17 March 2016
Passages in Open Ocean can be very exciting, but the excitement is not normally the kind you look forward to, rather it’s the type you get to tell great stories about that fascinate those who have never been there before. Truthfully, the best passages are usually the more boring ones; the ones where the weather is benign, the winds fill your sails, and the seas are calm. Most passages fall somewhere in between.
So far, our passage from San Salvador to St. Thomas thankfully ranks towards the boring end, especially because we are over 100 miles from the nearest land. We have motored for the last 48 hours straight with a little bit of wind to help us along, and the weather gods have graciously provided us with blue skies, scattered clouds and seas about 1-3 feet. We’d like more wind off the beam but you really can’t complain about weather like this.
We had some activity yesterday that hopefully will be the most excitement we encounter on this passage: a merchant ship crossing our path. I spotted it during my early afternoon watch with just its white superstructure peeking over the horizon and turned on the radar to find a corresponding ping at just over 10 miles about 45 degrees on our port bow. Carrie joined me on deck to view our unexpected visitor and watch the show.
As the distance slowly decreased the ship’s entire profile came into view. There were no cargo containers on deck, just the white superstructure and some white deck space forward. The ship’s red hull was riding high out of the water indicating that what looked like a commercial oil tanker was heading to its destination with little or no product in its massive storage tanks. The profile confirmed that it was heading to the south and would cross our path along the way. Our radar plot also showed it moving right, indicating that it would cross our bow, and I estimated the closest point of approach (CPA) would be at about 3 miles, certainly a safe distance.
When the ship closed to a distance of about 5 miles, the ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) plot appeared on our chart plotter. This is an extremely helpful tool for a sailboat in the open waters. AIS transponders are required aboard all commercial vessels and many pleasure boats that sail open waters carry at least an AIS receiver to pick up those signals from the big tankers, container ships and cruise ships. The AIS transmission contains a wealth of information about the vessel, including the type of vessel, an updated GPS position, its course, speed and CPA time and distance, and its next scheduled port of call. The readout even shows the vessel’s name, which can really come in handy if you need to contact them by radio.
Brilliant is equipped with an AIS transponder, which allows us to not only receive AIS signals from other vessels, but also transmits an AIS signal with Brilliant’s name and other information about us. We’ve learned that commercial vessels appreciate this information from small vessels because it will show up on their equipment even if their radar is not generating a return due to poor sea conditions. We like them to know that we’re out here so that everybody can keep clear of one another.
We often contact a vessel on Channel 16 when we encounter them in open waters like this to say hello and confirm they are receiving our AIS signal, especially at night in case they don’t see us. Yesterday’s encounter provided some welcome excitement, hopefully the highlight of the entire trip.