Offshore nights

The Pacific Ocean has an area greater than all the continents put together. This is the thought that comes to my mind as I careen down a particularly large set of angry waves and peer out towards the darkening windward horizon. I am apprehensively thinking of all the stormy nights to come, before I make it to the other side of the biggest ocean on our planet.

Words & photographs by Maddy Bolt

This thought lingers for a moment and quickly is pushed away as I watch our wind gauges climb higher and higher with each passing moment. I make a silent prayer to myself for them to stop and continue to ignore the growing swell behind me. It was my first shift on my first ever open ocean crossing. Not to mention, my first time sailing at night. There are no flight paths going above our course, no other boats in sight and we are in 4,000 metres of inky, black, deep, water.

The passage from the Galapagos to the Marquesas is a classic blue-water sailing passage, often one of the calmest and most pleasant cruising legs you can take as a sailor with fair winds, few squalls and minimal swell. However, in our case, due to El Nino, we were experiencing the predicable unpredictability that comes along with this oscillating weather system. This unpredictability is caused by warming sea surface temperatures, leading to higher rates of atmospheric vertical instability, convection and thus, storms like the ones we were experiencing on our first night of the passage.

I was hired onto a beautiful Lagoon 42 sailing yacht by a Finnish family, who needed an extra hand for the crossing. With two younger children, their time with the kids would be prioritised and I would take the night shift from 12pm until 4am for the duration of the crossing. While most people might dread this work schedule, I was excited for the hours of peace and solitude under the stars. You can imagine my rude awakening on our first night when we entered into never-ending squall systems.

Despite this stormy first night, we eventually cruised into calmer seas and most of the night watches beyond that were exactly how I imagined; peaceful, reflective and full of stars. I learnt about the constellations, ate way too much chocolate and had hours of time to ruminate on the pros and cons of night sailing without any contact with the outside world. Sailing at night gives you the ability to elucidate your thoughts, slow down (most of the time) and connect with the ocean in a more meaningful way than in the day. Here is what I learned.

Sailing at night is… easy? OK, don’t get me wrong, from the first paragraph of this article, you can tell that it is most definitely not always smooth sailing. However, for the most part, offshore night shifts can be a lot easier than their daytime counterparts. You can identify other boats a lot easier than in the day, because of their navigation lights. Furthermore, with fewer distractions, people running around and other tasks to be done, your sole focus can be on your course and sails.

The middle of the Pacific Ocean is a barren place. When I first signed up for this role, I imagined myself sailing under breaching whales and with huge pods of dolphins. In short, this was not what I actually experienced. Near land, there are many birds, dolphins and jumping rays. However, as you get offshore, the amount of life drastically diminishes to flying fish and the occasional mahi mahi. You’ll find yourself getting excited about seeing your first bird in five days.

Look up! The stars and constellations became my constant companions along my nighttime journeys. I found myself looking for my familiar friends at the beginning of my shifts and noting their changing courses as the night hours ticked away. I gained a newfound appreciation of the thousands of Polynesian voyagers who used these constellations as their sole navigational aids as they crossed this same ocean, thousands of years prior in a method known as wayfinding. While I had the ease of looking at my Navionics, paper charts and B&G plotter, I wondered how I would fair if I had to resort to astronavigation myself.

Many traditional sailing enthusiasts swear by their sextants, a complicated mechanical instrument that has been in use for hundreds of years. You can use this device to determine your latitude and longitude using the position of the sun, moon or stars. If you’re planning on doing an ocean crossing, it is essential you learn how to use one of these, in the chance your electronics do fail, and you have to return to these more traditional techniques. The Golden Globe Race is an example where said enthusiasts use solely the principles of astronavigation to pilot their passage.

The beauty of boredom. When was the last time you were bored? Truly and utterly bored, sitting with your thoughts for hours at a time (scrolling on Instagram doesn’t count). Before this passage, I  couldn’t remember the last time I allowed my inner dialogue to really take the reins, away from any external influences such as social media, friends, family, TV, advertisements, etc.

After three weeks of uninterrupted night shifts, I experienced unbelievable clarity during these periods of seemingly endless time. Furthermore, my creative spark was ignited and I often found myself songwriting, drawing and painting. I believe that if you can even fit in a half hour walk each day with no phone, no plan and no destination, you’ll notice a difference in the way you perceive your problems, your dreams and your life.

Look down! I had heard about bioluminescence in my lectures at university, where I studied tiny organisms under a microscope. I had been told these phytoplankton apparently gave off an eerie glow in the ocean at night. However, these lectures did not prepare me for the actual experience of looking down, and seeing the stars and galaxies mirrored in the inky depths below me as dinoflagellate zooplankton smouldered beneath our hull.

There was something so poetic about the fact that as I sliced my way between the ocean and the sky, moving towards the horizon, these two realms began to mirror one another as the stars twinkled and the dinoflagellates glimmered.

As I write this calmly sitting at anchor on the other side of the Pacific, I look back on that first night fondly. My trajectory of learning and growth during those squalls was exponential. The rest of the trip was by far more enjoyable, but the amount of growth was nothing compared to the steep learning curve I rode during those first few unpredictable and stormy nights. This growth gave me the confidence to finally start my dream project, my own sailing, surfing and sustainability programme for female youth all over the world, called OceanFolx.

I guess the most important lesson of all, is that throwing yourself into unexpected and challenging situations is where you learn the most. You never know what will be waiting for you on the horizon, even when it looks to be darkening.

There is always a calm not only before, but after the storm. As Mark Twain once said: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. ”

Learn more about Maddy’s OceanFolx sailing, surfing and sustainability programme for femme youth aged 12-17 here and follow them on Instagram for more updates.


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