Lessons learned at night, 'Schooner Weather' today

Position: 39° 34’ N, 072° 11’ W

Mia has informed me that the last article I wrote about our little run-in with the Navy ship was shared something like 22 times on my Facebook page. Apparently it struck a cord with some people, so that's cool. Given that, and having had time to think about what happened some more, I thought I'd type a little followup.

As I write it's real 'schooner weather' outside today, blowing 25 from the south, grey all around and a steady rain falling on Blue Heron's salt-caked deck. We've got full sail flying. Never waste a fair wind. Blue is romping along at 8-9 knots in a fairly calm sea, with a hint of a southerly swell creeping up as the wind has time to start building a sea. I'm enjoying my morning coffee at the nav table, though actually looking forward to donning my new foulies and getting out in some real sailors' weather in the cockpit. No sunburn today.

It' a sharp juxtaposition to yesterday's flat-calm, clear-skies motorboating day. It lasted through last night as well, the sea so smooth that the stars were reflecting off the water all around us. There is still no moon out, which makes for very dark nights. While the sky was clear above us last night, there was some haze on the horizon. With the dead calm and reflecting stars, it was impossible to distinguish up from down. You had to just stare off into the ether and wonder where the ocean ended and the sky began. Sometimes though it doesn't matter, and you're reminded why it is you love coming out here so much.

As for the other night, I hope my last post ended on a positive note. I got an email from my dad after he'd read it:

"Good morning Blue Heron. Scary story, a good lesson for you and all who travel the sea. We all have made errors, especially at night. Don't be too hard on yourselves, but learn from this and share your story to remind all of us that it can happen. Glad you are all well. Enjoy the rest of your voyage!

It was an appropriate response, and I felt nice about receiving it. He's right - stuff does happen to all of us, and especially at night. You have to find joy in all situations, and be thankful for the lessons learned. I still wish Doug had simply woken me up - we could have talked through the scenario instead of having a dramatic near-miss, but what's done is done.

Last night we had another crossing situation, this time one much more under control. I was on watch and decided to wake Doug up for another 'simulation', this time in controlled circumstances. I covered up the AIS and asked him to come on deck and just have a look around and tell me what he saw.

We had a ship off to port, the lights just barely visible over the horizon about 35 degrees off the port bow. We could see two white lights - a low bow steaming light, and a high stern steaming light, indicating the ship was more than 150' long. We could also discern his green sidelight under the aft steaming light, all indications that he was moving SE, and across our bow. I taught Doug how to take a simple bearing on the lights using a shroud on the boat as a reference point to see if we were in another CBDR situation. It was hard to tell at first - the ship was still pretty far off - but as we closed, it was pretty obvious that he was moving across our bow, slowly but surely, and if we both held course and speed, would safely pass in front of us.

I explained to Doug that in this case we were in fact the stand-on vessel. We were under power at the time, as was the other ship, and he was crossing from our left to right. We saw a green running light, and green usually means 'go.' At that point, we were obligated to hold course and speed - any deviation from that, and the other ship may have questioned whether or not we actually knew the rules.

However, the rules of the road only apply when there's a risk of collision. Meaning that the ship only needed to alter course to go behind us if in fact he risked hitting us if he remained on his course and speed. Since he was slowly moving across our bow relative to us, there was in fact no danger, so he needn't give way at all, as there was in fact nothing to give way to. That's an important distinction.

After I was satisfied that Doug had figured this all out visually, we uncovered the AIS and used the electronics as an additional 'confirmation' tool, which is what it should be (and not a primary tool - you still have to stand watch!). Sure enough, it was a commercial ship, and it was on AIS. When we clicked his icon, the only two numbers I'm really concerned with are the 'CPA' and 'TCPA' - Closest Point of Approach, and Time to Closest Point of Approach. AIS indicated he was still 6 miles away from us, and if we each continued on the same course and speed, would only ever get to within 3.5 miles, and after he'd already crossed our bow. So, that confirmed our visual analysis, and we ended up not having to do a darn thing to the helm or the throttle.

Commercial ships will usually have yachts targeted on their radar and often will cross much closer to you than you might think comfortable. If they don't have to alter course, they won't - the captain probably isn't awake, and they're on a commercial schedule, so crossing a half-mile in front of your bow is well within their safety margins.

But it might not be for you. Figure out what those margins are - maybe a quarter-mile on inland waterways, but offshore, maybe a mile is close enough. Even if you're the stand-on vessel, you can always safely alter course towards the crossing ship's stern if you're not comfortable he'll pass far enough away. However, in doing so, make dramatic course changes - turn 90 degrees to his stern and show him a different side light so that he knows without a doubt what your intentions are. A slight adjustment may have him wondering if you in fact know what you're doing!

Doug's mistake the other night was altering in the wrong direction (that is of course after his first mistake of thinking the ship was a stationary platform!). Had we simply altered towards the stern of that ship rather than the bow, we'd never have come anywhere near it.

I'm still confused as to what that ship was doing though. No AIS, and never a horn signal or a spotlight on us or anything. They HAD to know we were there, especially if it was in fact Navy, and I can't believe we didn't hear or see a peep from them, especially after such a close call. So I suspect there was indeed something weird going on that night. Maybe they were intentionally closing us to come have a closer look? It was indeed strange.

Anyway, situations like last night are how you'd ideally handle crossing situations, and I'm happy that Doug had a chance to experience one and gain some confidence back in his nighttime watch-keeping skills. That is after all why I'm here.

Under 100 miles to go now back to New York harbor! Until next time...(though this may in fact be the last blog post of this passage!)