That Little Ship

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

View from the bridge, Panama Canal Pedro Miguel Lock
From the bridge on a 950ft ship, Panama Canal

I have a confession. I was "THAT 'guy'."

Many times I have been on the bridge of a ship for arrivals, departures, and rendezvous, often completing equipment checks during an otherwise quiet watch, grateful for the activity to pass the time. I always hated last minute checks being dumped on me when I had the watch during pilotage or for the start of an UNREP, so I made an effort not to leave the next guy in the lurch. Do unto others, ya know? It felt good to say, and to hear, "equipment checks are complete, and there's no traffic of concern." But there were times, always close to the time of watch turnover or right before the Captain was expected on the bridge, somehow, that the traffic status would change. The 'banca' boat that was drifting along safely out of the way suddenly senses a bunch of fish right on your track line and motors towards it, jet skiiers wearing hubris for PFDs want to get that epic GoPro shot in front of the bulbous bow, or...that sailboat decides it is a good time to tack across the channel. "Ugh, you little shhhhhhhhhhip," I'd sometimes say under my breath, sometimes not.

Sailboat observed from the bridge, Pearl Harbor

Last month, I was that sailboat. I didn't mean to of course. But I was. I was sailing up the Delaware at night when the wind was best, I was making seven knots, and I was nearing the point where the bay was getting skinny. Off my port bow, I saw the running lights of a large cargo ship as I approached the green side of the channel. I realize now that I hadn't fully adjusted to perspective change. You see, on the bridge of a ship 100ft above the water, observing another ship's running lights at night 1 nautical mile away looks really close. But drop it down to sea level, where I was, observing a ship's running lights 2 miles away seems like it is much further than that. Plus, with the noise and sensation of the wind in my face and Constance heeled way over, it felt like I was going much faster. So much faster that I actually had the thought, "I could probably make it across the channel in time.." BUT, I don't play games like that so I pulled up the AIS info on my chartplotter to check out the CPA if I were to proceed. 300 feet. Ha, no thank you. I put the autopilot in standby and prepared to tack. As my bow fell away from the ship, I imagined a collective sigh of relief on the bridge. I cranked away on the winch and waited for the wind to fill the genoa and push it the rest of the way around the furled staysail. I looked back toward the approaching ship, quite pleased with the early and apparent action I had taken. Rather suddenly, wind backfilled the genoa and put me back on the heading toward the channel. Um, ok? Quickly, I shifted back to the port tack to gain back the speed I lost. I then prepared to tack away from the channel again. The VHF cracked and a shaky voice said, "Uhh Sailing vessel Constance?... Baltic Heather on 1-6..." Mmmmbusy...I'll let that one go to voicemail. I put the wheel hard to port to tack again, and laughed a little, imagining a green third mate on the other side of the radio. Been there. The wind started to fill the sail, then lingered as I cranked in the sheet. I looked up to see the wind begin to backfill the sail again and send me back toward the channel. Shit. WTF? "Sailing. Vessel. CONSTANCE. Baltic Heather, Channel 1-6." I reached over to turn the key and crank on the engine. It started immediately (Amen!), I put it in gear and headed away from the channel. After the ship had passed, I went up to the bow to discover that the sheet had gotten caught underneath the dinghy that was lashed on the deck, preventing Constance from completing the tack. Of course the first time that happens to me would be in a traffic situation like that, but now that I know what caused it, I know how I can prevent it. In hindsight, I didn't pass the ship THAT close, but it was closer than necessary and I imagine the back and forth changes of my heading were confusing to the Baltic Heather. As much as I love a good mystery, I try not to be one for my fellow seafarers. Sorry, boys! Won't happen again.

Container ship in the Delaware Bay
Cargo ship observed from Constance, 0.5nm away

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