Now WEST of Chesterfield/Bellonia reef & atoll complexes...and an "unbelievable" story of a fishing vessel encounter
20 46 S 158 08 E
All has been great since yesterday's blog report; winds dropped in early afternoon to around 20-22 kts and since last evening have ranged 17 to 20 kts .....>>>so reefs were all unrolled > full sails deployed! Seas continued around 3 meters into the dark hours yesterday with occasional periods close to 4 meters but the period was a bit longer so not as wild on the rolling experiences; seas now about 2.5 meters and dropping > no discomfort....really not any since that first 20 hour stretch of high winds (30+) and 3.5 to 4.5 meter swells the first day out of Vanuatu.....so, all in all, a good passage thus far and all "downhill" from here ....but with enough wind to keep us boogieing along at around 8 kts...we hope it holds til Aus is visible.
When we came through the Grand Passage Des Chesterfield, we experienced up to one knot of adverse current so we lost an hour or two on our overall time to Aus...but not of any real consequence. We have covered 621 nm through the water in this first 72 hours > fast boat speed!! Over the bottom (Speed Over Ground - SOG) where adverse currents come into play > the distance covered has been 603 nm > so not bad either......200 nm days for each of the first 3 since Vanuatu...we are happy. That lets us do the passage in 5 days whereas we had planned for 6.5 days.
And we can report on the food stores continuing to drop in an accelerated fashion as we might as well enjoy gorging enroute....rather than give all up to the Australian Environmental Police and their dog inspectors when we arrive.
Now for an unusual story of an experiencewe did not like, and, I hope no fellow cruiser has to go through anything similar....nor do I ever want it repeated for us and Sea Mist. All fine in the end....but nothing was sure until the last minute or so of 45 minutes of crazy stuff. Here is the story:
About 2 pm yesterday afternoon, I noticed an AIS target at about 9 nm distance off my starboard bow. I could see from the AIS data that it was a FV (Fishing Vessel) with a length of 19 meters and a 6 meter beam. There was no way for me to determine if it was a pleasure (for hire) FV or a commercial one but I expected it to be a commercial fisher…even though it was quite small for an ocean fishing operation. The vessel is named La Voie Du Nord (literal translation would be "The Way of the North")....so I expected it to have French Captain/Crew and that it was likely out of New Caledonia...even though the closest port for her would be nearly 200 nm distant in New Cal. It was a bit of a surprise to see a FV equipped with an AIS transceiver....VERY unusual from my experience over the last six years.
I could see that the vessel was reporting as "headed" south (i.e his bow was pointing) towards my route...but...his actual course was North East (away from my route). This meant that he was "drifting" north east....and I could see that he was making speeds of less than 1 kt on a fairly steady course to match a drifting situation. His position lay 2 nm to the starboard side of my route. After watching the Vessel's movement over the next 10 to 15 minutes, and, since it was not clear what he was doing .....nor what he might do over the next short while....and there was no way of knowing what fishing gear he might be trailing at considerable distance....I thought it best to call him on VHF and ask "what were his intentions"...which is the normal seaman action in such a situation.
I called on Channel 16 (and on several other channels that might be used) but no response over the next 10 - 15 minutes or so. Of course I was closing steadily on his position...as Sea Mist was making over 9 kts at that time with sails fully deployed. Finally, at a distance of just under 7 nm between us, La Voie Du Nord responded on Ch 16. I attempted to find out his intentions and tried to determine what, if any, fishing gear he had deployed in the water. Although initially he said that he spoke/understood English a little bit, he told me that he did not understand my questions at all. I then asked him if he saw me on his AIS and he said "yes, I have you at 7 nm from me and your course is 220" ; I said "c'est si bonne"...with a clarification that my actual course was 225. He repeated the 225 and I then asked him if it was good for me to maintain my course and speed? He did not respond. I then asked him again, this time in French, what were his intentions? He did not respond....in fact he NEVER AGAIN responded to any of my radio calls over the next half hour!!
I could see that immediately after I confirmed my course to him, that he started to apply forward power and began turning to Port....so I was about to radio and thank him for taking the evasive/avoidance action when I started to realize that he was NOT trying to avoid me but in fact it looked like he was trying to establish a course and speed to precisely rendezvous with me....NOT GOOD!! I continued to watch in bewilderment as he kept adjusting his course (+ or - 20 to 40 degrees) and speed (up and down in a range from 3 to 8 kts). What on earth was he doing??....I was very puzzled!! There was no point in my changing my course at this time: 1) I had told him that I would maintain my course and speed since I did not know what he was going to do; 2) there was no way of knowing whether he was going to turn to meet me "starboard to starboard"....cross my bow....cross my stern.....stop...???? ......so I just continued to hold my course and speed...knowing that my best chance for avoidance maneuvering would only be as we got really close...say under a mile. AND ...OF NOTE>>>> the seas at this time were at or above 4 meters so I could not visually get sight of him as we closed on one-another from 4 to 3 to 2 nm distance. Once we could finally see something of a vessel on our bow, you could not tell what he was doing at all, given the sea state.
