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~ A Cut Above ~



We received this letter from Bill Batchelor who sailed with us aboard HALIMEDA, IP45 from Norfolk to St Thomas in November 2002: 

                                      Night Lights

As sailors our education is an on-going process comprised mainly of unequal doses of hard-won experience, a distillation of conversations with others, and any pearls gleaned from books and other publications. This process is difficult at first, as one is obliged to embrace an awkward new language filled with arcane words, which offer no similarity to our everyday speech. As if to aggravate the situation further this intimidating new language is often compounded into insensible sayings, warnings, and salty adages. This leaves most neophytes dazed and confused.

The true sailor though carries on and, having mastered the language, sets out acquiring more complex knowledge such as navigation, weather charting, electronics, sail handling, and the myriad of specialty skills that distinguish every self-reliant mariner. Throughout this process there are several recurring themes, which serve to highlight the basic tenet of self-preservation that is the universal subconscious concern of anyone who puts out to sea in a small boat. Such time honored favorites as “red, right, return” and “one hand for the boat, one hand for the job” understate their significance until reinforced through the daily experiences we have all suffered – hopefully with only minor consequence...

We were six hundred miles offshore on a rhumbline set for St. Thomas some seven days at sea on the midnight to four watch. We were close-hauled and making seven knots over ground through a three foot sea under a bright, moonlit, starry sky – already enjoying the warm tropical night air which was our final destination. The watch had been quiet, the steady hiss of hull slicing through water broken only by the slap of an errant beam sea. Starbursts of luminescent plankton trailed like a celestial jet stream off our stern. Orion was marching westward on the starboard bow, Polaris dimly marked the stern and a brilliant crescent moon filled the eastern sky with almost a daylight glow. It was a dreamy state in a dreamy world. Tweaking the sails, double-checking the heads and bilge, and constantly adjusting our perch at the helm we filled the hours with activity. 

We were mindful of our watch chores, which included hourly log entries, frequent horizon scans and radar checks. I was making just such a survey of the horizon when Mark, my watch-mate, called out from the nav station below to be on the lookout for a vessel off the starboard bow. Sure enough fine off the starboard bow a small white light was just dipping the horizon. As he completed the log entry I studied the object and was surprised to see the gradual appearance of several more lights until the entire object became like a flotilla. Ominously, I could not make out any running lights – which way was this object heading? In a matter of just a few moments the object(s) was dominating our horizon and a bearing check indicated that we were indeed on a collision course. 

Tom, the captain, had already been alerted and after consulting the radar he returned to the cockpit in time to instantly appreciate our dilemma. This object(s), whatever it was, was bearing down on us, at better than 20 knots, and there were no discernible nav lights to clue us as to which course to take to avoid a disaster. As the low, malignant throb of powerful diesel engines began to reverberate in our ears our urgency increased exponentially and miraculously at just the same time a faint red light began to peak out through the forest of white deck lights. We made a crash gybe off to starboard, starting our own diesel and accelerating full throttle in a tense sprint away from the leviathan that had so rudely interrupted our peaceful evening. In the eternity it took to accomplish our course change the super tanker had driven off to the northeast and was soon just a distant glow on the horizon; its only trace the acrid smell of burnt diesel fuel and a confused sea churned up by its massive screws. Did you ever imagine what it might feel like to be a deer stunned in the headlights of an on-rushing semi?  

It’s two nights later and again we are on the midnight to four watch. Understandably, we are just a little skittish about “new” lights on the horizon and our radar checks have increased proportionate to our level of confidence (which ain’t a whole lot). We’ve replayed the previous experience to unanimous exhaustion and the consensus is, “if it’s your day, it’s your day”. St. Thomas is a couple of hundred miles closer and talk has begun to focus more on the beer and cheeseburgers that await us and less on the concerns at hand, in spite of our perilously close call; a demented version of laughing in the face of death. It’s just about three in the morning and there is a mild overcast; the horizon is shrouded in clouds. We have been motor-sailing into a relentless headwind through intermittent mild squalls and the only activity has been adjusting sails to minimize slatting. 

At just about the same moment Mark and I notice a dull glow on our port side slightly forward of the beam. Mark steps below to check the radar, which shows nothing twenty-four miles out. Curious we continue to observe the distant glow, which gradually sharpens into two white lights, one taller than the other. It is difficult to make out a heading but the object appears to be on a collision course with us based on a cursory hand bearing. The glow is intensifying with enough light to illuminate what appears to be a huge bow wave. A repeat scan of the radar again comes up empty and we are mystified as to what is approaching. One thing is for sure, we are definitely not going to allow this vessel to come within the “danger zone” without making contact and adjusting course if necessary. 

As watch captain I make the call, “wake up Tom, let’s see if we can’t raise them on the radio”. I’m standing as high as possible, one foot on the cockpit coaming and another on the hatch, with both eyes glued to the massive image that is growing off our port beam. Racing through my mind are the many situations that might become possible as we approach, and the steps that we should take to insure our safety. I am straining to identify some navigation light that could aid us in reacting to the impending situation when Tom’s head pops up out of the hatch. He has one eye welded shut with sleep and the other squinting in accommodation to the light off the radar screen. “What you guys seeing out there”, he asks nonchalantly, as if close encounters don’t count unless you hear the engines. With my heart a gathering lump in my throat, I turn to the left and point over at the huge, glowing unidentified object on our horizon – just in time to see a crescent moon rising like a phoenix out of the ocean and without skipping a beat I say, “you want to take a moon sight Tom?” Just as adroitly Tom looks back, a sparkle in his eye, and responds “ No thanks, how ‘bout you?” 

We proceeded uneventfully through the remainder of our journey and arrived in St. Thomas two days later just as the lunch chef came on duty at the marina and just in time for the first cheeseburgers of the day. I can’t say the same about the first beers of the day because the bar was already full when we arrived and there were numerous “dead soldiers” scattered across the tabletops in testimony to the cold, hard fact that a marina beer is good any time of day. As to the tale that I have related above, like all good sea stories- “there’s an ounce of truth in every tale, and there’s probably an ounce of something else as well”.

Bill Batchelor, DDS
enroute to St Thomas
June 1999  

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