Tuesday, November 04, 2008

November 4, 2008 - South China Sea

Returning to the Northern Hemisphere

This is a momentous day for us on two counts. 18 months ago, we crossed the equator for the first time heading southwest towards Galapagos. Last night we crossed it again, 10,000 nautical miles due west of our last crossing spot. Today also marks the two year anniversary of our departure from Newport. So this morning we celebrated with a very Mata'irea feast: waffles (what else?) in the cockpit and mimosas made with Hardy's non-vintage sparkling wine.

Brunch was followed by our third deep ocean swim of this leg, which, in turn, was followed by the sighting of no less than four sea snakes within the next hour. Even though Sten assures me that their mouths are so small that the only spot on our bodies they could actually bite is the webbing between our fingers, I'm so not getting in that water again.

Sten, swimming with sea snakes in the South China Sea

So much has changed in the past year, but one constant holds true: the most interesting stuff always happens on Sten's watches. I've asked him to write about an incident that occurred on his watch last night. Besides, it is a beautiful day, the tunes are jamming out of the stereo, and I've got a bottle of Hardy's to finish off (the dry boat on passage rule having been suspended for our anniversary and equator crossing celebrations), so I think it is high time for him to take a turn at the typing.

While my lovely wife lies sprawled across the other side of the cockpit with her bottle of vino, I (Sten) will do her bidding and tell you all about an interesting, if unsettling, incident that occurred on my watch last night.

At sea, one often sees things fleetingly or out of the corner of one's eye: a leaping dolphin, a mat of seaweed, a bird resting on a floating branch, or a large fish at the surface. You know you saw something but are not sure what it was or if the light was simply playing tricks on you. This was not the case last night. Around 0300, shortly after we crossed the equator, I saw a flare in the near distance off the port side. I was looking directly into the blackness when it burst forth, arching up and then quickly over and extinguishing, much faster than a parachute flare one might see during Forth of July fireworks.

A flare at sea is a distress signal, used to attract the attention of a passing vessel or airplane. They had my attention, but what to do? It was the middle of the night with no moon but very calm conditions. I immediately marked our position by pressing the MOB (man over board) button on the chartplotter, slowed the boat to a crawl and turned towards the perceived source of the flare. I flashed the beam of our dive light out into the night (our brand new, made in Indonesia, 3,000,000 candle power spot light of course did not work when needed) to signal that I had seen the flare, hoping to prompt a second light signal so that I could home in on the source location. With no result from this, I went below and flashed our powerful deck light half a dozen times and then went back up on deck to wait for a response. Nothing. I got on the radio, announced our position and that I had seen a flare and waited for a response. There had been much buzzing and clicking on the radio during the night and this continued after my call but there was no discernible response. I called again, this time asking anyone in distress to key their mike twice in response, as many times a radio that is low on batteries or somehow disabled will still be able to send out "keyed" signals but not actual voice transmissions. This time I did get a response but not from anyone in trouble.

There was a French yacht 6 miles behind that we had spoken with earlier in the day. The woman on watch came up on the radio asking if we were trying to hail them. After some back and forth trying to get through the language barrier, I got the message across that I had seen an emergency flare (describing it as an emergency firework did the trick). Immediately, upon understanding what I was saying, she indicated that she had also seen the same beacon, also off her port side. I thought the flare color was red but she described it as green and stated that she thought that it was a shooting star. I confirmed that she saw a green beacon at the same time I saw the red flare. So I tried to recall the image of the flare shooting across the sky, but it was already fading in my mind. Maybe it was green. Did I actually see it arch up before it fell? Certainly no shooting star has ever done that. If I had to estimate distance, I would have guessed that the flare came from a mile away, directly off our port side. But if the other boat, six miles behind us and on a similar course, saw the same signal, also off their port side, the flare must have been many miles distant for the geometry to work.

I sat there peering into the darkness, looking for another sign and wondering what to do for many minutes and saw nothing. The desire to help a follow mariner in trouble is strong. My mind was full of questions. Many years ago I was involved in a miraculous rescue at sea; was it about to happen again? What had I actually seen? What should I do? Should I wait until morning when I could actually see a floating raft or dinghy? At sea you might see a decent sized fishing boat at three miles and a ship at six to eight miles. But a life raft would have to be within half a mile in calm seas to pick it out by eye. If the French woman and I had seen the same flare, the source was likely ten miles distant. Maybe another boat was just celebrating their equator crossing. There wasn't much wind but there was a strong current. By daylight a distressed vessel or raft would have been some distance from the spot where it shot off the flare. In the end there were just too many questions and not enough answers to stick around until daylight. Hopefully it was the right choice.

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