JWO, J-What?

In August, I wouldn’t have said I knew how to sail. I had sailed. On small boats on lakes in Minnesota. And I knew enough to duck under the boom when you tack and to take slack our or put it into a line when I was asked. But for the most part, I was just a passenger who participated when called upon.

The beginning of our time on the ship was incredibly overwhelming. There was so much to learn, but not learn so much as become so completely familiar with you no longer think about it. The location of all the lines on the ship. What to do and where to go when a mate gives an order. How to make a line fast. How to do any of the myriad of science deployments. How to log weather and determine the true wind. How to steer. How to eat on gimbaled tables and how to move when everything refuses to stay still. How to sleep when the seas clamor against the hull.

img_4819Even after two weeks, I doubted that I’d ever get the hand of life on the ship. I remember sitting on the lab house top with my watch, talking about the previous week. I remember looking at our watch officers and saying, “Honestly? You keep talking about how in a few weeks you’re going to give us more and more responsibility and right now that seems ridiculous. I have no idea what’s happening. Ever. But. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll all be different, or I’ll be more confident when that point arrives.”

The middle of our journey saw us students shadowing our watch officers for some time. This was phase two. Each student got the chance to see and hear first hand everything a mate does or thinks through throughout a watch. They learn about keeping the log, details of sail handling and points of sail. So by the time we left Suva, everything made just a bit more sense. And collectively, as a group, we pretty much understood what was going on throughout the six hours of watch. Just in time for the third phase of the voyage to start: The Junior Watch Officer phase or, as we call it, JWO (pronounced JAY-wo).

This was where each student would be assigned a watch where they’d be the JWO or corresponding JLO in the lab. Kind of like hitching a ride on our watch officer’s mate’s license, the JWO would be responsible for running the deck. They would ensure boat checks happen, time and call sail handling for science, and report to the captain, among other things.


My JWO shift was an evening watch. Science was going to do a Nueston tow at 2330. The wind was out of the north for the most part. And we were sailing under the stays’ls and the tops’l. At first, watch was calm, totally under control despite my nerves. And then our captain strolled into the doghouse and informed me that I’d won the JWO Lottery.

We were going to set the rafee, a rare enough thing to do and even more special to do while JWO. The rafee is a triangular sail that lives at the very top of the fore mast. It’s a fun sail to set—we call it the party hat and with the right wind it helps us go real fast.

Only moments after setting the rafee, rumors started circling in a way that can only happen on a boat (lightning fast and no one knows who started them or how) that maybe the wind was such that we’d set the course eventually. (The course being a square sail that lives at the bottom of the foremast.) When asked about it, the captina just spread out his arms, shrugging. A non answer if I’ve ever seen one.

Sure enough, later in the watch, he came back into the doghouse with the new that we indeed were going to set the course—a sail that none of the students had even seen set yet.

So the night dissolved into some chaos of setting and striking sail. We set the course (which requires striking the forestays’l) just in time to have to stike the rafee, the course AND the tops’l for science. And then setting the forestays’l again to keep us moving. Our nueston tow requires that we move at about 2 knots. With all those sails we had been making about 7 knots. And once the Nueston tow was out of the water, off we went again to set the course and the tops’l again.

A night of setting and striking sail—new ones and familiar ones. I called the sails I knew, the tops’l and the stays’ls. Our watch officer called the setting of the course—not just because it was a new sail to us, but because it was a pretty complicated operation.

Even so, I was surprised by how much I knew and how much I could rely on the rest of my watch to have my back during my time as JWO. After all, if I didn’t know something they probably did know it. The JWO phase threw us into something we doubted we were prepared for, and then we ran with it, doing the best we could and learning each step of the way.

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