May 1, 2014

How to miss the other guy

ONE OF THE THINGS you learn fairly quickly at sea is never to assume that an oncoming ship is going to miss you. At first sight, it might appear that there will be no problem about a collision, but other vessels often make seemingly random changes of course for reasons known only to them or their autopilots.

It’s important to keep an eye on them until they’re safely out of sight, and even more so at night, when they are even less likely to spot you among the big ocean swells. There are many recorded instances of big ships coming well within striking distance of small sailboats in mid-ocean  during the day, but at night the chances are even greater.

I was once sailing through the Bahamas at night, en route to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when I noticed a vessel gradually creeping up on us from astern. From her lights, I took her to be a tug, so I called on the VHF radio. I learned two things. She was indeed a tug, and no they hadn’t seen me. Still couldn’t see me, either on radar or by eye, although my stern light was shining brightly. She was about 400 yards astern when she veered off to one side and slid past us with a large barge in tow.

A question always arises in cases like this: How do you attract on VHF the attention of the specific ship that’s worrying you? It’s pointless calling: “Vessel overtaking me, this is the sailboat Moonbeam. Do you read?”

What you need to convey is a distance, a direction, and, if possible, a description of the other vessel. So you say: “Aircraft carrier about two miles northeast of me on my starboard bow, this is the sailboat  Fancypants . . .”

Now they know they should look southwest and set their radar range for two miles if they haven’t seen you already.

You can also call “Deepsea vessel,” or “Blue-hulled seagoing freighter,” or “Large container ship” — whatever might alert  them to the fact that you’re addressing them.  And always on Channel 16, of course.

If you have AIS or a DCS-equipped radio, you might even learn the other vessel’s actual name and other important information, but don’t count on it. David Burch,  director of the Starpath School of Navigation in Seattle, once wrote, in a booklet on Practical Navigation for the magazine Cruising World:

“On one occasion, in mid-ocean on a clear sunny day, flying a brightly colored spinnaker and blooper, we had to drop the blooper and alter course to avoid a ship that did not respond to the radio or alter course or speed in the slightest. It was a totally unmarked rust bucket some 300 feet long, without a soul in sight anywhere, and it still passed close enough for us to have recognized  faces on board, had there been any.”

It’s at times like this that you wish you had a couple of thunderflashes to lob on board the other vessel as she comes past. I know it’s naughty, but it would be quite justifiable in my view —and very satisfying.

Today’s Thought
He is safe from danger who is on guard even when safe.
— Publilius Syrus, Sententiae

A limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean,
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

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

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