 0200

Waking up the boat feels a bit more active and the wind a bit louder. Up on deck the first winds of the new low mean the temperature has dropped. In these conditions we rotate the watch to keep a bare minimum on deck, rotating every half hour.

On Visit Seattle the bare minimum means three on deck: One helming, one standing by the helm, one in the pit. Stand by helm is there in case the helm gets into trouble, either washed off the helm by a wave or having trouble physically steering in heavy conditions. They are also there to keep an eye on the instruments and make sure the helm is not losing focus and adding miles to our journey by zigzagging us through the ocean. The man in the pit is there to get help from down below should the situation necessitate it.

An hour before the watch ends and the wind has shifted, making it hard to steer upwind enough to make our current waypoint. Pulling in the mainsheet would fix this but put too much pressure on the Yankee 1 headsail. The Watch Leader, some circumnavigators and myself discuss the change in conditions and consider our options. Drop Yankee 1 or put a reef in. We take it to Huw and he tells us to drop Yankee 1. No more half hours inside for anyone on the watch.

During the drop a sudden gust complicates matters, resulting in the entire Yankee

1 dropping down on top of me as I manage the drop from the pulpit. In the dark and the chaos the sails gets wrapped round the forestay, making the job of unhanking and removing the sail considerably harder. By the time this is all sorted we are 45 minutes into the next watch and very ready for our bunks.

Sunrise Shift
0200 – 0600

Late to bed after Yankee drop shenanigans. Somehow the action always happens on a watch change. Good because you get double the number of hands to help. Bad because you are losing precious off watch time. On the long day where there is only 8 hours off watch, which has to include eating and general faffing, as well as precious sleep, this is a big loss.

Morning Shift
0600 – 1200

Final shift on the long day. In the daylight it's not as cold as at night, but still too cold to force everyone up on deck. A similar rotation to night-time is put in place, this time 1 hour on, 1 hour off.

Afternoon Shift
1200 – 1800

The wind has picked up and it’s raining so there is no Happy Hour today. After a few foreshortened off watches my watch as a whole is quite tired so we take the opportunity to head to our bunks ASAP.

Halfway through the watch I half awaken to hear a kerfuffle on deck about crossing the International Date Line. Everyone on my watch has asked not to be woken for this. Part of me regrets this. The dateline is a big deal, marking our return to the western hemisphere and marking more than half way on both the circumnavigation and our crossing. With a storm coming, however, it's not quite worth losing sleep over. We toast the crossing at dinner.

Sunset Shift

Up after our 6 hours off. It's amazing how on a boat 4.5 hours sleep (it always takes over an hour to sort out getting kit on/off and eating, brushing teeth etc.) is enough to have you feeling fresh as a daisy. On land I would be exceptionally grumpy to have had only 4.5 hours sleep.

On deck it’s getting dark. The one disadvantage of the short day is that both shifts take place primarily in the dark. By the end of this shift the sun has long set and the deck is pitch black. Even seeing where the sky ends and the see begins is almost impossible. The only light is a small red glow, outlining the hatch down to the companionway, the white light from the galley hatch reflecting off the boom and the instruments.

On the helm we have two square Garmin screens which can be programmed to show a variety of information. One generally shows wind, the other course and speed. The third instrument is the magnetic compass, sitting on its gimbal. At night when there is nothing to be seen sensing the movement of the boat and staring at the compass is all the helmsman has to go on.

Graveyard Shift
2200 – 0200

Back to the bunk to sleep through the middle of the night.

Sunrise Shift
0200 – 0600

PSP Logistics has popped up on AIS (Automatic Identification System) so we have a target to aim at. This always helps with motivation and enthusiasm. We shake out the final reef and have a play with trim, trying to get that extra knot or two to pull ahead of our old rival.

There is still no sign off this dreaded storm. Rumour is that the secondary low we were expecting has gone off in a different direction, leaving us instead with 30 knots of breeze coming from behind us and some big waves to surf, an excellent combination for making good speeds.

Morning Shift
0600 – 1200

Final long sleep before the short day begins again. Last night the other watch baked bread so there is a gorgeous freshly baked loaf ready to eat when we come off shift. Luxury. That gets wolfed down quickly enough and it's into the bunk to make the most of the next 6 hours.

So that's it. 48 hours, one watch cycle, on Visit Seattle. Most of it was spent anticipating a storm that hasn't actually arrived. This is often the way at sea, planning is important but be prepared for everything to change. In these 48 hours we covered 498 nautical miles and 12 degrees of longitude. We normally aim for 200 nautical miles in a day so this is an above average run. Our final position after the 48 hours is 39 degrees, 53 minutes north. 174 degrees, 37 minutes west.

Seattle is 47 degrees north, 122 west so we have around another 8 degrees to travel north and 52 east, a little of 2000 nautical miles. See you soon Seattle!