Expedition – Sir Ernst


Wednesday 27th October 2021. Watches are at the heart of how life aboard is organised. On any sailing boat, regardless of the hour, a sailor will be on watch keeping an eye on the boat’s safety and progress. There are many combinations, but the principle remains the same. Only solo sailors allow themselves to deviate from this rule to grab some shut-eye, entrusting their boat to electronic instruments including alarms that are supposed to wake them in the event of an emergency. On Sir Ernst, the system is well tested, and for this transat we’ve adopted the two-hour watch. The five crew take it in turns, with eight-hour periods of rest following each two-hour watch. Between midday and 14:00, watches are neutralised to shift the two-hour slots on every 24 hours.  As a result, the “less appreciated” shifts only come round from one week to the next.




After ten days at sea and with a touch of fatigue raising its ugly head, I am set to be “relieved” at midnight. A good siesta in the afternoon has set me up to tackle this last watch of the day in good form, not having to battle a succession of yawns at a moment when we have to be vigilant and time sometimes drags. With advancing age, I appreciate less and less being on the bridge between midnight and 02:00 or from 02:00 to 04:00. A good night’s sleep is disrupted and my morale suffers!  But this evening, I am fully prepared. My earplugs are at hand, I have even changed my t-shirt so I fall asleep in cotton scented by the last wash. Especially as after dinner, and the first rough sea of the crossing, we had taken in a second reef. We will be a little under-canvassed but ready to withstand potentially strong gusts. The crew are experienced in rapidly rolling in the jib if necessary. Nothing should disturb my eight hours of sleep tonight. I  must have dropped off immediately.

But without any idea of how long I’d slept, loud voices and noise of the hydro-generator’s turbine in over-drive brought me out on deck. Outside, it’s busy, but the tone of the voices are significant. I jump as there are three of them, I wonder who is on watch to work out how long I’ve slept. Damnit, I’ve slept for just an hour.  François at the helm and has taken back control of the boat, the auto-pilot is disconnected. The helmsman is getting the full force of some beautiful waves and is beginning to get cold, the temperature has dropped by 10°C, although it’s still 19°C, but with winds topping 40 knots in the gusts and the downpours it feels “chilly”.





No need to panic, I quickly explain the procedure, we must turn the central navigation unit off, shut off the alarm. Everyone gets kitted up, we carry out a manoeuvre, the boat picks up speed again, we reconnect the auto-pilot. All is well, but we are surrounded by threatening black squalls which are soon on us. Same thing again, it goes well and after two hectic hours I return to my bunk. It’s 03:00 – the sails are flapping, I’m so used to Sir Ernst that I know it is flat calm. Outside, there’s half an hour of activity and the boat is on her way again. Too fast this time. Obviously, the jib needs to be taken in. I get up again. Dammit, the same ones as earlier, as if they’re doing it on purpose (the poor things). Half an hour later, all is good. Back to the bunk. It’s 05:00.

Usually, the guy on the watch that ends at 08:00 makes breakfast. I hear noises in the kitchen, and soon smell the coffee. I’m wondering do I have to get up already! The cafetière is beckoning me, I serve myself but nothing comes out – it’s empty! Sorry, Charley says, indicating that there is some ground coffee left and hot water. This should get me off to a good start. I need to be careful it doesn’t burn me as it usually does. I sip it, the coffee is lukewarm.  A little vexed, I plan to go back to bed. I look at the time – it’s 08:00.

Time for my watch.