We Interrupt This Magical Program of Starry Skies and Dolphin Blessings for an Unchoreographed & Terrifying Dance In The Night With Cargo Ships & US Navy War Ships. This Is Tiny Little Sailing Vessel Seahorse and her people- husband, wife & two dogs. Do You Copy?
We had settled into our 2nd night perfectly, we decided to take the same shifts as we did the night before. Travis went down to bed without hesitation this time. The first night I had to keep telling him to go to bed the first hour of his watch as he kept scurrying around looking at the chart and calling Dave on the radio. We were traveling with good friends & buddy boat, Bel Canto. I was excited the evening was here. It is a beautiful time to sail and I so enjoyed the night before; however, the perfect night soon took on a terrifying life of it’s own.
We were nearing the Florida coastline near Jacksonville and it was getting very trafficky on the AIS screen. For those who are not boaters, this a program that works with our chart plotter. In very basic terms, those who have AIS and have it activated will show up on each others chart plotters, giving information such as distance, vessel info, and continued gps tracking in order to avoid a collision. It’s a great tool , but you have to remember that not every vessel has it or may not be using it, so you still have to keep a careful watch. Big ships at night do not look like much at all, a few specks of light here and there among the darkness.
The chart plotter lit up like a christmas tree with mammoth ships all around us, ships the size of a few football fields… cargo ships, cruise ships and warships!
The AIS is great in most ways because it lets you know the position of the boats around you, who they are and what they are. Some of the info is a bit startling. But it’s nice that this info is all here.
I think we come up as: Seahorse, Tiny Little Speck of a Sailboat, Please Don’t Run Us Over!
The AIS began sounding its alarm CEASELESSLY alerting us that we were on a collision course with a 751 ft cargo ship named Hoegh London. They were over 30 miles away. This happens often; I decided to keep an eye on it and see if they would adjust their course as they got a bit closer as we were about an hour out from our pending collision according to the AIS. Generally our experience has been that they will adjust course slightly or they will call on the radio and work out a course adjustment.
I think I see the ship’s lights in the distance, but I soon realize the lights I see can’t be the Cargo Ship as I look at our Buddy Boat, Bel Canto, that is 6 miles away from us and compare their lights. I know that this boat looks too close for being 30 miles away. I realize it is a boat not on the chart plotter. Many boats have AIS, but some do not. It is not mandatory. I see a small white light in the distance, I realize that light is the cargo ships location… so what is this other thing?! …And it is getting closer. There are many more ships on the screen as well, but none that are showing us on a collision course or passing dangerously close… Yet. Ug… what if we move to avoid this ship and line up with that ship?! The thing about boats is… There’s No Brakes! and the thing about the ocean is… There are no designated lanes!
The beautiful evening was escaping.
Travis was sleeping and I couldn’t make any small adjustments with the way we were sailing so close on the wind. It seemed if I altered the boat in one direction, It wouldn’t solve our collision course, it would just put us colliding with its bow instead of the stern unless I completely just took us off course and in the wrong direction of which we needed to go. I couldn’t move in the other direction without jibing the sails, and by myself. Jibing seemed like our only option if the ship couldn’t or wouldn’t adjust its course with us, but it wasn’t a great option. Knowing I needed to get Travis up, I called the ship on the radio to communicate with the captain and see what he wanted to do about our impending doom. We were as close as we needed to be without a plan and he hadn’t called us.
Ah times like this, a power boat would be more convenient. Just turn the boat a little this way then that way… but with three wings catching the wind it is a bit more complex. Of course these huge ships do not maneuver well either.
Hoegh London. Hoegh London, Seahorse. Usually you get an answer right away. I wait a minute. No response. Hoegh London. Hoegh London this is Sailing Vessel Seahorse, do you copy? Nothing. Hmmmm this is unusual. We are 20 minutes from collision and they are not answering and according to AIS have made no course adjustments. Surely they are looking at the same screen I am and know exactly who is calling. I call again. Silence.
