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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Close encounter

We are south of the main shipping channel around southern Africa but in the direct path of ships sailing between Asia and South America. Last night we received AIS data from a Santos bound cargo ship that shall remain nameless but who appeared to be heading straight for us at a range of about 15 miles. No luck calling on channel 16 - perhaps out of range in those seas. So I sent him a direct call on the DSC system (it's a bit like a mobile phone system between ships) and received an automatic acknowledgement but no VHF call on the designated channel as protocol requires. I tried calling him, no response so made a couple more DSC attempts but this time with no acknowledgement - instant thought bugger, he's switched it off because the noise was annoying him.

Tried again at about 8 miles on ch 16 and - phew! - he answered. Gave him our position, told him restricted in ability to manoeuvre and he said he could see our port nav light. I told him to pass whichever side was easiest for him. The AIS was giving closest point of approach of about 20 metres and he did not appear to alter course, 10 minutes to go. Pete went into the cockpit in party gear with our powerful lantern and I got the engine ready to start. Still no alteration, called him again and said he appeared to be heading straight for us. OK, he said, I can see you...We started the engine at about a mile and got out of there. I looked at the plot later and I think he would have missed us by about 300 metres - fine in calm waters and good visibility and ok for him last night with radar and other gizmology, but very scary for us in the conditions - it's really difficult to get the perspective right at night and when you can only see eachother when you are on top of a wave and have anyway very little steerage way, almost impossible to judge with that degree of accuracy. And a 250 metre long ship is a non-trivial object.

The wind has abated to a mere 25 knots and the seas have subsided a bit. We are right over the edge of the shelf and heading SE under reefed main and full headsail being set norh still by the current. I would really really like to be clear of this bit of ocean - easy to see why the early Portuguese sailors hated it too.