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Sailing Senses Part 3 of 4: Fatigue

Posted by Tall Ships America on August 1, 2016

Playfair Photo by Lester Cohn lestercohn.com

Playfair Photo by Lester Cohn lestercohn.com

By Intern Ben

The call comes too soon. The last thing you remember is your head hitting the pillow. You cannot remember your eyes closing. A moment ago it was light. The summer sun on the Great Lakes seems to barely set before ten at night. Now, hours later it is pitch black. The portholes that have blinked out and glow a deeper dark than the berth around you. The opaque night reaches on through oblivion, and you float out of thought and time. Then you remember that someone just woke you for watch and you are pulled back to reality. The call came too soon. Too soon for your exhausted muscles and weary soul. But you are needed on deck and your bed will have to wait.

It was already Tuesday, but just barely, when the Toronto Brigantine Playfair reached the west side of Lake Michigan. The watch started at midnight and began like most others. The clumsy stumble through the hatch of the petty officer’s’ berth into the seamen’s’ mess and up the hatch to the deck.

The first impression was confusion. The night which usually is dark but for the stars and lights on shore is awash with light. A halo of red, green and white surrounded the ship. The colors cast the entire ship in an eerie glow that illuminated the water around us. Suddenly the boat was alone on this little island of light. For the first time it was truly apparent how small we were on the vastness of the lake. I then realized it was the fog. A heavy, encompassing fog that stretched for miles into the lake and back onto shore. The glow of the ship was our own lights reflecting off the fog and back at us. Then the horn sounded. While the small brigantine does not have an extraordinarily loud foghorn, the fog dampened its sound even further. Any sound is loud if the only thing you’ve heard for the past four hours is deafening silence.

At this point the sails had been doused for a long time. The fog brought an end to the wind long before I arrived on deck. The hum of the engine, far from keeping us awake, whirred on into the night, an almost hypnotic buzz. As we motored on through the wee hours of the morning, that one spot of light in the lake of black, the sleep never quite left us. There was little to do and less to talk about. And so we sat there in the dark as we motored closer and closer to shore, with naught to guide us but the shallow green luminescence of the GPS as it reflected off the face of the first mate as she  stared aft out of the pilot house.

That was when fatigue truly set in. The night was muggy but mild, and the fog was confining. The deck was a welcome clarity after the metal ovens of the ship’s berths, but still the heat lingered and the sleep with it. Some tried to drown it in coffee, others down a Redbull in the brief moments before the change of watch. Once on watch, the only thing to break up the monotony was the sounding of the horn every two minutes, and even that soon felt to lull us to sleep. Too well we knew that soon we would sleep again, only to wake from too little rest for another six hours to work through our fatigue.

I was lucky to get a turn at the helm within the hour. Soon enough we were approaching shore, through you would not know it from looking. Faint at first, then slowly growing, the lights at the mouth of the harbor whispered through the fog. The sailor knows how easily to find the gap as marked by lights to see us safe through the seawall.

The light we saw from far off, but with visibility restricted to a single boat length, we barely see the tower on one side and seawall on the other until they are right on top of us. The lighthouse is old, with white chipped paint and boarded windows, but its light still turns at its apex, lighting our way.

With the dark and mist, it is hard to know if it was the fog that clouds our vision, that made us slow and weary, or if it was the clouds of our own minds still lingering from forgotten sleep. Fatigue is always present. The best one can do is hope for those few moments of fun, laughter, wonder, or simple contentedness that make you forget for a few short seconds just how worn out you are.

Then we were through the seawall into the harbor and lost to the world again. Dark prevails. Then again out of the darkness — we saw the crane first, then slowly as we approach, the dredging barge looms down on us on port, anchored in the harbor’s center.

“Maybe steer a bit more to starboard…” There was no fear in the captain’s voice, nor apprehension. Only caution…

**Stifles a yawn**

…and fatigue.

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