I’ve had some correspondence recently from an old sailing buddy of mine, Patrick Childress, who got a bee in his bonnet a while back after he almost got run down by a freighter while cruising Indonesia with his wife Rebecca aboard their Valiant 40 Brick House. It was a pretty typical situation: an alert cruiser aboard a small sailboat has to take last-minute evasive action after a large commercial vessel on a collision course, apparently with no one on watch, fails to respond to repeated radio calls. In these days of AIS this happens less often than it used to, but in this case the perpetrator wasn’t broadcasting an AIS signal.
Patrick did what he had to do to save his boat, but in this case he also decided to document the event in detail and did the research necessary to file a report of the incident with the appropriate authorities and with the owner of the vessel. His article on the incident appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of Ocean Navigator, and he also published a fuller, more detailed account on his blog in a post he called Freighter Fright. I urge you to check out. It took some doing, but he did succeed in a filing a report, and though the local maritime authorities seemed to take no interest in it, he did receive a grateful acknowledgement from the ship’s owners. We can only hope they gave the skipper and crew of their ship a hard time about it.
If every bluewater sailor suffering through such an experience did the same thing, vessel crews might be take their watch-keeping responsibilities more seriously.
Patrick and Rebecca aboard Brick House
Coincidentally, while studying Patrick’s account I also came across a rather charming description of a similar sort of incident in Edward Allcard’s book Voyage Alone, which recounts his voyages across the Atlantic and down to Montevideo, Uruguay, in the late 1950s and early 1960s aboard his ketch Sea Wanderer. (You’ll recall that I recently visited Edward, now age 101, in Andorra.)
Edward’s account gives an idea of how these encounters played out in a much less technological age. He also offers some timeless wisdom on how best to regard the commercial vessels one meets while on a passage:
On approaching the New York-to-Cape of Good Hope shipping route, I sighted a black spot to the northeast, a funnel no less. Standing up on the doghouse to increase my range of visibility, I could make out the superstructure of a steamer heading southeast. But the next morning I was dashing for my signal flags on seeing a ship coming straight toward us from the south, her masts in line. The wind had fallen, but Sea Wanderer slid forward just enough to give us the benefit of her wash. There was no sign of life on her and I doubted if anyone had sighted me in spite of broad daylight, although overcast. African Crescent in large letters proclaimed her name. (Note: I was wrong to think I had not been sighted. By devious ways I eventually came into possession of a photostat copy of her log for this day. African Crescent was en route from Mossamedes to New York and was a ship of Farrell Lines. One entry of the forenoon watch states: “0840 Lat. 25°21’N Long. 49°23’W met ketch with letters Z.B.K.A. hoisted. Proceedingly E’ly under two jibs. Apparently all is well.” It is the first time I have seen my vessel’s rig correctly described. The master of this ship had served his time in square-rig and made several voyages around Cape Horn. It is a curious entry regarding the jibs, for I had the mainsail set. The ship was averaging 16¼ knots and one hour after passing me increased speed to 24 nozzles (!). In Sea Wanderer, not having any nozzles handy, I trimmed the mainsheet and made two knots.
But I was not yet finished with steamers. I had eaten a good lunch and was nodding over the helm as Sea Wanderer idled before a light wind from dead aft, mainsail broad off, when I became conscious of a thump, thump, thump almost like distant thunder except for its regularity. Giving a wide yawn, I blinked my eyes to give the seaman’s semi-automatic horizon sweep, and only on twisting around to cover the three hundred and sixtieth degree was I alerted wide-awake by seeing a small motor-ship about a mile away and, like the earlier one, coming straight for me. She was painted gray. Jets of fine spray rose up like a couple of fountains on each side of her flaring bow where Boka Kotor showed up in black. Pale blobs of faces and two figures on the bridge left me in no doubt that I had been sighted. Wallowing and heeling first one way, then the other, she foamed up on my port quarter where I had already hoisted my signal flags ZBKA and the code flags MIK (please report me to Lloyds, London).
As she drew level, a sunburned gentleman, wearing a blue and white check shirt, standing on the wing of the bridge, waved both hands above his head as if saying he had read my flags correctly (or so I hoped). Without altering course, she continued on her way in the direction of the Strait of Gibraltar. She’s a Greek, I thought (wrong again!), taking a picture as she forged ahead. Feeling satisfied that he had my message, I decided not to signal home again for another three weeks. Lloyd’s Intelligence Department had already been requested to pass on any message received regarding Sea Wanderer.
Edward Allcard aboard Sea Wanderer
It was odd that two ships within a few hours had run so close without altering course. Steamers are far more dangerous to small boats than gales, mostly, in my opinion, because of their masters’ extreme reluctance to order a change of course, even when the small vessel might be in danger. Maybe they think it makes the logbook messy. Several times on my ocean voyages I have had to take evasive action to avoid being sunk and presumably killed, when a small alteration of course by the ship for a few minutes would have carried her clear.
Rightly or wrongly, when ocean voyaging, I treat big ships with fear and suspicion, imagining their masters as fiends incarnate bent on bagging as many small vessels as possible! It is safer to think this way. When in port I often have the pleasure of meeting these captains, and I am surprised what a charming group of men they are. I am told they even have mothers, just like you or I.
A whole hour after Boka Kotor had gone on ahead I was again alerted by thump, thump, thump… She was coming back! What the…? I dragged out my flags, rehoisted them, and waited. The master took her in a complete circle clockwise before again approaching on my port quarter. A large crowd, including a man and a woman, who did not appear to be part of the crew, were on the bridge this time. After three shattering blasts on the siren off he went once more. Most odd. Months later my father sent me the message he had received from Lloyd’s. It turned out the captain had sent a radiotelegram via Portishead only after his second visit to me. The message read:
1900 GMT LAT 2535 NORTH LONG 4915 WEST SIGHTED SAILING BOAT WITH SIGNAL FLAGS ZBKA—MASTER
She was not Greek but a Yugoslav, and Kotor was not part of her name but the port of registry. A restless night ensured, with me bobbing up and down on the lookout for more ships. Three in twenty-four hours was a bit too much for my peace of mind, and Sea Wanderer was acting up to her reputation as a magnet. Innumerable times she has been struck by other yachts or fishing boats in port when no other vessel has been touched. Her hull shows as many scars as my poor body from knocks received during our respective lives, and our ages are not much different.
Watchkeeping is always critical. After days of seeing nothing something appears when the guard is down.
My favorite encounter is delivering a boat from Tortola to Marion. 3 AM. Nothing happening. Tropical squalls. A NOAA ship appears in the heavy squall on a reciprocal heading less than 500 yards ahead. Seeing both red and green it took at least 10 seconds to decide which way to alter course. The wind decided. Could have easily made for messy shorts…..
Crossing the Chesapeake Bay in the Greensleeves, a 28′ Bristol, a white-out suddenly struck. Immediately started up my handheld fog horn, but the rest of the Bay was silent. After about 20 minutes, we must have been belatedly spotted on radar, as massive horn sounded high above us to starboard, twice. And there she came! Out of the cloud–a huge container ship, maybe 100′ off our aft quarter. With prior warning, we could have fired the engine and gotten away. As it was, there was nothing to do but hang on for dear life–while blasting away on the fog horn. She could not have changed course, as she was restricted to the shipping channel, but she was giving no fog signals at all–just charging along toward Baltimore. Had we been 5 minutes slower . . . .