Sailing Mango

Distance At Night

My watch started at midnight. Kristen woke me up a little before, I brushed teeth and put on water for coffee. Kristen reviewed her watch with me, nothing much had happened, and went below. I made my coffee, got a snack, and snuggled in with the dogs.

About ten minutes into my watch I could see a sporadic white light, just off my port bow. There is a lighthouse maybe thirty or forty miles away, but that is too far to see just yet, and it was not in the right direction. It must be a boat or ship. Sure enough within about ten minutes after the initial observation the light firmed up, and was more or less steady. Another ten minutes or so and I could see an occasional red light. So it was pretty clear this was a vessel, we were heading towards each other but since I could see a red light and not a green light in addition to the white light, I knew we were going to pass port to port, just like you are supposed to pass vessels in a head on situation.

I broke out the binoculars, could not see much more than brighter white and red lights, and proceeded to wait. I knew we would pass close, since they didn't seem to be changing position relative to me. Still, we were port to port, all good right?

Here we are about forty minutes into the contact, and now via the binoculars I could clearly see the width of the vessel based on the white light location, up high on a mast, and the red port light, low on the bow. There was a lot of horizontal separation. The boat was close. I adjusted course ten degrees starboard to give us a bit of room.

Now, when I was a kid and we had just moved from Denver to Buffalo, my sister and I were out riiding our bikes. Our neighborhood in the Denver had sidewalks and the new neighborhood did not, so it was a little new to me to be riding on the street. I was out in the lead, when my sister called out from behind, "car!" What's a seven year old to do, but immediately, without looking, cross from the right side to the left side of the street? Yeah, perfect kid response, the kind that makes you wonder how we lived to see later years.

And so it was that this memory pops into my mind as I watched their lights. The red port navigation light dimmed, flickered and disappeared, while the white light was as bright and steady as ever, but quickly changing bearing as the boat very quickly crossed our bow. What the heck? I took off the autopilot, ready to spin the wheel one way or the other and before I know it they have crossed right in front of me to pass starboard to starboard. Five seconds later we are abeam, maybe two hundred feet apart, plus or mine a few hundred, and then they are gone to my stern, barely a twinkle of their stern light to be seen. All of this even though I had the American flag flying, with all of the privilege that comes with it. Sheesh.

It took all of Biscuit's calming powers to settle me down. Dogs are good at that, especially sixty pound poodles smelling oh so good after a bath yesterday.

Thinking back, I should have adjusted course much earlier when I first saw that we were going to pass closely. Instead of ten degrees, thirty would have been better to make it clear to the other boat that I was changing course. Those two things would have been easy, and would have avoided such a close call.

Someone once told me that sailing was ninety nine percent boredom, one percent terror. That is the truth.