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A radar-assisted passage

Nov 9, 2007

I recently sailed my 28-foot Pearson Triton, Fox, from Portland, Maine, to Portugal. I assumed that my interactions with ships would be minimal. The reality, however, was a bit different, and I was glad to have radar on hand.

Radar is great not just for collision avoidance, I trust it more than GPS for coastal navigation in both clear and restricted visibility. Its description of land seems more real. I have a Furuno 1715. It has an 18-inch dome and a grayscale LED display. I didn’t want to add a pole on my aft deck, so I had the antenna mounted on the mast a few feet below the spreaders. This works well. The genoa will occasionally get caught during a tack, but the dome has a soft curve and it has never been a problem. The antenna mounting bracket is handy as a fastening point for halyard fairleads.
Because I also have fixed mast steps, I worried about extra windage on the mast but felt it important to have radar reflection too. I lashed a cylindrical-type reflector to the jumper shrouds almost as high as the masthead. I also lashed an octahedral-type reflector on the opposite side, just below the dome. This location protected the reflector from chafe, and again, the mounting bracket provided a good lashing point. I mounted the radar display on a piece of wood and an old door hinge so I could view it from the cockpit or inside the cabin. I have an LED tricolor aloft and an orange panel stitched at the head of the mainsail. I thought I was as ready as I could be for ship traffic.

Managing power consumption
After crossing the Hague Line in the Gulf of Maine, I sailed through thick fog for two days. Radar sucks up a lot of juice, of course. I carried two 79-amp AGM batteries and charged with my engine. The radar draws about 1.5 amps on standby and 2.6 amps while transmitting. This is relatively good, but still way too much to keep on at all times during long passages. I used the radar about every 20 minutes in fog. If there was nearby traffic, if I anticipated a closest point of approach (CPA) of less than two miles, I would turn on my VHF and make a call. I was single-handed, and I had to sleep sometimes. There are alarm features I could have used, but these require the radar to be on. So I threw my fate into Neptune’s hands and was fortunate to get through the fog unscathed.

I did not actually lay my eyes on a ship until about a week into the voyage, though I’d seen a couple on radar in the fog. The watch officer responded to my call and told me that I was a clear target on his radar, which was comforting.

Small boat vs. big boat
I realized a few things that were different from my previous experience with radar and ship traffic. I’ve spent years working on large sail training vessels with a height of eye more than 10 feet. When I can see a vessel, or see its lights, it might still be eight or more miles away. On my wee boat, by the time I saw a ship, things were happening fast. The other vessel was usually well within five miles, cruising around 15 knots. If it looked like the ship was heading in my direction, I had far less time to determine its CPA. The general procedure I’d learned was to take a bearing on the vessel, either over the compass or by radar. If the bearing stays similar and the range decreases then a close encounter is imminent.

On Fox I could take a bearing off my compass or use my binoculars with its internal compass. In larger seas, though, it was difficult to get a clear relative bearing off the radar because my course wavered greatly from second to second. I couldn’t use the neat, calm radar plotting that I’d practiced on larger boats. I had to work quick and dirty, determining if there was going to be a small CPA and contacting the ship immediately to make sure the watch officer saw me. Because I had less time and couldn’t trust my relative bearings — my boat steered by a windvane — I could only estimate the other vessel’s position. With a simple GPS not wired into my radar, I would quickly sketch out the situation on a piece of scratch paper using my GPS position, the direction I thought the ship was heading based mostly on the visual, and by using the range on the radar, which I trusted most.

I’d read about heavy shipping traffic along the Iberian Coast. As I closed the coast, I often saw two or three vessels at one time and three or four targets within 12 miles on radar. Ships were so numerous that it was at times difficult for me to contact any one confidently with what I estimated as their position. I just didn’t have enough time. I spoke to two vessels that told me I was not appearing on their radar. I suppose my profile mixed in with sea clutter on their screen. For two days of heavy weather toward Lisbon, in addition to a visual lookout, I checked the radar every half-hour.

A close point of approach
One early morning, at about 0230, in near-gale conditions, I perceived a small CPA with a northbound vessel to starboard. I was on a starboard tack with only the storm jib. The watch officer answered my radio call and said I did not appear on her radar, but she said that she could see me. She said that she’d alter course to starboard and told me to maintain my course and speed. I did not prefer that the vessel come in front of me, but she said she saw me; she had called back, so that was comforting. I watched the ship come closer and closer. I called again and asked if she was certain she saw me, because it was getting tight. No response. I lit up the jib and mast with the spotlight. I flashed it off and on like a strobe. Still closer. I called back frantically, then couldn’t wait anymore. I chucked the spotlight into the cabin, flung off the steering gear connection, and jibed Fox over, running away as directly as possible. I swear I felt the wake from that ship. My only guess is that she misunderstood my explanation of where I was or misconstrued some other light for my tricolor.

I survived that night—my most difficult of the entire passage—and a half hour before I saw Cabo de Roca through the early morning haze, I picked up the profile of the land on my radar. That felt good. Since I never planned on going to Portugal, I didn’t even have good large-scale charts. I’d been to Cascais Marina before, and I had a guide book from which I could interpolate some waypoints, but, again, for this last bit of coastal navigation, I trusted my radar far more than the GPS. I know plenty of boats sail around the world without it, but I was pleased to have radar for my passage. 

Richard King lives in Mystic, Conn., and teaches Literature of the Sea with the Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport. He has sailed aboard sail training ships throughout the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

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