Night Watch and Collision Course

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Great. Another cargo ship. And judging by the A.I.S. system, it’s going to run us down in about twenty minutes.

I shake my head as I look at the ship’s target, aiming straight for our little sailing catamaran. This was only the third encounter like this of the night. Quickly, but carefully, I step out into the cockpit and reduce our speed. Since the wind died down hours earlier, we finally bit the bullet and started the port engine to keep us from getting off course. We are not sailing purists, but we aren’t far from it. It takes a lot to convince us to turn on an engine.

With the current in our route, it was key that we didn’t get so far off course that we had to beat back to get to our destination. Because beating to windward in any sailboat is never fun — especially in a catamaran. The slamming waves under the bridge deck can be so loud at times, that it shakes the salon floor and table, launching books, charts, and pens into the air. Not the most comfortable ride.

Standing at the helm, my eyes scan the horizon, waiting to see the navigation lights of the cargo ship. While this is a pain in a butt, I can’t help but feel a sense of relief that we updated the A.I.S. this year and added a transponder. Before, we only had a receiver. That meant we could see other ships and boats transmitting A.I.S. signal, but we did not transmit — they could not see us. Now, they can see us as well. While it isn’t always guaranteed (but what guarantees are there in life?) that the other vessel’s captain or crew will be paying attention, it does give a sense of increased security. At least now, there is a chance that they will see us and adjust their course. Not to mention, our killer antennae hooked up to the system is picking up traffic at an average of around twelve nautical miles away. This is amazing — we can see ships on the A.I.S. long before we can visually see them!

Shivering, I dance a little jig to warm up and stretch my muscles. The wind whips a few strands of hair out of my elastic band and I brush them out of my eyes. What little wind there is — mostly created by our movement — is brisk and cooler than I am used to from the summer in the Mediterranean. Standing watch in my Gill foul weather gear is something I have not had to do before. Alas, autumn had arrived before we were able to untie the lines at La Línea, just outside of Gibraltar. We spent around four weeks at La Línea (literal translation from Spanish to English is “the line” — how appropriate!) and during the last of those four weeks, we started noticing a chill rolling in after sunset. That’s when we knew it was time to get moving. There is no doubt about it, we are fair weather sailors. Yep, that’s right — no Arctic Circle sailing adventure in our future!

Stepping back inside the salon, I take another look at the A.I.S to check on the cargo ship. I had slowed our speed down to the point where we really weren’t moving at all due to the current pushing us back, so I figured that should leave plenty of room between us when the ship crossed our bow.

It did leave some room, but not enough for my comfort level. I watch the ship’s progress a few minutes more, until the system informs me that we will be crossing paths in five minutes. As far as I can see, the cargo ship has not made any adjustment in course.

Sighing, I reach over and picked up the VHF radio.

“Cargo Ship JPO Aries, Cargo Ship JPO Aries, Cargo Ship JPO Aries. This is Sailing Vessel Snowflake, Snowflake, Snowflake, over.”

Keeping a vigilant eye on the A.I.S. screen and turning to glance out the forward hatches, I wait for a reply. And wait… and wait.

Flippin’ fantastic.

I radio again. And wait… and wait.

Come on. Must be on coffee break.

Once again, I radio and immediately, I receive a response.

“Yes, Snowflake. This is JPO Aries. Over.”

“Hi there, JPO Aries. Snowflake here, a small sailing vessel ahead of you, on your port side. Our A.I.S. shows us crossing paths in about five minutes within around one nautical mile or less. I just want to confirm that you see us. Over.”


Must be going to check their A.I.S. system now to look for us.

“Snowflake, this is JPO Aries. Can we switch to channel zero six? Over.”

“Yes. Channel zero six. Over.”

I change the channel and radio, “Snowflake here on zero six.”

“Good morning, Snowflake. I see you ahead. We will pass in front of you, around one point five nautical miles.”

“Ok. Thank you so much and have a great day. We’ll be standing by on channel sixteen.”

Hanging the VHF mic back up, just above the copper ship bell beside the door, I change the channel back to sixteen. I step outside and watch as JPO Aries cruises by us at a whopping speed of around nineteen knots. When you’re going around two to three knots, nineteen knots is pretty darn fast. They are gone within in no time and I put the engine back in high gear again, double checking our course and making sure there are no other ships or obstacles nearby.

This is our longest passage yet. We had estimated that we would arrive in Lanzarote within five or seven days, but due to light winds it looks more like seven and a half days.

Overall, it has been a good sail. Pretty uneventful, which is a welcome experience. The both of us have been feeling great, in spite of some choppy swells we have occasionally experienced. I have been cooking up a storm in the galley, making sure we have a steady supply of freshly baked bread, hearty meals and plenty of hot coffee and tea. Since I took on the galley work for this voyage, my partner took on most of the bildge and engine checks.

When we sail, we check Snowflake’s bildges and engines every three to four hours to make sure there are no problems and that everything is running smoothly. We didn’t always do that in the past, but it quickly became a religious practice on Snowflake after a scary incident during a night sail a couple of years go. But that’s another story.

After confirming that there are no ships crossing our path and that all is well, I sit back down to the salon table in front of my silver, old (but functioning) MacBook Air. While I’m not usually a technology junkie, I have to admit that this device has been great over the last several years. It has allowed me to build up my freelance and career coaching business online so that I can virtually work from anywhere in the world.

Even on a sailboat, in the Atlantic Ocean, I am editing and formatting a novel for one of my top clients. Once we arrive in Lanzarote, I will be able to send my client an update. I won’t lie; it’s still work and it’s not always fun. But it sure is nice to set my own hours and be location independent. Because of that, I’m able to chase my sailing dreams.

A quick glance at the time tells me that I need to do another visual check, since it has been over ten minutes since the last one. After examining the G.P.S. and A.I.S., I step out into the cockpit and glance around. No ships in sight. Taking a moment to enjoy the cool breeze across my face, I sit down and turn my head up, towards the sky. No matter how many stars you think you have seen before, you have never seen as many as you will when night sailing off-shore. What seems like an endless amount of sparkling stars twinkle down on Snowflake and seem to tell us that there is so much more in this world left to see.

Turning around, I catch a glimpse of bioluminescence in Snowflake’s wake. It glitters and shimmers like diamonds.

Shine bright like a diamond… shine bright like a diamooond.

I hum the tune softly and listen to the gentle swoosh of the water running against Snowflake’s hulls. Even with the engine running, it’s still a lovely moment. I can’t help but wonder how I got so lucky to be here, now, seeing and experiencing Mother Nature in all her glory.

The sounding of an alarm inside reminds me that my partner will be up soon to take on the next four hour watch. I realize how drowsy I feel and I look forward to getting some sleep. Yawning, I step back into the salon, down the steps into the galley, and pull out a large, red coffee mug from the cupboard. I smile at the Berlin bear and skyline on the outside of the mug, remembering my time in Germany. It’s funny how such a simple object, like a coffee mug, can send you back in time.

Filling the kettle with water and lighting the butane burner on the cooktop are all just part of a ritual — ending night watch on a good note, and handing my partner a fresh cup of joe to help him get through his watch.

Long distance sailing isn’t easy and it isn’t always pleasant, but it can quite often be a lovely experience with many rewards.

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2 thoughts on “Night Watch and Collision Course”

  1. Beautifully written! Thank you for sharing and giving us such a descriptive and interesting glimpse into a night on your Snowflake! Wishing you safe travels and we look forward to your next post!

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