Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Report from the forepeak (Strangers in the Night)

Strangers in the Night


I was just thinking, in the middle of the 10 to 2 watch last night, that Erika has
been the one to spot all the new, first time stuff during the crossing -
ships, flying fish - and thinking how childish of me, when what to my
wondering eye should appear but a light, off the port bow, bearing around
240. It was bobbing in and out of view over the horizon, occluded and
re-revealed by taller waves passing line of sight. It looked to have two
white lights, a higher and lower fore and aft arrangement typical of
freighters. During the course of my watch it appeared to move farther abeam
and appeared to be headed east or southeast. Visibility was sketchy, though,
and the ship so far off, that it was really difficult - no, impossible - to
tell which way she (the ship - that's old school sailor talk) was moving. I
tried binoculars and couldn't see any colored lights, but I didn't really
expect to. I noted the position and pointed it out to Achim, went off watch,
climbed into my bunk and drifted off to sleep. I was awakened by Erika
saying something about a ship being very close, Achim wanting me on deck,
that they probably weren't pirates this far on the ocean, etc.

Given that this mode of travel is commonly said to consist of long periods
of tedium interspersed with moments of sheer panic, I was beginning to feel
that we may have been shortchanged on the tedium, or we accidentally
acquired somebody else's share of the panic. Anyway, I got on my
boarder-repelling costume and reported for duty. It was pitch black on deck
and raining, but we certainly could see the ship Erika was talking about -
the same one I had spotted earlier, maybe a quarter mile away and looking
pretty much like on a collision course. At this point, one has to wonder
whether there's anyone on watch on that, whether they actually ARE pirates,
and so forth. I mean, out of the entire available area of the mid-Atlantic,
why would we wind up sharing such a small section of it, if both parties are
awake and paying attention?

To make things even more interesting, it turned out to be a sailboat,
apparently bound for New York if she maintained that heading, and with the
wrong lights showing, at that. She had on an anchor light (white at
mast-top) and some kind of deck light (white, on deck), which configuration
gives a pretty good impersonation of a freighter, and NO red or green
running lights that we could see. We had the dickens of a time figuring out
which way the bugger was gonna go, although it was clear we were crossing
paths. The tricky bit is deciding who's going to go in front of whom.
Normally, the boat in the starboard tack has the right of way, and so the
other boat will pull up and drop behind - but this fellow was changing
course in a rather annoying, not to mention frightening, way. Ultimately we
stepped on the brakes and let the other boat pass, which she did about 200
yards ahead of us.

Although the situation was a little dicey, there's something special about
meeting another sailboat out here. I mean, days go by with the occasional
flying fish the only sign of life at all - you get a taste of the
shipwrecked mariner's sense of solitude, and a certain longing, even if it's
very subliminal, for other life. I was thrilled watching this fellow
traveler pass us in the rainy middle of the night, bound for who knows
where, and somewhat wistful watching her sail on.

More to come...


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