Sunday evening, at eight o’clock when I went to bed, I was tired. I remember asking my wife, “You think you could get up right now and stand watch if we were still on the Ocean?” “No way,” was her answer. I was surprised myself by realizing that I was questioning my own ability at that moment too. I was tired. Sleepy tired, physically tired, and a bit emotionally tired as well. The sad thing is that we had only been on the ocean for one night that weekend during a practice run to the Farallone Islands. Going to Hawaii would be 14 days. Mastering fatigue of the boat and the crew is what long distance sailing is all about. Even though this weekend was just a practice run on a friend’s boat, I still learned a valuable lesson to use later when Jatta and I are cruising by ourselves. I had begun to think about fatigue in two ways; avoidance and preparation.
The most important concept is to avoid fatigue. This means getting plenty of sleep while off watch, staying warm while on watch, exerting ourselves to the minimal amount possible while still achieving the desired action (sailing efficiently to Hawaii), eating well, avoiding seasickness, and keeping our stress level as low as possible. Every member of the crew needs to be minimizing these drains on our precious reserve of human energy at all times. For the boat, it means keeping the rig and other systems tuned, avoiding situations where the boat is overpowered for prolonged periods of time, and avoiding rough weather and big seas.
Our weekend on the Ocean was a success and a failure. It was a success in that we set the goal of sailing from the bay into the ocean with no engine and that we wanted to spend a night at sea together as a crew of our friend’s boat “Morning Star.” We accomplished both of these goals and returned safely. We also enjoyed a wonderful evening at Angel Island, swinging on a mooring ball – so we even had a little fun. It was a failure because both the Morning Star and the crew returned at a level of fatigue that would have prevented us from sailing onward. If this had been the real trip to Hawaii or someplace else far offshore, we would have failed within 24 hours. Not good.
Fatigue affects more than just the flesh and bone of the crew. If things aren’t operating smoothly in the hardware of the boat than problems will develop there as well. We already have a long list of things to fix, but now the list is longer. I was expecting more of the fatigue and failures to occur in the rigging, but for this weekend our problems were brewing elsewhere. Just offshore, the Captain of the Morning Star, Dan Dow, decided to fire up the autopilot to see if it would work. No dice. The unit wouldn’t turn on. As we sailed further and further from the gate, the wind began to die and we had a decision to make; head in or motor further out to where it would be safe to spend the night. We opted to motor out. In the first hour of motoring, we noticed a vibration in the engine. This introduced doubt as to the soundness of the “Iron Wind” we were generating, AKA the engine. Another decision, stay out with no wind and possibly no engine inside the shipping channels, or head in and arrive at the Golden Gate past midnight? With a questionable engine? Dan opted to stay out for safety reasons.
During the night, the fog set blanketed us and the large ships nearby. Sometimes, the first sign of them would be the deep rumble of their engines. If they got close enough, I could see the yellow glow of their lights passing by like a distant city. One ship did not appear on the radar until it was almost half a mile from us. Way to close. In the morning, we started motoring back towards the gate. By noon, we were passing underneath and once we got back into the bay, the fog cleared and our spirits lifted. But deep in the bilge, fatigue had been working silently on the drive shaft and without warning, there was a loud bang. All four bolts that hold the shaft to the engine had severed leaving us without power. Luckily it was a nice day, we had plenty of wind to sail and vessel assist helped us back into the Marina. This time, fatigue had won the day. What underlying stress had caused this problem to result in a failure? Why hadn’t we noticed?
The other way to think about fatigue is in terms of preparation. Dan has been working hard to get the boat into shape. The job we’re on at the moment is replacing all the rigging. We know it will experience a lot of fatigue, so better start with fresh wire. The list is long. We’re taking spare parts, tools, and everything we might need to fix something. The good news is that we should have a pretty good idea if the boat is prepared on race day or not. But what about the crew? I know that being in shape will help me deal with the fatigue I can’t avoid. Jatta and I are pushing ourselves to run stairs, go to the gym, and jog longer distances in an effort to be in the best possible shape. But how do we prepare for the lack of sleep, the constant stress, and cold night watches? Our next great challenge is to start to work together as a team. We would be wise to spend two nights at sea on our next training trip. This would force us to begin to ration our energy, it would force us use our time off watch to sleep, and it will encourage us to eat well and dress right. This preparation is how we to learn how to avoid fatigue on the actual trip. It is critical.
While we were out on the ocean this weekend, we weren’t doing these things. Three of the four crew were seasick. None of us got any sleep. I for one was cold on my watches. We definitely had not “settled into the routine.” So, overall, the weekend was a success and a failure. But more than that, it was a lesson in fatigue. A lesson, a warning, and a challenge. We now know what we have to master to make a long distance trip a reality.