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Close encounter off Baja

Nov 17, 2004
From Ocean Navigator #141
October 2004
My wife, Leslie, and I had been cruising Pacific Mexico aboard our Mason 33, Carina, since November 2003, taking our time to explore the west coast of the Baja peninsula and mainland Mexico during the winter cruising season. Our home port is in the Puget Sound region of Washington State, and this was our first trip to Mexico, so each passage was new for us. It was late March, and with spring arriving, the prevailing northerly winds diminishing, and hurricane season looming, we turned Carina north to spend the summer months cruising the hundreds of islands and bays on the Baja side of the Sea of Cortez.

The author's Mason 33, Carina, at anchor in the Sea of Cortez.
   Image Credit: Philip DiNuovo

Our departure point was La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, just north of Puerto Vallarta in Banderas Bay. Our destination was Isla Isabela, a small island and bird sanctuary approximately 85 miles distant and about halfway to Mazatlán, which would be our jumping-off point for crossing to the Baja peninsula.

We cleared the rocks at Punta de Mita, set a course for Isla Isabela and reset our ship's clocks to Mountain Standard Time. Just out of Banderas Bay, we lost our wind, rolled in our jib, dropped the staysail and settled into a passage under auxiliary power. We left our mainsail flying to stabilize our roll and slowed our speed so we would arrive at Isla Isabela after sunrise to facilitate anchoring among its many rocks. We engaged our old but reliable Autohelm autopilot, and it began grunting course corrections every few seconds. At 1900 we began our usual three-hour on/off watch schedule, with Leslie taking the first watch. After supper we enjoyed yet another perfect Pacific sunset. Venus lit the inky sky along with thousands of stars. At 2200 Leslie woke me, gave me a quick update and crawled into her bunk.

During night passages on Carina, we maintain a constant deck watch, keep an hourly dead reckoning position with plotted GPS fixes on a large-scale paper chart, and conduct a comprehensive radar scan every 10 to 15 minutes. This strategy has allowed us to identify other vessels at a safe distance and to evaluate their position and course relative to ours. We have found that many vessels, particularly small fishing vessels, do not display sufficient (or any!) navigational lights. Also, they may not give strong radar returns, making frequent visual and radar surveys critical.

My watch progressed much like Leslie's had; the engine droned quietly, and there were few other vessels. Our GPS position at 2356 was 21º 23.6' N, 105º 46.1' W, approximately 30 miles south of Isla Isabela. The moon set shortly after midnight, leaving only starlight and phosphorescence.

At 0045 I began another navigational assessment, since it was getting close to the end of my watch. I scanned the sea around the boat carefully and saw no lights. I then began another radar review, moving the instrument from standby to scan mode. We generally leave the radar range at 6 miles when we switch it to standby mode, so that this is the range we see when we change back from standby to scan. When I activated the scan, I was surprised - but not immediately concerned - when the first sweeps of the scanner unit showed a close target directly ahead. We routinely see false echoes on the radar screen immediately after activating a scan. I fully expected this target to disappear after additional sweeps of the radome scanner, so I waited a few seconds. The target stubbornly refused to disappear from the screen. I toggled the range button down to 3 miles. This range showed the same target, and the distance from Carina to the target was only three-quarters of a mile. I swore softly under my breath. Now I was getting concerned.

Standing and looking out over the dodger to scan the sea once again, I strained my eyes to see what was returning the radar signal. I saw nothing - no navigation lights, no obstructions or vessels visible in the dim starlight. Nothing. I left the autopilot engaged but eased the throttle back to a dead slow while still maintaining our course. I thought the target might be a shipping container or a disabled or derelict vessel, since it carried no lights. But no, a glance back at the radar screen told me the target was only half a mile away and still directly in our path. This had to be a vessel actively moving toward us, as it was closing on us rapidly. I knew that two vessels on a reciprocal course will close to a collision-avoidance situation in a matter of minutes, even at low speeds. Things were happening way too fast!

Evaluation time was over. I needed to take immediate, evasive action. I decided it was critical to make a clear and unambiguous course correction so that the person on watch aboard the other vessel would understand what I was doing, whether they were tracking us on radar or observing our navigation lights. Without taking the time to put the autopilot into standby mode, I disengaged it from the wheel and turned the wheel hard to port, changing our course about 45°. The autopilot motor whirred, trying to compensate for the new track, since I was taking it off its fluxgate compass course. To my disbelief, when I looked at the radar screen, the vessel appeared one-quarter mile away, and it was still dead ahead. Had they also made a course correction, or had I just steered into their path? I still saw no lights in the direction of the target. Who or what was out there? I made a second 45° course change to port and put the engine in neutral. My heart was pounding. I ignored the autopilot as it continued to try to make course corrections even though the belt was no longer engaged. The radar showed the target to be off our starboard beam, still one-quarter mile away.

This time, when I looked in the direction of the target, a light appeared, blinking on and off approximately every second. I glanced back and forth between the radar screen and the other vessel's light for a few minutes. The distance between Carina and the other vessel was no longer decreasing. I could stop holding my breath.

I continued to monitor the vessel for a few minutes and could not believe it when I glanced up from the radar screen toward the vessel and no longer saw a light. Another glance back at the radar screen no longer showed a radar target! I jumped up on the deck and surveyed the sea all around us. No lights. I jumped back into the cockpit and looked at the radar screen, still on a range of 3 miles. No targets. I toggled the range down to the lowest range of 1.5 miles and then up to 24 miles. No targets. How could this vessel simply disappear? I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It no longer appeared as if we were in imminent danger, so I went below, woke up Leslie and relayed the drama that had just unfolded. Together we analyzed the sequence of events.

