Over all the years that I have been sailing and making passages offshore, only twice have I ever really had my heart in my mouth, as they say. And both incidences involved ships behaving erratically.
The first time was on a night run down the Chesapeake Bay one fall many years ago. We were aboard our boat Clover, a Mason 43 ketch, and were motorsailing in the down-bound shipping lane en route to an anchorage not far away. Several ships heading north to Baltimore and Philadelphia passed us going the other way but none were headed south with us.
Then we saw lights ahead of us that we could not immediately identify. It looked like a tug towing a barge but it was lit up like a Christmas tree and the running lights were not visible above the glare. It had no steaming lights on its mast to indicate that it was towing (three white) or pushing (two white) a barge. We stared at it through the binoculars for 20 minutes as we converged and without running lights we were having a difficult time getting its bearing and approaching speed. That is, until it was right on top of us. It was steaming northward, and turning across the down-bound lane and suddenly the black flat bow of the barge it was pushing loomed right at us not 200 feet away with no lights showing. I shoved the throttle hard and motored frantically away at an angle. The barge missed our stern by a boat length. When I hailed the tug on the VHF, the skipper just drawled that he liked living dangerously. I think he was drunk.
The other incident was in the Gulf of Suez at the top of the Red Sea. We were motoring in calm winds at 2 a.m. in a convoy of three cruising boats and were outside the down-bound lane and hugging the fringing reef that lay between the shipping lane and the shore. Ships in a long convoy that had recently transited the canal were southbound in the down-bound lane and proceeding in an orderly parade at about 12 knots. That is until one cowboy skipper pulled out of the convoy and out of the shipping lanes and put the hammer down.
The last thing that skipper expected to see was the masthead lights of three cruising boats coming straight at him—both red and green in his eyes. He held his course so we had to get out of there as fast as possible. The boat ahead of us turned to starboard right into the convoy to show his red light to the rogue ship. We were second in line and farther in shore. We couldn’t cross the ship’s bow so we and the boat behind us turned to port and steamed hard for the reefs…the lesser of two evils. The ship was 100 feet away and steaming at 20 knots when it turned to port and missed us. We thought our friends in front were goners. But then, the great dark menacing side of the ship passed and there they were, steaming hard across the ship’s stern toward the reefs.
We escaped both close calls with luck and some quick action. There are a lot of dangers at sea but rogue ships scare me the most.