Now we are getting closer to the other lights I saw that were not marked on the AIS and I can make out the boat clearly. The white light that looked so small is many white flood lights. The boat is lit up like the sun. I can see it is a fishing boat drifting. The cargo ship continues to not answer. Ok I have to wake up Travis because obviously we have to adjust our course. But who doesn’t answer? Especially a large commercial ship. I duck below and explain to Travis what is happening. I feel like time is spinning away fast now. He groggily comes up and we continue to try to call. No answer. We are talking with other people on the radio so we know we’re coming in clear. Travis is afraid we may both adjust and to the same course so he wants to talk to the captain before we make any adjustments. I mean obviously they are looking at the chart plotter and AIS info right?! …I don’t know; they do not seem to be near the radio.
We are down to precious time, it was ticking away at the same pace it had been, but it feels fast now. Frantically Fast. We now have more of a visual on them. The AIS says that we are 2 miles out and 8 minutes from collision. It seemed like The few small lights that we saw in the darkness were now attached to the outline of a mammoth ship. We already knew this by the AIS info, but to see it was terrifying. Because of the dark and its size, it looked like a stones throw away… and really any wrong maneuver or no maneuver and it would be. We could see the whole length, width and height of this dark beast. I realize now that anytime I used the word terrifying in the past, it was an overuse of the word. This ship WAS TERRIFYING. IT WAS MONSTROUS.
Our AIS alarm beeped continually and the screen lit up with a drawing of Hoegh London in red and our boat in Red, both half sunk, with a red line connecting us where we were going to collide. I had flashes in my mind of it just running over Seahorse like we weren’t even there. Like a car running over a paper cup in the road.
We could not get anyone to answer us on the ship. We had to adjust course without talking to them, hoping they would not also alter course and we would end up in the same or worse position with less time between us.
We adjusted all of the sails and turned on the engine for some quick maneuvering. We didn’t want to be any closer to this beast and didn’t want to have to rely on the wind at a moment like this. During the process, I hear a big thud on the deck. What was that!? It was a great big fish. Just came flying out of the water and landed on the deck. We soon got ourselves clear. While we were doing this, we shined spotlights at the boat hoping to be seen, but never once did anyone communicate with us. It was a zombie ship. We watched as the Giant Tyrant carried off into the night, on its way to Africa as if it never knew we were there. I felt very very small and insignificant.
All of a sudden we are hailed on the radio. We think, “Wow finally they hail us” but after we are looking at their stern. Nice. But we soon realize that it is not Hoegh London, The Cargo Ship, hailing us. They identify themselves as a US Navy War Ship. They are telling us that we are within 5 miles of them and we need to maintain our current heading in order to keep out of their zone. Our nerves are already raw at this point. The War ship is not showing up on our AIS so we have no idea where they are, we do not see any lights nearby. Confused and Jittery, we begin to think that The Cargo Ship must actually be a Warship, but it clearly says Hoegh London Cargo Ship on the AIS. We wonder if they are running under some fictitious name… but it didn’t look like a war ship. I remember when I first saw the Cargo Ship on the AIS when they were 30 miles out, there was another vessel on the AIS close to Hoegh London that said Unknown Vessel with Limited Manuevarability and then the signal was lost and the ship never showed up again. I thought they must have moved in another direction far enough to fall off of our system, but they must have just quit transmitting their signal.
This War Ship Hailing us must have been the ship that I had seen previously on the AIS. Notice it only gives info on its location. No information about the ship at all. Size, name, purpose, nothing. We have heard the War Ship monologue before sailing on the Pamlico as it is a place where the Navy often does drills so we instantly knew it was a legitimate Warship call, but this was not a generic hail to everyone in the area for a generic drill in the middle of the day. This was in the middle of the dark ocean, after avoiding collision with a Cargo Ship, and they were specifically hailing US and we had no idea where they were in order to avoid them except for the information to hold our course. They must have heard us hailing the Cargo ship repeatedly and knew we adjusted course to miss them.
The sky was cloudy, the night was not beautiful. Neither one of us were going to be able to sleep anytime soon…
…This is a photo I found on the internet of the Cargo Ship, it is a luxury car hauler. Look at the sailboat in the background; It looks like they are in a Port. This gives a good perspective of our size compared to this ship that we were never able to communicate with in the middle of the night.