Close Call… Or Nothing At All

March 14, 2020

Part Two in “THE PANAMA RUN” trilogy:

Offshore passage from Cayman Islands to Panama.  Seventeen hours underway.

Position:  17º 1.320’ N, 80º 0.246’W (approximately 225nm off shore from Nicaragua, east of the Nicaraguan Rise)

Time: 16:45

The only boat traffic that we had observed since departing Grand Cayman thirty hours prior had been a few cargo ships which had all been between two to five miles closer towards the coast than we were.  We were aware of previous piracy incidents by fishing boats in the area and were maintaining a course outside of waypoints we had been given as well outside the coordinates of any earlier problems.  We had already made the difficult decision to run completely dark – AIS  (Automatic Identification System, which allows us to send and receive vessel position and information for ourselves and other vessels equipped with the technology) turned off and no navigation lights at night, knowing full well that this actually made us a risk to all other vessels in the area.  

The due diligence of uninterrupted watches from the cockpit round the clock was our responsibility entirely.  It certainly was not lost on us how ironic it would be to collide with another sailboat also running dark while trying to avoid pirates that may or may not even be in the vicinity.

At the time, most of my focus was split between monitoring a 200 meter container ship which had just overtaken and passed us about two miles off our starboard side, as well as trying to maintain even a mere three knots of speed under sails alone, in less than six knots of wind.

It should have been visible earlier, but I first noticed the vessel no more than a couple miles away (approximately forty five degrees abaft of our port beam – right in my most blind spot).  It looked to be a fishing boat traveling on a course that would both overtake and converge with us.  Apart from the cargo ship, it was the only vessel that could be seen from horizon to horizon for 360 degrees.

Monitoring the boat, it appeared to maintain course and speed, eventually coming to a position forward of us while still closing the distance between us.

We fired up our engine (normally I feel guilty about burning fossil fuels every time we run the engine, but immediate personal survival always trumps long term species survival) and made an immediate sixty degree turn to port, placing us on a course that took us directly behind the boat.  We were now moving at more than twice our earlier speed.  As we passed behind the boat, maybe a quarter of a mile back, we could see no one on deck and the boat seemed oblivious to us.

For the next half hour, we watched the fishing boat as well as tracked it on our radar.  It never appeared to alter course or speed, just disappeared over the horizon, headed towards the Nicaraguan coast.  Eventually, we lost radar contact and never saw it again.

Slowly, our heart rates began returning to normal.

Optimistically, we may have just been on a random crossing course with a vessel minding its own business, no different from the cargo ship that had passed us just prior.  However… unless this boat was fishing the open ocean in three to six thousand feet of water, it had to be coming from either Pedro Bank 60nm farther out, or it was actually from Jamaica (which at 120nm away, was well closer than Nicaragua).  

It seems impossible that we were being tracked by anyone.  Our AIS had been off since departing Grand Cayman; we had been running without navigation lights at night where we could have been seen from much further away; and, even during the day, the boat would have had to have been within a few miles to possibly see us.  Even radar would have difficulty seeing a target a small as us at any substantial distance.

Night sailing off the Nicaraguan Banks

The alternative is that we barely dodged a bullet… we may have been seen at some point and followed discreetly.  We had turned on our AIS a handful of times to check for shipping traffic and/or to identify our presence to the few cargo ships that we had seen up to that point, as they approached us.  If we had been noticed then, our course could have been projected with a fair degree of accuracy.

Or possibly it was a combination of both —- a random encounter on the open ocean with a fishing vessel that was there to catch fish but smelled an easier alternative.  The fact that we were able to start our engine and motor away quickly established that we were not a disabled vessel ripe for the picking by potential pirates of opportunity.

No harm, no foul.  We’ll remain cautiously realistic optimists at this point… as long as we’re still… on a boat, mother fucker.  No, not just any boat.  Only S/V Exit.

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