Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Your Closest Call

Rev. 10-15-2012

No, I've had no resent misadventures, but a brush with an inattentive sailor a few days ago reminded me of my closest brush with real danger on the water. Sinking and multiple deaths were very possible, though only a few hundred yards from the harbor.

I was sailing full and by on my Stiletto 27 with my parents in a nice breeze. We'd been going 10-12 knots for 30 minutes on starboard tack. We were approaching a 60-foot sled, also going to the weather, but on port tack, also making 10-12 knots. Sometimes it appeared I would be clear ahead, sometimes a near crossing, depending on the shift. It was a sharply trimmed boat with Kevlar sails; I felt confident it held an attentive crew.

As we came near it seemed he was heading below my stern, but it was only a shift. The wind headed and I realized we were on something near a collision course. At the same moment I realized I couldn't see any faces. At a closing speed of over 20 knots, boat lengths melted away and I was ahead but not clear ahead.

If I were to tack away I would be dead in the water in front of a boat going 12 knots that would crush and cut my 1200-pound Stiletto in half. If I de-powered I would lose the speed I needed to maneuver, and with the shifts perhaps only worsen my position. If I were to bear away and the racer/60-footer did what I expected, what the rules require and bore off at the last moment, we would go head-on at 20+ knots and I would lose AND be at fault the stand-on vessel that failed to stand-on.

I bore off anyway, yanking the tiller hard, accelerated to 15 knots, and passed only 10 feet from the side of the other boat; our our crossing speed rose to over 25 knots. As I passed I shouted that he "should stay at the dock if he couldn't afford a bow-watch." His hood-ornament date, sitting in the cockpit but facing backwards, fell startled from her perch to the cockpit sole. The skipper started running all over the cockpit, struggling for a better view point, but NOT looking at me, suddenly realizing the fool he was and wondering what else might be out there.

No harm done. But a collision between my Stiletto and a 60-footer head on would not have been about scratched paint, it would have been about missing people. A water-borne collision between a big rig and a Smart Car.


Non-sailors expect stories about storms and dark nights. Engine failures at bad times. While those things can be scary and inconvenient, there is time to think. On the other hand, I've had a number of crossings when I was on starboard and no one was looking that were closer than they should have been. No, I don't go looking for close encounters, but I sail crowded water in the summer and sometimes I would just swear a boat was sailing well and the crew paying attention, when in fact the only thing they were watching was that deck-sweeping genoa.

So what was your closest call?


  1. My closest call was a couple years ago aboard my 18-foot Hobie Tandem Island and involved almost being blown downwind into a low bridge and power lines that were close to a boat launching ramp.

    The bridge/power line combo wasn't close to the boat ramp, but the combination of the wind and current -- especially the current -- was much stronger than I realized and I didn't have any maneuvering room, so I quickly found myself in dire straights. In desperation and less than a boat length from the hazards, I was able to throw a quick gybe and gain enough boat speed to finally pull away from the danger. I promptly returned to the boat ramp, yanked the Hobie and retired to a more sedate launching point.

  2. Herring Bay can be pretty busy on the weekends - not my favorite time to sail out there. The larger power boats are the ones that give me most concern. They move so quickly that they make me anxious when they approach us in a constant bearing/decreasing range scenario.

    Which reminds me, one of my pet peeves on the water is the proximity with which skippers choose to pass. They drive their boats like they drive their cars on the beltway, passing within a boat length or two when they have miles of open water around us, and no other traffic to restrict movement. Why would you want to be that close to another vessel when surrounded by miles of open water?

  3. Under sail close passing doesn't bother me much, not if I have eye contact. Sailors going to the weather or under spinnaker are often on a long an precise tack for miles at a time and mostly can be depended upon to understand the rules; when to stand on and when to give way. There is no wake to speak of and it's a chance to wave and look over the boat. And for the most part, sailors are embarrassed when they fail to maneuver and behave in a seaman-like manner.

    Power boats at speed are a different matter. Because of speed alone, never mind the sail vs power thing, they will always be give way, and I think that bothers some of them. Some think it's funny. Most of those that pass too close, in my opinion, don't think about it at all. And of course, there are many courteous power boaters that we shouldn't paint with the same brush. I know many.

    Close passing bother s me less than inattention. All I can recommend is to keep a compressed gas horn at the helm. They work.