GPS waypoint error leads to near collision

From Ocean Navigator #108
September/October 2000
The recent announcement that the civilian GPS signal is no longer degraded reminded me of a startlingly thoughtless error I once made using GPS. It nearly resulted in a head-on collision one night between Barefoot, my 36-foot Yamaha sloop, and the 450-foot freighter, Captain Kermedec.

I was anchored near Lautoka, Fiji, the major shipping port for western Fiji. Reinforced trade winds of 25 knots had continued to chop up the anchorage for two weeks, and outside the encircling reef the seas were at 12 to 15 feet. Barefoot was part of an accumulation of voyaging boats all wanting to depart Fiji but awaiting calmer conditions.

I was bound for Noumea, New Caledonia. Unwilling to wait longer, early one morning I departed through the reef at Navula pass on my first singlehanded offshore passage. I had carefully set a waypoint in the GPS for Havannah Pass at New Caledonia. Havannah Pass is used by most vessels entering or departing Noumea from the east. As soon as I cleared the pass at Fiji I came on course, 230° magnetic, for the 630-mile trip to Havannah Pass.

The wind was on the port beam at 25 to 30 knots and provided a lumpy but fast ride at six and a half knots with a triple-reefed main and number 4 headsail. Often the hull would smack a wave, which caused first a great slapping sound as the bottom portion of the wave stopped against the hull and then a waterfall as the top portion of the wave continued over the boat. The drenching was warm but far too frequent for me to sit in the cockpit.

I watched the course closely on the GPS so Barefoot wouldn’t stray from the direct route between Navula Pass and Havannah Pass. If she fell downwind to the west there would later be a difficult and uncomfortable beat up to the Havannah pass entrance. If she sailed upwind higher than the route, it would decrease her speed and needlessly increase the discomfort of an already wet, bouncy ride.

At 2130 that evening, I was 80 miles away from the pass at Fiji. I climbed over the lee cloth into the leeward settee to sleep for awhile. But, for reasons I still don’t understand, I suddenly felt the need to just take a last look around. I no longer try to talk myself out of these apparently irrational feelings, so, without much hesitation, I got up and stepped up the companionway. I slid the hatch forward, and with both hands on the dodger frame I pulled myself upward into the darkness so my head cleared the top of the dodger.

Directly in front of me, in the spray-filled blackness, I saw a red light, a green light, and two white lights, one stacked on the other. They weren’t looming over me but they were definitely thereI couldn’t judge how far away they were. I closed my eyes, shook my head, and opened my eyes to look again; I just didn’t believe what I saw.

I hurried below and turned on the radar; it needs a full 80 seconds to warm up. While waiting I took the VHF microphone and started calling: “Vessel at 18.29° south and 175.50° east heading 50° magnetic. This is the sailboat Barefoot directly ahead of you on a reciprocal course.” I noticed my hand was shaking. The radar now showed a clear target less than six miles ahead. I called again on the VHF radio and waited, but there was still no response. I knew the ship did not have its radar turned on; there were no hash marks on my screen. My radar has a menu item labeled “interference rejection,” which I click “off” when at sea. In the “off” mode, any other active radar in the vicinity will cause hash marks to appear on my screen.

I jumped up the companionway again to look at the lightsthey seemed a lot closer. Using a handheld spotlight I illuminated my sails and then shined it toward the ship. There was no change in the red, green and white lights. I returned to the VHF radio and called again while watching the radar. There was still silence from the radio. On the radar there seemed to be no change in the direction of the ship, but the sea was throwing Barefoot around so much that the target on the radar was swinging through about 60°. I needed to look out repeatedly at the ship’s lights to confirm that it had not changed course.

Ten minutes had quickly elapsed, and the ship was only three miles away; its red, green and white lights were now frighteningly bright through the spray. I was still strangely resisting changing course because I didn’t want to later have to beat back upwind. Suddenly I realized how ridiculous that concern was in the present situation and how dangerous my position would be if for any reason the ship suddenly turned to port, downwind. With that thought I stepped back, pulled the vane control line and turned off sharply to starboard. It seemed that I had no sooner done so than the ship was sliding by me. I shined my spotlight up on the bridge, but could see nothing in the spray and blackness. I searched for the name on the stern but it passed too quickly and there was too much water in the air to see clearly. Watching the ship disappear on the radar, I confirmed it was making 12 knots. When I started to set Barefoot back on course, I belatedly realized the danger in sailing a direct course between the two passes; I moved five miles downwind off the direct route.

Four days later when I arrived at Noumea I related the incident to the French immigration officer who cleared me in. Knowing the speed of the vessel, I calculated that it must have left Noumea on August 21 in the late afternoon. The French officer checked his records and informed me that the only vessel departing that day for Fiji was Captain Kermedec, which had sailed at 1700 hours on the 21st. The more I thought about it, the angrier I became at the fact that this ship was keeping no watch and did not even have a VHF radio on when it was only 86 miles offshore from Fiji. Had I not gotten up to look around again, Captain Kermedec probably would have run me down and sunk me. I walked to the office of the Noumea port captain to report the ship. He showed little interest and suggested I report the incident to the Gendarmerie Maritime. I did file a complaint but received no response.

There were lessons for me in the encounter with the Kermedec. First, I now never sail directly pass to pass; I always move some distance off the direct route. Consider that my encounter with the Kermedec would have been much more difficult and dangerous if the wind had been on my starboard beam, forcing me to turn to windward in order to avoid the collision.

Second, I now use the watchman function on the radar to help keep watch. This activates the radar at five-minute intervals so it turns on and sweeps, searching for a target. Under sail, a trolling water generator easily provides the battery power for the radar.

Third, I now keep a loaded flare gun at the navigation station and will not hesitate to shoot a white flare.

Ultimately, it must be the small boat sailor who has to assume that no one will see him, and he must keep his vessel out of the way of everyone else. The worse the weather, the harder it is for a ship to see a small boat, and the more important it becomes for the small boat to keep a careful watch.

By Ocean Navigator