Fear on the High Seas
I'm not a nervous person. Skittish has never been a term used to describe me, quite the contrary. And if there was ever a situation to test the steel of a man's nerves then it was finding yourself and your sailboat about to be smashed to pieces in the middle of a moonless ocean at night.
We, being my sailing companion Mark and myself, had come down the Pacific coast from San Francisco and were about four days into the voyage. We had seen some wondrously beautiful things, including a massive school of golden-headed jellyfish swarming by silently beneath us. Spread out for as far as we could see the vision of these amber sea spirits are as fresh in my mind today as when I first saw them.
The passage down the western coast is one that everyone should make at some point in their life. It's both thrilling and peaceful at the same time and we sailed for several days without seeing another vessel of any kind. You find yourself accompanied by dolphins and seals and sea birds. Sometimes fog too but not if you're lucky although being completely immersed in clouds is exciting in it's own way too. You dance by the feet of the gargantuan oil rigs, their flames pluming like volcanos in the night sky. Past the seeps that leave a slick surface coating of rainbow hued oil on top of the ocean and make you reluctant to smoke until you are well clear of them. That's just some of the joys you that will be yours if you decide to make he journey down the coast.
Sailing at night holds a special kind of wonder, especially on moonless nights. It's completely ink black around you and the only sound is the white noise of the water against the hull of your vessel. When you're alone at the tiller the experience is not unlike a salt-water sensory depravation tank or float-tanks as they are sometimes called. The only light you have is your navigation lights and the light from your deck-mounted compass if you keep it turned on. You keep a small flashlight with a red lens on it in your pocket so you can periodically check the wind arrow at the top of the mast. The red lens helps protect your night vision as exposure to a white light diminishes your capacity to see in the dark.
On the night in question, the night of our impending destruction, I had been alone at the tiller for several Cimmerian hours while crewman Mark was below sleeping off a bout of sea sickness. Scanning my aphotic surroundings I spotted an orange light off our port side. Maybe a light on shore? I thought. Cars, trains and other landlocked light sources were easy to mistake for other vessels or buoy lights while sailing at night. After a few moments of observation I was reasonably confident that this orange speck wasn't a shore light. Probably a fishing boat.
Always the careful sailor I checked the time and the chart against our position to see if I had missed adding a light to my passage notes. I hadn't. On every leg of a passage I keep in my pocket a list of things I should be seeing and the approximate time that I should be seeing them. It's particularly helpful at night as this practice helps me recognize and understand what I'm seeing. According to both my notes and the chart I was hours away from seeing any water lights so that helped me determine that the orange spot must be another boat. A boat that appeared to be bearing straight down on us I noticed when I looked her way again.
Not surprising. Fishing boats, as a rule, never adjust their course and instead rely on you to get out of their way. No problem, a simple shift of the tiller and we'd be out of their path in no time. But I noticed something odd even as I adjusted our course, this was one fast fishing boat. That light was getting big, fast. I made a more drastic correction with the tiller and it was very quickly apparent that we would definitely not get out of the way in time. Still no problem, I'd pass them on their starboard side instead. I made it so. But that horrible, orange light wasn't going to pass us on either side. It was going to hit us dead on.
I needed a plan and I needed one fast. At the speed the light was approaching I was starting to believe that there was no way this ghost ship could be a fishing boat. Distance is almost impossible to judge on the sea at night when there's no light but I knew for sure that the other boat was close. Damned close. Rather than strapping on a life vest and abandoning ship while yelling back over my shoulder to Mark "Good luck, mate!" I decided to gather some information.
To stay safe you have be certain of where you are and what you are seeing and that means questioning everything so I decided to start by assuming that the chart was either wrong or that my location was wrong. Maybe that was a land light and I was running us straight towards the shore? If that was the case then some dramatic turns should make that evident fairly quickly. After all, if the light wasn't moving and we turned away from it then it shouldn't get any larger, right? Sounded right to me so I made some turns but, no matter how I turned, that light was coming on us fast.
It was about now that I started to believe in sea dragons.
That terrible, orange light must be the eye of some hideous monster that was chasing us. The fact that this was the most logical conclusion that I could muster should tell you something about how fast this was all happening. Whatever it was, I knew one thing for damned sure. We were about to get rammed. I knew I needed a second set of eyes and Mark had the best night-eyes I had ever seen. Years of night time sailing had sharpened his old eyes into a pair of very effective tools. I hated to disturb his sleep when he was sick but I hated getting scuttled and drowning even m ore so I called down to him "Mark!"
"Get up here!" Like I said, I'm not a nervous person but there was something in my tone that made Mark come out on deck like he had been hurled out of a slingshot. "What?"
I pointed towards the light that was almost on top of us "What the hell is that?" Straight from an ill-sleep and coming out on deck to be faced with an impending collision, Mark could have been forgiven for an extreme reaction. But he didn't say a word. He just stared at the looming, orange ship-crusher right next to us. During those agonizing seconds I was mentally running through a disaster plan, noting where the life vests were stowed, the floating, hand-held VHF radio. I was sure we were about to go swimming.
The Nighttime Danger
Finally Mark spoke "Weather buoy." Eyes glued to the light I wasn't convinced.
"You sure?" I asked because he certainly didn't sound to sure himself.
"Yeah" he tried to sound confident "But you might want to bear off some more, you're getting real close."
If Mark thought he was concerned before he was about to be really concerned when he heard my next sentence. "I've been trying to bear off for minutes." Yep, that made his head snap around like an owl's. He checked to see what I was doing with the tiller then shot a nervous look back at the orange ball of dread to confirm his worst fears. Yep, it was getting bigger and bigger meant closer and closer meant collision.
And then I started to laugh. "What?!" Mark barked. I suddenly realized what the light was. It was the same orange color as those lights you see on the side of big rig trucks. Only this wasn't any seafaring semi. "It's the moon" I told him and he sent me an incredulous look like I was talking complete nonsense until, a few seconds later, it got a little higher above the horizon and started to cast an amber reflection on the water. The reason we couldn't see the reflection on the water before was because of sea swell between us and the moon itself.
If you're sailing at night, beware the moon.