Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Playing Chicken with a Massive Ship at Night

(a post by Matlow Toldmie)

Five of us were on a 35 foot sloop heading north through a shipping lane in the Chesapeake in the middle of the night --- winds 6-8 with a low ceiling and forecast for scattered rain, visibility perfect but quite dark, temp 65 to 70, waves less than one foot.

For most on board, it was the first full night sail, and needless to say, the dangers of the situation were not well known. The music was up, the beers were cracking at a relentless pace, and the mood was merry.

Looking behind us, a massive container ship was sliding past a half mile away. Ominous. Like a massive black wall with a house on top lit up for Christmas. Someone asked LB, the Captain, if a ship was supposed to be that close.

The beers kept flowing, and the mood stayed light, although the music was turned down and LB asked us to shut the fuck up and look around more often. We continued our leisurely tacks north.

About 30 minutes later, another ship was sighted quite far away, and this one also appeared like it would pass close. It kept getting bigger. We all kept staring at it, mumbling our opinions, sipping our brews and cursing. It kept getting bigger. At least 20 knots.

The multiple lights on its bow and bridge coupled with the pitch darkness were playing tricks with us: at first, the boat looked like it was heading toward our stern, then it would appear to be heading straight at our bow. But one thing was clear: it was getting larger, faster.

I've always read that big ships often don't even realize they run over little boats; little boats sometimes don't even know what hit them until the crew is looking up from the locker, and death is staring them in the face. A chilling thought.

One by one cigarettes were flicked away and beers were set down. More mumbling, but this time directed at the Captain. There were as many opinions as there were directions to turn. Suddenly our voices were louder and things started happening faster. The approaching ship was either going to be a major fucking disaster or a memory in less than five minutes, and we still had no idea which way it was headed or which way we should turn. The radio was off and silent, but the cockpit was a mess of confused banter and noise as panic was approaching at no less than 20 churning knots.

I wanted to do something but there was no order because there was no solution to what might not even be a problem! Then I heard it.

During a split second break in the cacophony of shouts, there was a noise: SSSSHHHHHHHHHHHH. The roiling sound of the oncoming bow wave.

I'm not sure anybody else heard it, but I could feel the dump of adrenaline hit my bloodstream. The ship was now on top of us. Looking up, the details of the bridge were suddenly clear.

Then the ship blasted its horn. A loud five second blast hit us over the water, just as LB whipped us into action. Yelling louder than the ship, the Captain blew his own set of pipes: "PREPARE TO TACK!" I turned and manned the closest winch. "HARD A LEE!" I started grinding the shit out of that winch. I was a machine. Correction. I was part of a machine. A machine that involved a barking Captain, a spinning helm, a released foresail sheet, a new leeward foresail line being sheeted in, a mainsail sheet being unchoked (we had no traveler) and a leeward mainsail sheet being sheeted in.

The ship gave us two more blasts as we found our course. Before we even let go of the lines and winch handles, we were looking at the name on her ass, safely chugging past us. Now she's a memory and none of us to this day can remember her name.

Our little party boat went from a stupid group of half-drunk slack jaws to a well oiled racing machine in the space of one hornblast. Adrenaline.

Thank God we had LB to gather up his nads and get us off our collective ass or all of us would have been chumming the bay that night. He was toasted well and often the rest of the trip.

If anyone reading this still doubts whether a boat needs a Captain and an obedient crew, they are idiots. And if they happen to be on crew with me, toothless as well.
"Mathew" You are a great writer! Good post. Only I wish I was there to experieence it! :-)
Good story Matlow...

btw, if you want your Jack back, let me know.
I'm glad everyone's safe, but I think the crew might want to ask a few questions about this reckless Captain Ahab who first almost gets gunned down by the US Navy then decides to take on a commercial transport ship.
Aim for the ass of those big boats - that way technically you should never end up having to scramble the crew. If I ever get to sail with you, I'm not sure whether to bring a Kevlar vest or a life vest - maybe one of each!
Brilliant. Another "Captain" that has no clue what direction a ship is going. They have nav. lights just like you. And you have the nerve to dis stinkpoters!
I'm not sure the real point of this story other than that none of you - even your gonaded captain - should venture beyond plastic boats in the bathtub. Learn a few rules of the road and how to identify ships beyond their darkened silhouettes. I'd hate to agree with a stinkpotter, but...
To the above two comments:

Have either of you done much --- or any --- night sailing in a shipping lane? I mean that as a serious question, not just a snarky response to your snarky comments.

When it's pitch black, it's not as simple as "red, port, green, starboard" (Duh). The angle the ship is heading is often very unclear when it looks like a big Christmas tree bearing down: the red and greens are obvious, but they're combined with an assortment of other lights which distort its direction and course.

I have no problem with people questioning my sailing ability. I've learned how to sail by many experiences like the one in this post. I was never raised around sailors/sailing, and learned 100% on my own through trail and error (mostly error).

Please do share your stories. I'm dying to hear.
sorry to hear this tale of total unpreparadness. the fact that there was booze on the boat bespeaks for the quality of the captain and crew. i would never venture offshore with anyone who couldn't wait until docking to have a cold one.
frankly, my sympathy factor left upon hearing about the drinking and if this little boat had 'dissappeared', i wouldn't shed too many tears.
Hey teetotaler:

Ever heard or Robin Knox-Johnston or Sir Francis Chichester?

According to your statement, you'd never venture offshore with some of history's greatest sailors.
I have done my share of night sailing in shipping lanes, and fortunately avoided any close calls like this one. A few rules apply:
-a glass of wine or beer with dinner is fine, but no one should "drink and drive". The captain and at least one resonsible crew member should stay sober.
-If you can't recognize shapes and light patterns at night, carry a laminated guide. They are sold at boating stores.
-Radar helps--use it!
-Stay away from shipping lanes. They are clearly marked on the charts. If you must cross one, do it a perpendicular angle. Sail in the areas outside the shipping lanes.
-Those big boats are FAST. Never assume you can cross in front of one and beat it.
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