YACHTS

I enjoy reading yachting magazines, especially those for sail boats. I think most people dream of getting away from it all by cruising aboard a yacht or sail boat. Sometime, I thought, I could buy a live-aboard yacht, and cruise to my heart's content. No schedules or stress. Of course the reality isn't as idealistic as our dreams would have it. In the course of my professional sailing, I have met quite a few cruising yachtsmen. Like every other way of life, it is not simple or without stress. They navigate the same waters as the bigger ships, but in much smaller vessels. Although size does not necessarily dictate the sea-worthiness of a vessel, it has a lot to do with the comfort aboard the vessel. I seldom had to worry about conserving each drop of water or watt of electricity. When we visited a port, we had an agent to handle the ship's business and pay the bills. The crew got a salary regardless of the profitability of a particular voyage, and our room and board were taken care of while aboard. The yachtsmen worked for the love of sailing, and had to watch their budget carefully.

I was always troubled by articles in the yachting magazines about frightening encounters with rouge merchant vessels who try to run down yachts on the high seas. It seemed to me that few yachtsmen had a good understanding of the operation of a merchant ship. Some of them had only a rudimentary ability to navigate, based on calls I received on our VHF radio. Often they would ask for their position, and sometimes even a course to steer for a particular destination. Many of them had a cavalier attitude about keeping a lookout. Some of them were "single handed", or crewed by one person alone, which precluded any standing of watches. They merely set the auto-pilot and let the boat sail on its own when they were sleeping or otherwise occupied.

One year I was on the Mormacsun, a tanker that carried heating oil from Venezuela to Boston in the winter months. We had just unloaded, and were going south for another load. It was a hard run in the winter, with about a week of blistering heat, then a few days of freezing temperatures. We had just rounded Cape Cod, and passed the Nantucket Light Vessel on our trip south in ballast. I was the chief mate, standing the 4-8 watch in the evening. We had an early version of a modern high-tech radar called a Digiplot. It was a real asset to watch standing with a reduced crew. It would compute and plot all radar targets, and sound an alarm if one of them was on a collision course. It was clear weather, but getting dark quickly that evening. The digiplot sounded the CPA alarm, meaning there was a target out there that would come within half a mile of us in the next 20 minutes. I looked on the radar, but could not see anything. I scanned the horizon in the position indicated by the Digiplot, but saw nothing in the darkening sky. The alarm continued to sound intermittently for the next few minutes. suspected there must be something, probably a small target, a pleasure craft or fishing boat, or perhaps just some oil drums or junk floating on the water. I had faith in the Digiplot, it had proved useful many times in the past. I put the ship on hand steering, that is the able seaman took over the helm instead of the auto-pilot. I continued to scan the ocean with my binoculars, looking for the target. Nothing could be seen, and we maintained our course and speed. At the designated time of CPA (closest point of approach) I was on the starboard wing with my binoculars. Finally, I detected a small glow close to our starboard bow, almost dead ahead. It was only a few hundred yards away, and almost impossible to see without binoculars. I yelled "Hard Right" and we began our swing to starboard. I realized what I had seen was the light from a compass binnacle in the cockpit of a sail boat. It was reflecting off the sail, which is what saved that yachtsman. We swung far enough that the boat passed down our port side, and when the bow wave hit the boat, he quickly threw on all his running lights, as well as the "spreader" lights. I had been calling him on the VHF for the past 15 minutes to no avail. I merely said into the radio "It's too late to put on lights now". That yacht was saved by the Digiplot. If I had been on a ship not equipped with it, I would most likely have hit him, and never known it until someone spotted a sail wrapped around our bow the next day.