Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Caleta Lobos: Tired of Bashing, Ships in the Night

The passage from Topolobampo to Caleta Lobos (near La Paz) started out pleasant enough. A bright, sunny day with light wind (on the nose, of course) and calm seas. Intermezzo motored along at five to six knots on one engine running relatively quietly at about 60% power.  The weather forecast and wind models predicted much of the same for most of the passage, with some stronger 10 knot winds coming from the WNW towards the end of the trip.

The weather forecasts were wrong.

Around 11 pm, when we were a little more than halfway across the Sea, the wind quickly freshened to blow at 20 knots from the Southwest, precisely the direction we were heading! And the seas built to a horrible steep chop. Both engines running hard to push through wind and wave. Bows slamming, jarring and noisy. Water washing over the deck, sometimes blowing over the cabin top to soak the helmsman.  Bashing again. Ugh. So tired of this.

At 2 am, Renee woke me. She had been diligently monitoring traffic during her watch and was concerned about two ships  heading in our direction, both on a collision course with us and with each other. The cargo ship Gdyna was bearing down on us off our starboard beam around 12 miles away and making about 10 knots speed. The tanker Culaso was 15 miles ahead of us, closing in on at about 12 knots. With the Gdyna to starboard, Intermezzo was the stand-on vessel, meaning we had the responsibility to alter course to avoid collision. In the head-on situation with the Culaso, both vessels are obliged to alter course to starboard, to pass each other to our port sides, which requiring Intermezzo to turn towards the Gdyna. The AIS (Automatic Identification System) data on Gdyna showed a destination port of of Lazaro Cardenas, a long way down the coast to the southwest, meaning that she would likely be turning to port to get on her rhumb line. Meanwhile, the wind is howling, Intermezzo is bashing into the waves, spray is flying. And I just woke up and am tired.

I studied the chart plotter and radar for a few minutes and decided the best thing to do would be to contact the Gdyna on the radio and request that she alter course to port to pass behind us and give Intermezzo room to alter course 10-20 degrees to starboard to allow us to pass the Culaso with safe distance between us. I grabbed the mike for the radio to hail the Gdyna and was stumped for a moment: How do you pronounce a name that has only one vowel…at the end?  I decided to call her the “gideena” which was thankfully understood and responded to quickly by the officer on deck when I called and explained our predicament.

The Polish-accented voice from the Gdyna seemed a bit surprised to discover us in his path.  He also did not seem to be aware of the Culaso’s presence and trajectory until I pointed her out to him.  Granted, we were all still an hour or so away from the big potential mash up, which is probably a bit soon for most professional mariners to be concerned. Still, it makes me wonder. The officer on deck of the Gdyna had me standby for a minute or so while he figured out what was happening and then replied with an assuring, “Go ahead, alter your course. I will take your stern.”  Both he and I tried hailing the Culaso, but neither of us got a response. That makes me wonder, too.

So, in a slow motion nautical ballet, Intermezzo bashed and bounced on the waves and altered course to starboard, the Gdyna turned slowly to port to pass 700 meters behind Intermezzo, Intermezzo and Culaso passed by each other a mile apart, while Gdyna had continued her turn to port and increased speed to cross a mile or so ahead of Culaso. These distances might sound pretty generous, but I can tell you that a 700 foot long ship still looks pretty big and dangerous a mile away from a little catamaran at night in heavy weather. And the ships don’t exactly turn on a dime and still look like they are coming right at you for a long time, even after they have assured you on the radio that they won’t run you over.

The wind and waves continued to be horrible as we approached the Lorenzo Channel, a narrow pass between the south end of Isla Espiritu Santos and Punta Arranca Cabello, the tip of a large point of land jutting into the sea north of La Paz.  It was 5 a.m. and I didn’t want to navigate between the shoals of the narrow channel in such conditions in the dark, so I decided to turn north and sail parallel to the east shore of Espirtu Santos which provided some relief from the wind and waves.  I partially unfurled the jib, shut off the engines and settled into slow, reasonably comfortable sailing until the sun came up around seven.  Then I started up the engines, got back on course and completed our bash hto Caleta Lobo, anchoring here about two hours later, tired and salty from all the spray, more than ready for a shower and a nap.

The turquoise water and little white sand beach of Caleta Lobos