Image Credit: Philip DiNuovo

Philip DiNuovo and Leslie Linkkila in San Diego before departing for Mexico.

We are convinced that the unknown vessel we almost collided with was a submarine. The target I saw on the radar screen must have been the sub's conning tower, which disappeared when the sub dove. This is the only conclusion we have been able to reach. I have since been told that submarines are required to display a flashing yellow or amber light while on the surface and underway. I perceived the light I saw to be white, though I could have been mistaken, given my anxiety level at the time.

The rest of the night progressed without incident, and we were anchored at Isla Isabela by 0815 MST. I can tell you one thing for sure, neither one of us had any trouble staying alert on watch until dawn!

Philip DiNuovo and his wife, Leslie Linkkila, left Kingston, Wash., in August 2003 on an open-ended voyage aboard Carina. They are currently exploring Mexico's Sea of Cortez. After the Pacific cyclone season passes, they plan to cruise the Mexican Riviera and Central America.

During night passages on Carina, we maintain a constant deck watch, keep an hourly dead reckoning position with plotted GPS fixes on a large-scale paper chart, and conduct a comprehensive radar scan every 10 to 15 minutes. This strategy has allowed us to identify other vessels at a safe distance and to evaluate their position and course relative to ours. We have found that many vessels, particularly small fishing vessels, do not display sufficient (or any!) navigational lights. Also, they may not give strong radar returns, making frequent visual and radar surveys critical.

My watch progressed much like Leslie's had; the engine droned quietly, and there were few other vessels. Our GPS position at 2356 was 21� 23.6' N, 105� 46.1' W, approximately 30 miles south of Isla Isabela. The moon set shortly after midnight, leaving only starlight and phosphorescence.

At 0045 I began another navigational assessment, since it was getting close to the end of my watch. I scanned the sea around the boat carefully and saw no lights. I then began another radar review, moving the instrument from standby to scan mode. We generally leave the radar range at 6 miles when we switch it to standby mode, so that this is the range we see when we change back from standby to scan. When I activated the scan, I was surprised &mdash but not immediately concerned &mdash when the first sweeps of the scanner unit showed a close target directly ahead. We routinely see false echoes on the radar screen immediately after activating a scan. I fully expected this target to disappear after additional sweeps of the radome scanner, so I waited a few seconds. The target stubbornly refused to disappear from the screen. I toggled the range button down to 3 miles. This range showed the same target, and the distance from Carina to the target was only three-quarters of a mile. I swore softly under my breath. Now I was getting concerned.

Standing and looking out over the dodger to scan the sea once again, I strained my eyes to see what was returning the radar signal. I saw nothing &mdash no navigation lights, no obstructions or vessels visible in the dim starlight. Nothing. I left the autopilot engaged but eased the throttle back to a dead slow while still maintaining our course. I thought the target might be a shipping container or a disabled or derelict vessel, since it carried no lights. But no, a glance back at the radar screen told me the target was only half a mile away and still directly in our path. This had to be a vessel actively moving toward us, as it was closing on us rapidly. I knew that two vessels on a reciprocal course will close to a collision-avoidance situation in a matter of minutes, even at low speeds. Things were happening way too fast!

Evaluation time was over. I needed to take immediate, evasive action. I decided it was critical to make a clear and unambiguous course correction so that the person on watch aboard the other vessel would understand what I was doing, whether they were tracking us on radar or observing our navigation lights. Without taking the time to put the autopilot into standby mode, I disengaged it from the wheel and turned the wheel hard to port, changing our course about 45�. The autopilot motor whirred, trying to compensate for the new track, since I was taking it off its fluxgate compass course. To my disbelief, when I looked at the radar screen, the vessel appeared one-quarter mile away, and it was still dead ahead. Had they also made a course correction, or had I just steered into their path? I still saw no lights in the direction of the target. Who or what was out there? I made a second 45� course change to port and put the engine in neutral. My heart was pounding. I ignored the autopilot as it continued to try to make course corrections even though the belt was no longer engaged. The radar showed the target to be off our starboard beam, still one-quarter mile away.

This time, when I looked in the direction of the target, a light appeared, blinking on and off approximately every second. I glanced back and forth between the radar screen and the other vessel's light for a few minutes. The distance between Carina and the other vessel was no longer decreasing. I could stop holding my breath.

I continued to monitor the vessel for a few minutes and could not believe it when I glanced up from the radar screen toward the vessel and no longer saw a light. Another glance back at the radar screen no longer showed a radar target! I jumped up on the deck and surveyed the sea all around us. No lights. I jumped back into the cockpit and looked at the radar screen, still on a range of 3 miles. No targets. I toggled the range down to the lowest range of 1.5 miles and then up to 24 miles. No targets. How could this vessel simply disappear? I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It no longer appeared as if we were in imminent danger, so I went below, woke up Leslie and relayed the drama that had just unfolded. Together we analyzed the sequence of events.

We are convinced that the unknown vessel we almost collided with was a submarine. The target I saw on the radar screen must have been the sub's conning tower, which disappeared when the sub dove. This is the only conclusion we have been able to reach. I have since been told that submarines are required to display a flashing yellow or amber light while on the surface and underway. I perceived the light I saw to be white, though I could have been mistaken, given my anxiety level at the time.

The rest of the night progressed without incident, and we were anchored at Isla Isabela by 0815 MST. I can tell you one thing for sure, neither one of us had any trouble staying alert on watch until dawn!

Philip DiNuovo and his wife, Leslie Linkkila, left Kingston, Wash., in August 2003 on an open-ended voyage aboard Carina. They are currently exploring Mexico's Sea of Cortez. After the Pacific cyclone season passes, they plan to cruise the Mexican Riviera and Central America.

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