on the night watch

41 miles east of Cape Ann, MA

I’m on my first night watch. The only light around is the gentle glow of the instruments and my impossibly-bright computer screen (turned down all the way.) The stars are, of course, magnificent. Mars dominates the sky, a brazen red hussy amongst the scattering of lesser white dust. I watch the mast swing back and forth across the swath of the milky way until I get queasy. I learn that motion sickness hits harder when you’re tired and can’t see the waves that roll the ship from side to side.

The wind is from directly astern, as it usually is in this area when going from Massachusetts to Maine. (This why the old Boston sailing captains referred to Maine as ‘down east’.) We’re ghosting nicely wing-on-wing on 1-foot seas with a 10-15 knot southwesterly wind. We’re doing about 4.5 knots. I can hear the waves all around sloshing around the hull. Only the gentle roll of the boat tells me that we’re on calm seas.

The skipper (‘Dad’) woke me up from an uneasy sleep a half hour ago. Cookie (‘Aunt Paulette’) left a thermos of coffee and one of hot water in the galley sink. I made myself a cup of mango ceylon tea and went on watch.

Yesterday we motored the whole way from Cuttyhunk to Provincetown across a glassy sea. About 2:30 in the afternoon, we spotted a shark fin rising two feet from the water ahead of us. We rushed to the bow of the ship just as we passed a 20′ long basking shark. We circled it several times before continuing on our way. (The basking shark is a vegetarian. Like whales, it eats plankton.)

We motored into P’town at aroound 5pm, with the gay pride flag flying from the starboard spreader. After picking up a mooring, we called for the launch included in the mooring price. In a few minutes, a gay pirate in a small motorboat pulled alongside. “Welcome to Provincetown!” he yelled as we climbed aboard.

P’town is a fantastic place, in the literal sense. We arrived in the middle of Carnival Week, which seems to be a week-long drag party with cheap beads. Cookie and Shorty (my aunt and uncle) were both amused and a little unsure on how to react, but they seemed to have a good time.

Setting sail this morning, we rounded the tip of Cape Cod heading north. Motoring northeast (still no wind) we came across a cluster of a dozen boats, both large and small. When we got closer we went to sail, and slowly glided through a very large pod of Minsk (or Pilot) whales, breaching all around us. Cookie and I running back and forth, snapping picture after picture.

Suddenly we came across two much larger whales simply floating side-by-side on the surface. They were humpbacks, and as we passed one of them dived, it’s large tail slapping the surface a hundred feet from us. Cookie and I just stared with our mouths open, never thinking to take a picture.

We glided under sail around the whales for the next few hours. We finally did get some photos of the humpbacks diving, as well as dozens of shots of the smaller Minsk whales. My aunt and uncle said it was the best whale watch they’d ever experienced.

Somehow we picked up a few dozen biting flies while circling the whales. We spend the next few hours getting bit, cursing, and systematically hunting them down with a rolled up New York Times. We were still killing them two days later.

That evening we were eating a delicious lasagna that cookie has baked in the oven. The sea around was completely empty, so we were all below at the table. We’d opened a bottle of rosΓ© and everyone was feeling pretty relaxed when my dad suddenly choked on his dinner. He’d seen a shark fin swim right by the salon window. We all rushed above to watch the fin swimming off in the opposite direction of our travel.



Short for ‘nautical mile per hour’.
A semi=permanent anchor with a float attached. Ships can attach to these rather than dropping their own anchor. The process is much more convenient, and significantly more secure. Weighing a thousand pounds, moorings don’t tend to drag.
Nautical mile
A unit of length used in navigation; equivalent to the distance spanned by one second of arc in latitude; 1,852 meters or 6,082 feet; slightly longer than a statute mile.
A method of arranging the two sails on a sloop so that they extend to opposite sides of the mast. This is arguably the prettiest sail arrangement, but also the most efficient when sailing dead downwind, as both sails are exposed to the wind.

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