Sounds of a night watch

The plash and splash and roar of the water is everywhere: from whispers to chitchat to full rage, the surf breaking on the hull and across the waves. No rhythm, a broken step, swell after swell of broken, humpbacked walls of water. From the bows, a little distance, but on the main deck the noise is up close, maybe above you, or racing, whistling, across the deck’s wood and hissing in the scuppers.  Chattering, booming, splashing and banging against my ears, just the other side of the steel from where I lie rocking in my bunk.

The creak of rope in wooden blocks, the odd squawk or squeak, not unlike the sound of a lone penguin, tentatively testing the air to find a chorus. Awk, awk, says the block, until the wind catches it away into silence. Soft booms from the sails in a lesser breeze, as they flip and flop and gently fill. Boom in a whisper, a pillow noise overhead.

At the helm, as Europa dips, she gives a growly whisper, another boom, a long sound, almost a moan or a sigh. Down, doon, doom, whoosh. Her bow lifts and the whisper hushes as she sways upwards on the next swell. Here in the southern ocean, actual bird voices are rare, and even human voices are quiet in the night hours. my companion speaks but his voice is muffled by scarves, and my own ears covered against the frigid air so he must come close, wool pushed aside by wet gloves, for any sound to be heard. The radio might crackle as the bridge checks the bow watch are alert, or confirms a course change, a voice from the world of muted lights and occasional beeps, miles rather than meters from the symphony of creaks and bangs of the deck.

At times the breeze freshens and my hood crackles, refusing to stay where it should to shelter ears and cheeks from frigid drizzle. It flaps, brisk and artificial, as strange as the sound of heels on pavement in our wood and water world. The wind change brings ten or fifteen people  on deck, quiet and calm even as the voyage crew fumble at which rope to pull. Two or three brave the climb aloft, vanishing silently upwards. Boots sound heavy on the side decks and ropes flop from the pins, pulled straight for the ‘two, six, heave.’ Grunts sound until the line is taut and ‘make fast’ comes the gentle command. The yards have moved a few meters, the sails trimmed. At the wheel the steering chains clink and the helm watch puffs to pull the rudder to a new balance. ‘055’ confirms the voice of the bridge.

The sail hands retreat to the deck-house, the open door wafting a moment of clinking mugs, maybe even a bar of tonight’s sound track. The deck returns to the sounds of water, sail, rope and wood. New shapes emerge from the dark and a voice says ‘our turn’. You sigh to the indifferent wind and head for the tea urn.

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