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Ship encounter was pleasantly chilling

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #107
July/August 2000
A lot of space in sailing magazines is given to articles regarding commercial shipping and the dangers of collisions with yachts, the need for constant vigilance, etc. But not all ship encounters are harrowing experiences.

We were doing an end-of-season delivery from the Virgin Islands to New England via Bermuda on board a 57-foot Swan ketch. I had joined Bob and Peter, the boat's regular crew, in Tortola for the 900-mile leg to Bermuda. The weather had been idyllicbroad reaching through calm seas under clear skiesand we were making good time.

This trip was made prior to GPS and the convenience of instant and continuous position updates. The old Transit satnav had finally given up the ghost, and we committed it to the deep in a proper at-sea burial. We were relying solely on celestial navigationon Arcturus and Polaris. Our position was plotted only a few times a day as we made and reduced our star and sun sights.

But our favorite sight, however, was when a ship steamed into view on the horizon. We would contact the ship on the VHF radio and ask for their current position. These "noon sights" augmented our nav efforts.

On day four of the trip we made our second noon sight of the voyage: the container ship Sea Wolf hove into view on the eastern horizon heading for the Gulf Coast. We hailed the ship and received in return a current positionhappily only a few miles off from our D.R. position. We gammed with Sea Wolf for a few minutes and then signed off.

Ten minutes later Sea Wolf called us on the radio, "Scuttlebutt, this is Sea Wolf." It appears we were on a collision course. We looked. They were still just a small interruption on the flat horizon. "Is there anything you need?" they queried.

"Thanks, no," we responded. We were only a couple days out of Bermuda and were all set.

"Well, okay then. But, is there anything you want? You know... ice cream, perhaps?"

We couldn't believe our ears! Five hundred miles from anywhere and we've stumbled onto a Baskin Robbins! "Well, sure!" we answered.

"Hold your course. We'll be there shortly."

During the next 15 minutes we watched as the tiny bump on the horizon slowly grew into the form of a ship. First we saw the colors of the deck containers; then the black of the hull. Finally we could see the whole of Sea Wolforange containers, black hull, and white superstructureas it bore closer and closer to us.

A Swan 57 is not an insignificant sailboat, but next to the sheer hulk of Sea Wolf we were dwarfed. The containership drew closer and closer on a perfect intercept course until we heard a purposeful voice on the radio, "Uh, Scuttlebutt. Turn to port." We needed no further prompting to relinquish our status as stand-on vessel!

As Sea Wolf passed we looked up beyond our masts, up the vertical wall of steel passing only a hundred yards away, to the faces of the entire Sea Wolf crew. Everyone was waving and shouting and pointing. Cameras were out and taking pictures of the tiny sailboat they found in mid-ocean. Two men had lowered a large garbage bag over the side, and they released the line and the bag just as they passed us.

Then they were gone, still steaming westward, still waving. We hove-to in their wake and recovered the bag. Inside, wrapped with dry ice, were two gallons of ice cream, chocolate and vanilla, and two cartons of cigarettes! We radioed our thanks and sat down to enjoy the cool pleasure of ice cream in the tropical sun. The fresh Mahi Mahi baking in the oven would just have to wait.

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