Now I should point out the primary navigational rule at play: he was in my danger zone...that is, he was approaching or positioned on my starboard bow (think of it as I would be constantly seeing his RED navigational light if it was dark)....in other words....RED means "Stop" for me....so all responsibility lay with me to avoid him by changing my course and speed. But he was not doing what was required of him: HE WAS NOT maintaining his course and speed which IS REQUIRED OF HIM! AND....I had not been able to find out from him what, if anything, he had deployed off his stern by way of fishing gear.....BUT....from his maneuvering, I had already concluded that he must not have anything out by way of SUBSTANTIAL gear....and therefore my last minute evasive tactic would be to go by him on his stern....that was my plan at this moment.
So I continued to monitor him on AIS.....where I could, in real time, see his speed, course, heading, etc.....and all of that information made me even more bewildered/concerned. It showed that he was determined to stay directly in front of my bow… but ever so slightly off to starboard….say less than a boatlength from my path. As we were now down to under one mile of separation, I could both visually see him maneuvering to stay directly in my path….as well as I could clearly see the “deliberately set up” collision course on my screen. ……and, as I said earlier, he would not respond to any of my radio attempted contacts. I could also now clearly see that the vessel was set up as a commercial fishing vessel.
Of course, you are trying to figure out what would a sane, responsible, competent master of a vessel be doing….nothing would fit the actions: I thought that he might have been curious to watch a sail boat pass by at close distance in these seas; I thought that he might be waiting for me to pass so that he could continue this “new direction” that he was pursuing….but nothing could explain someone….KNOWING OF YOUR PRESENCE…..IN THE CLEAR LIGHT OF DAY>>>PERFECT VISIBILITY!.....HAVING BEEN IN COMMUNCICATION WITH YOU AND KNOWING YOUR INTENTIONS…..>>>>….NOTHING COULD EXPLAIN…….”RATIONALLY”…… why anyone would do what he had done and was continuing to do.
I had to conclude that he was either:
1. “playing chicken” to see if I would “blink” at the last minute and he could then enjoy my “firedrill” forced handling of sails with a crash change of course, OR…>>
2. He had some fishing gear deployed and he wanted it replaced through insurance once I cut the gear with Sea Mist passing over it…..my fault for being too close to a fishing vessel in the business of fishing.
As we closed on to a half mile of separation between the vessels………with him working hard to maintain his position directly in front of me…..and I continued to “NOT BLINK”….I just held my course and speed ..( knowing that I could avoid collision with my last minute maneuvering as I had an advantage over him with my momentum)…..he suddenly changed his bow/heading from its sort of randomness on/towards my bow…. to directly cross my path that last couple of meters….he applied lots of power and finally went across Sea Mist’s path…passing from my slightly off to the right to well off and accelerating off to my left….right at the last moment.
I then awaited our passing his path….would he be trailing something for me to hit??.....but nothing happened….as I was relieved to see our beam pass his stern.
My best guess?? >> He wanted to see my do some crazy sail change or crash course change when I chickened out…..well he left disappointed as I did nothing.
My only conclusion was that he either has a big hate on for Anglophones.....or……hate on for sailboats……or…..he wanted to entertain himself (and any crew he had ??) with whatever desperate action I might have been forced to take at the last minute as the “chicken game” closed.
Thankfully, it all was over….and the puzzle remains. I took several screen captures showing his actions as recorded on my AIS overlay display…so I might summon up enough energy to “formally” complain to the French Authorities in New Cal……nothing in it for me….and it is MOST unlikely that they would pursue it at all…….but maybe I will submit the matter to somehow satisfy my curiosity as to whether they would do anything.
In retrospect, what would I do differently?....and that would be one thing: “let a sleeping dog lie” ….I would not make that initial radio call; I would just wait and see as I got closer……and call only when it looked like a problem. I would have been quite happy to have 2 miles of separation from this character; and if I hadn’t alerted him to my being in the vicinity, I doubt that he would ever have noticed our approach.
That’s the story of the day.
Our best to everyone….Cheers, the Seamisters
DTG to Bundaberg 392 nm