October 4, 2011

When might isn't right

USS Wainwright
AUSTRALIANS cruising under sail have developed a well-earned reputation for contempt of authority. One lovely example I came across recently involved an Aussie yacht and an American warship.

Not many of us realize it, but American warships roam freely over all the oceans of the world, bossing other vessels around, including small sailboats.

I myself was highly indignant when, in a British-flagged 30-footer, I was stopped by a U.S. guided missile cruiser while I was minding my own business in international waters 200 miles off Puerto Rico, en route from the British Virgin Islands to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I was sailing with my wife and my 17-year-old son.

The 548-foot-long USS Wainwright came roaring down on us out of the path of the sun and scared the life out of us. They made us all line up in the cockpit and grilled us about who we were, where we were going, what passports we held, and a whole lot more. They had no good reason to stop us, and they had no right to ask those questions. We were angry and resentful, but we were so intimidated we didn’t even dare take a photograph of them.

But the Aussies, aboard the 45-foot steel ketch Hinewai[1] in their own waters, weren’t so easily intimidated. Here’s what they reported on a sailing bulletin board the other day:

“We were off the Queensland coast, just outside the exclusion zone for a joint Aussie/U.S. landing exercise — just around dinner time. The weather was pretty dull so we decided to heave to for the meal and watch the show by eye, night-vision glasses, and radar.

“All of a sudden, ‘American Warship 123’ challenged us on Channel 16 by name, warned that we were close to the exclusion zone and that the boat would be seized if we entered it — and asked our intentions.

“We thanked them for the call, explained we were half a mile from the exclusion zone, hove to, and were in fact slowly moving away from the zone.

“With respect to our intentions, we then advised that we were still considering what pudding to have, but that we would definitely be having coffee afterwards.

“They don’t have a great sense of humour.

“I must admit we were a little miffed that we, an Australian-flagged yacht in Australian waters, could be challenged by a U.S. warship.

“But the scariest thing was, they must have been close enough to read our name on the bow (in the dark), yet we never saw them — no lights, no radar return near-by and nothing through the night vision.”

Today’s Thought
He who is too powerful seeks power beyond his power.
— Seneca, Hippolytus

“Have your eyes ever been checked before?”
“No, doctor, they’ve always been brown.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Matt Marsh said...

Two thoughts on the technology:

Many U.S. warships now carry a sophisticated phased array radar whose price tag is probably in the eight figures. These things can spot an eight-inch-diameter missile head-on at a few dozen miles, and could probably give a 3D Doppler track of the flight path of a seagull on the horizon.

Many of these same warships are designed to absorb most radar, and to reflect what they don't absorb up and away from your antenna. They're painted to blend in with the twilight fog. They might run without lights of any kind. If they don't want you to see them, you won't.

And one thought on Aussies:

Yes, they do seem to be sticking up for themselves a bit more than we're used to. From what I've heard from folks down there, it's fairly common to have to fend off customs a few times on each coastal trip; Canada and the U.S. are far from the only places where privacy and freedom are being eroded in the name of security.

Roger John Jones said...


I enjoy your blog and most of the time I agree with you. In this case, however, I am not on your side.

As a retired US Navy officer I am all too aware of the other side of the story. I used to enjoy fleet maneuvers, after all we got to blow sh&* up. This, given the price of modern weapons, was, and most likely is a rare opportunity. Our biggest concern was that we would blow up something friendly. And more than once we had to postpone our exercise (and burn a lot of fuel) because a friendly vessel had strayed into our target zone.

With respect to being questioned while transiting from the BVI to Fort Lauderdale you failed to mention that you were in a prime drug smuggling route. I have my own opinions about the validity of the "war on drugs" which I will keep to myself, but note that the Wainwright was just doing what they had been tasked to do. Make no mistake, the CO didn't stop you because he was bored and had nothing else to do. He was acting on orders from higher authority and his actions are sanctioned by maritime law. Would I prefer that the USS Wainwright was off the coast of Sudan doing live fire weapons exercises against the pirates - you bet I would. But that is not the political will of the major maritime nations of the world.

Personally, as a single hander frequently offshore I share your concern that you could not see them and they could see you. (Were you running with AIS?) But from the perspective of a Naval Officer I would rather our ships were stealth than vulnerable to being blown out of the water.

That said your blog is a constant source of entertainment. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

John - perhaps you had a guilty conscience because of the Kruger rands hidden in the hold? hahaha

John Vigor said...

Anon: You didn't read my book properly. By the time the Wainwright came along, the Krugerrands had been converted to legal U.S. travelers' checks. No, we were scared because we were outgunned and until you've been halted at sea by a large foreign warship, you have no idea how menacing and intimidating it can be.

John V.

Gary said...

Just kidding! Loved your book and can imagine that it would be VERY intimidating.