Close encounters of the scary
kind. I did not like this adventure at all... Why do these things always
happen in the middle of the night?
Ten days out from the Galapagos and my crew was into a
well-established routine. The skipper usually makes an appearance at
about 8am to relieve his mate, Judi, from the early morning watch; the
fishing line is put out and within an hour a tuna or dorado is hauled in,
which will be the day's lunch and dinner. Judi goes below and soon
the aroma of fresh bread is drifting out to the cockpit. In the
afternoon, the entertainment is the daily radio-check with my pal,
Solitaire, about 100 miles ahead of us. Books are read until
cocktail hour when the skipper doles out the small daily ration of rum or
wine while they watch the sunset. I was happily sailing along
downwind putting mile after mile under my keel as Bob and Judi had two
headsails set up on my twin headstays with the windward one held out by a
pole, while the mainsail was held down by a boomvang. Everything was
peaceful and serene on board with the smoke and charred starter earlier in
the trip almost forgotten. At night we could see the looms of large
fishing fleets sweeping the oceans clean of fish with their nets, but they
never seemed to be close enough to worry about. Funny, though, we
never saw the boats during the day.
Later that night, the skipper saw more looms, and they seemed to be
brighter so, he alerted Judi when she came on watch. The wind had
picked up and I was really enjoying sailing along at breakneck speed, when
the first mate decided they should reef the sails. Oh darn! - there
goes my fun, but I guess the comfort of my crew comes first. With
headsails poled out and the boom vanged down, we were still making good
speed. At about 4 am, Judi noticed the bright lights of a huge
trawler off to windward and decided to call them on the VHF radio.
She tried several times, but received no answer (those big fishing boats
think they rule the seas and can be a bit arrogant at times.) It was
very difficult to determine which direction the ship was heading, due to
all their bright lights and because they were moving so slowly. So,
even though we were trying to conserve battery power, Judi put all our
lights on and shone lights on the sails to make our presence known.
Still no answer from the ship and they continued on what now seemed a sure
collision course with us, so she put out a frantic call to rouse the
skipper. He also tried to call on the VHF, even in Spanish, to no
I was really worried now and was wondering when the hell they were
going to do something, anything as I could hear the engines of that
ship! They had a real dilemma facing them - if we headed-up, we
would be sailing behind the ship where they were dragging nets, and we
could not fall off, unless we jibed, as we where already sailing
dead-downwind. Besides, either option would be difficult and
time-consuming with all my sails held out. We would have
started the engine, if we could have, to boost our speed to get away from
this bully of the seas.
With the ship getting closer and closer, the skipper took a drastic
step; he shot a red flare across their bow.
Boy!- that got their
attention. That big bully altered course immediately and finally
called us on the radio, but our battery power was too low then to answer
and our handheld VHF batteries were flat. Without communication from
us, they thought that we were in trouble and we had no way to tell them
otherwise. They followed us for about 20 minutes before deciding
that we were OK and I was so relieved to finally get away from them.
Later, Bob made a comment that he should not have shot a red flare as
that indicates an emergency (well, I thought it was an emergency as I was
about to be run over); but that we did not have any white flares on aboard
- an oversight on their part and they are usually so good about equipping
me. The rest of the trip I was a bit nervous when we saw those looms
at night, but they gradually went away and we had the seas to ourselves
again - also, the fished returned.
- Insure batteries in handheld VHF radio are charged or that
you have a spare.
- Make your decision to alter course early on - don't leave it
to the last minute. (Initially, Judi thought that she could get
across the bow of the ship with no problem) We recognize that
the International Rules of the Road made us the give-way vessel since the
ship was engaged in fishing, BUT, we were not sure what kind of ship
it was until they were closer. If they had answered our call
early on, we would have known that and taken action right away.
We always ask ships what action they would like us to take first.
- Always carry a supply of white flares.
- Use radar (if you have one) to determine if you are on a
collision course with another ship. We did have a radar, but
were reluctant to use it as we did not want to totally deplete our
battery power, but we should have.
- Many times ships will not answer your VHF call. The
reasons are varied and probably include:
- The one person on board who speaks English is not on the bridge
- They are busy, perhaps with the nets.
- They don't want to be bothered.
[Read on for my next scary story]