Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Bogey at 12 O'Clock!

"Doug, are you awake?"

I have been staring at Ka'sala's cabin ceiling for two hours in the red glow of her night time courtesy lights. I handed the watch over to Lyneita two hours ago so that I could get some well needed sleep. We were both starting to feel tired but the excitement of our first night at sea had made it hard to relax, much less sleep. I had two hours left...

"NO!" I answered.

Ignoring my attempt at humour, she continued...

"I've got a target on the RADAR and he's doing something weird."

We had been motoring for some fifteen hours since we left Neah Bay and the visibility outside, quite aside from the fact that it was the middle of the night, was 200-300 meters in fog. Lookout in the cockpit, while mandatory, was useless, and we were relying heavily on AIS and RADAR to avoid making new friends on the Pacific.

"What's his range?" I asked, acknowledging that I was not, in fact, asleep.

"'Bout a mile and a quarter," Lyneita replied.

"What’s his bearing?" I continued, rolling over and cuddling my pillow under my cheek.

"Twenty right ... er, starboard," came the reply.

"Is it changing?" I pursued my line of questioning in an attempt to lead Lyneita out of her concern in an Aristotelian process.

"No," she replied.

I cleared the lea cloth in a bound ,and was standing slightly behind her at the nav station, in a second, staring over her shoulder and nudging her slightly to the right as I tried to focus on the green glow of the Furuno's display. Sure enough, there was a solid contact, about twenty right and the range was now at a mile.

"Put the cursor over him," I said, trying not to sound overly concerned.

Lyneita fiddled with the track ball on the RADAR console and placed the electronic cursor on the display over the target. After a pause, the target emerged from under the cursor and it continued its slow progress towards the centre of the display - towards us...

All this was happening slowly, very slowly. We were still quite far apart and it was important to figure out what was going on and do the right thing - once.

"What have you done so far?" I asked.

"Well," she replied , "I first saw him at about two miles off to the right. He appeared to be moving down the scope so I turned left to stay away from him."

"Sooooo, what happened?" I continued, without taking my eyes off the target, which was now getting close to three quarters of a mile.

"He drifted down the scope, but then it's like he turned and started to come towards us again," Lyneita explained as we both watched the RADAR display intently.

"He's not a ship ‘cause there's nothing on the AIS, and he doesn't seem to be very big, and he's not going very quickly," she added.

"Okay," I said, as calmly as I could, " Go up to the autopilot and turn us starboard 90 degrees."

"90 degrees?" she asked, not believing what I had said.

"Yeah, 90. We've got to kick him out to the other side to get away from his vector..."

Lyneita clambered up the companionway and a second later the Autohelm began whirring and I could feel the boat change heading to the right in the rolling swell.

In the midst of all this I had a vivid flashback to a night many years ago. I was in the cockpit of a Voodoo, somewhere over northern B.C. , playing hide and seek with invisible targets at thirty thousand feet during a NORAD exercise. Of course, that was at 600 knots, not six, but the principles were the same. What was it the nav's did? ... kick him out 60 degrees one side or the other. Watch and see what he does and then react to that? In those days, in those old machines, we maneuvered aggressively in gut wrenching turns and climbs and descents. By comparison, what Lyneita and I were doing was in slow motion, an electronic tango, where we danced with an unseen partner and the only motion was the surge and fall of each ocean swell as it passed beneath us.

"Okay,” I thought , "Let’s see how this works in boats!"

Of course, in the air, it would be possible to climb or descent in order to miss the other guy. This game we were playing was all at sea level - so to speak. Also, I didn't know who the other boat was and I didn't know if he could see us. NORAD exercises were scripted and closely controlled - this was spontaneous and, for real.

Lyneita had made the correct first turn, but for some reason the other guy had turned in towards us. Why? I reasoned that, if you can't get in front of him, go behind. He was crossing right to left, so he had the right of way because, if we could see him, we would be staring at his portside red light. Red means Stop. So, we had to avoid him and, if he knew we were there, he would know that and he should maintain his course. But he had turned. Why?

Lyneita was back beside me now and we both watched as the target, now 40 degrees on the left side of the scope, did not at first appear to be moving at all. Then, very slowly, the bearing angle began to increase and the target drifted lazily down the scope - a good thing!

By the time the target was ninety degrees to the left, it had closed to less than a half a mile before, finally, slowly, the range began to increase. Then, it stopped increasing and began to decrease again, but this time staying well aft of abeam. We were past it, but the target had turned again and now seemed to be pursuing us. What was he doing?

This was getting spooky. We were close to ninety miles off the Washington coast in the Pacific Ocean, motoring at five knots, in the fog, in the middle of the night, and we were playing video games with a green dot on the RADAR display. I had visions of US Coast Guard stealth cutters playing security games. I prepared myself for the possibility of being boarded by square jawed young men who would point guns at us and leave ugly black boot marks on our decks. I mentally reviewed where all our documents, permits and licenses were so that I could produce them. And then, just as I was reaching for the VHF radio microphone to attempt to hail this other boat, the target range began increasing again... how bizarre.

Then, it hit me.

"He's fishing!" I said.

"This far out?" Lyneita replied. "What's he fishing for out here?"

"Not crab!" I said under my breath. "He’s going back and forth; he's got to be pulling in nets or whatever they do..."

We both watched in silence as the mysterious target drifted lower and lower on the RADAR display until at about two miles it disappeared entirely. I increased the RADAR gain and got two more sweeps on him before he disappeared again, this time for good.

"So, figure he's gone?" I asked rhetorically.

"Looks like it," Lyneita agreed. "I'll put us back on course." And with that, she returned to the cockpit and a few seconds later the autopilot whirred and the boat slowly turned back to port, toward San Francisco.

Apparently we were alone again. This was a good thing. I popped my head up through the companionway and did a scan of the horizon - such as it was... I could see nothing, nada, zilch... just clammy darkness in the foggy gloom which glowed ever so slightly from the light cast by our own navigation lights. We could be anywhere at that point in time - just off the coast, or a thousand miles off shore. The ocean would look the same. Out there, somewhere, some other soul was earning his living, fishing on this dark foggy night, over half a day from his warm bed and the ones he loved. He may not even have seen us - although I imagine he did and was happy to keep doing what he did, comfortable with the distance between us while we, the novices, drove around him not quite sure what was going on. I wondered who he was.

I returned to my bunk and resumed my attempts to sleep.

In an hour and a half I would be back on watch.

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