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Posted Wed 4 September 2019

When first asked to keep watch at sea, I wondered what it was that I would watch. There was nothing but sea, nothing to see except sea. After a day or two of four hourly watches round the clock, I realised that there is just as much to see at sea as on land. It doesn’t all look the same, I just haven’t got my visual parameters yet, a bit like when I visited a bird sanctuary and the guy said he knew the swans individually. At a glance they all look identical, but slowly one learns to see the differences in the markings. So with the sea.

Once out of sight of land, the sea has myriad moods: glassy smooth or with cats paws of wind moving across the water, or occasional white horses, when the crest of a wave breaks as it moves. In French, these are moutons, the white water like woolly sheep. A smudge on the horizon is rain, to watch in case it is coming our way. A clear blue sky changes imperceptibly as cloud cover thickens.

Looking down at the water you may see a squid pulsing by, oblivious of the humans above it, ungainly even in its natural environment. Down south in subtropical waters, flying fish may make an appearance. So fleeting that you wonder if you’ve seen them until there they are again. With the Exocet missile named after them, their ability to glide above the water enables them to avoid predators. ‘Flying’ at heights of up to 6m above the water, at up to 70kmh, they may accidentally land on deck.

Stories of floating tree trunks and semi-submerged containers that could seriously dent a hull make keeping watch essential. That dot on the horizon will become a ship at close quarters sooner than you expect. The angle of the sun above the water, vital to sextant readings, shows time passing and a rainbow film bears testament to pollution, even out here.

Within a few days, one’s body clock has settled into the watch timetable. Awake immediately after four hours of sleep, at deck on night, when most crew are asleep, there’s a profound sense of one’s insignificance, afloat under an unbroken 360 degree sky.

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Catherine Cowen, Plastic Surgery Blogger