I had signed on as crew aboard a yacht sailing down to the South Pacific from the Galapagos. A young woman also came aboard for the same leg and she and I were assigned watches together. She was a difficult shipmate, with a fickle personality that veered unpredictably from chatty and social to argumentative and sullen as suddenly as a summer squall.
One day, after we’d been underway for a couple of weeks, she had a particularly stormy fight with the first mate and spent the afternoon moping about in a near stupor, downcast and withdrawn. At dinner she poked glumly at her food, staring at the floor. Weeks at sea can strain even healthy minds and I began to worry that she was coming apart.
That night we had the midnight watch. The most important rule aboard the yacht was that a safety harness with a man-overboard alarm must be worn at all times during night watches. Under no circumstances was this harness to be taken off.
My sullen watchmate sat on the other side of the cockpit, head down, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees. The little alarm light on her harness winked steadily in the darkness. Despite my attempts at conversation, she said nothing; only the murmur of the wind, the low rumble of the bow wave, and the hissing sound of our wake broke the silence.
The night was lovely and warm, the Milky Way bright with stars overhead. I sat on the starboard side of the cockpit gazing over my shoulder at the Big Dipper as it sank below the northern horizon. Now and then I’d glance back to port, aware of the girl’s dark form sitting motionless across from me. I continued to study the northern sky, and when I turned back again I suddenly sensed something was wrong. I spun around, and there to my horror, lying on the cockpit seat, its alarm light blinking, was my watchmate’s empty harness.
The girl was gone!
I leapt to my feet, stunned. Fear shot through me like a lightning bolt. It took only a second to guess that in her black mood my watchmate had gone over the side, and the terrible shock of this thought nearly felled me. We were making eight knots wing-and-wing before a following sea, and the image of her head bobbing behind us in the vast, empty darkness almost brought me to my knees.
I staggered to the stern rail choking out her name, my heart bursting in my chest, with a taste like copper pennies in my mouth. Desperate, I dashed below, glanced wildly into the empty galley, frantically scanned the main saloon and was just about to sound the alarm when I yanked open the door to the head. There she sat, looking up at me with an expression of surprise and annoyance. I slammed the door and sank slowly to the cabin sole.
Some people never do get it.
“You worry too much,” she sniffed later. “You are like my muz-her.”
I resisted the urge to strangle her.
“It’s by worrying about each other that we all get safely to the other side,” I shot back. “You can never worry too much at sea.” I was still shaking.
The armchair sailor may think I overreacted, but I had only seconds to make an evaluation. Considering my watchmate’s state of mind, the inexplicable sight of her cast-off harness, and the difficulty of turning the boat back into tradewind seas, I had no time to mull things over—only a few moments to determine if she was still aboard. Should I have thrown a lifering to someone I wasn’t even sure was in the water? Headed up? Roused the crew? Hit the panic button? Who can say how one would react in this situation? I did the best I could. I think I made the right decisions.
My watchmate never understood what she’d put me through and signed off the boat soon after we made landfall. I’m left with memories that haunt me to this day. Sometimes even now, when I’m standing a long night watch, looking at the stars and remembering voyages past, I think of those terrible moments, of that empty harness, and I shudder.