Sailors Can Be Anything But Complacent
Published: Tuesday, December 12, 2017
By: Bob Bitchin
We'd been anchored in the Canary Islands for a couple weeks, waiting for the tradewinds to start up so we could make our Atlantic crossing back to go play in the Caribbean. The harbor was crowded with boats leaving on the annual "ARC" (Atlantic Rally Crossing), so we decided to head out and beat the crowds. After all, the tradewinds should be starting soon, right?
So, two boats left a week prior to the traditional start of the crossing season, the Lost Soul and Jugra. We'd been buddy sailing with Jugra for the previous couple of weeks. The boat was owned by the Crown Prince of Malaysia, but we didn't hold that against him. He was just a cruiser, like us. There were a few side benefits of buddy sailing with him, like when we arrived in a crowded harbor where there were no slips, they always seemed to have a spot for his 76' Swan, and he'd hang out a "Reserved for the Lost Soul" sign on the outside beam of his boat so we'd have a place to tie up.
Anyway, we decided that it was better to sail in less crowded conditions rather than with over 200 boats leaving at the same time. At dawn, we cast off from the cozy harbor and headed for the open seas. Jugra was going to join us later in the day, and since she traveled at a lot faster rate of speed than the Soul, we knew we'd be seeing them shortly.
A little after sunup the island of Grand Canary was far behind us, and we started to settle into the regimen of an ocean crossing. That means everyone was asleep but the man on watch — that'd be me.
So, I am kicked back, with the headsail, main, and mizzen pulling us along at a good rate of speed. We were doing about 8–8.5 knots. The autopilot was handling things just fine, and the winds were right off my right shoulder. The boat was healed to port, and the sail was billowed out and looking good.
Things were going about as perfect as they could get, so I pulled out the book I was reading and settled in for the remainder of an easy watch.
A few minutes later I heard voices. Voices? Was someone talking below decks?
I put my book down and listened. I couldn't make out what the voices were saying, but they were shouting, and shouting louder and louder.
I realized the voices were not coming from my boat, as they were screeching in Spanish. I tried to see around the headsail, but it was so close to the water I couldn't see under it, and I couldn't see around it.
The voices were sounding very close now, and I ran as far to the starboard as I could. Leaning over the lifelines I looked forward. There, not 50 feet in front of me, was a large fishing boat with three men waving and shouting at me. I was on a dead collision course and closing much faster than I thought we were moving.
I jumped back to the binnacle and slapped the autopilot off while whipping the wheel hard to starboard, which was to windward. As a boat will turn to windward a lot faster than it will to leeward, I had made a lucky call. Actually it wasn't a call, more of a reaction.
We slipped past the fishing boat so close I could smell the anchovies and wine on the fishermen's breath. They were yelling and shouting words that you never hear in Spanish class.
My headsail actually brushed their bow, but nothing "hard" hit. Just as I was wondering why they hadn't turned off to avoid me (hey, I couldn't be wrong, right?), I felt the boat slow for a split second, and then speed up again. Our keel had caught their anchor line.
Anchor line? We were at least 10 miles off the island!
I looked at the depth sounder and it showed 75 feet. There was a pinnacle they were anchored on.
Jody and Shawn came up from below, wondering why I'd slammed the boat into a starboard spin, and looking very puzzled at why I was yelling in Spanish.
Now I have always had a sign that hangs below decks that says the following:
There are only two rules on this boat: 1. The Captain is always right. 2. When the Captain is wrong, refer to rule #1.
I sat down and tried to catch my breath, and tried to figure out just how I might justify what had just happened. There was no justifying it. On board, we have a hard and fast rule. Every ten minutes, whoever is on watch has to do a full horizon sweep. We'd been so long at anchor, I, the captain, had not obeyed my own rule.
The moral to this story? There is none. It just shows that, no matter how many miles or years you sail, you cannot become complacent. Or stupid, like me!