UPDATED: A midnight encounter with a Navy ship and what we learned from it.

14 Jun

Position: 37° 45’N, 069° 24’W

UPDATE Tuesday, June 23: To hear what Doug, the owner of the HR43, had to say about his experience from the story below, listen to him on the latest ’59º North’ podcast episode. Click here.


I was sleeping on the port settee, the first time since we started this trip back in NYC that we were on starboard tack and I wasn’t hanging in the lee cloth. So a nice cozy sleep, and I was out cold. We’d been motor sailing all night, and the wind was veering around from SW to an expected NE as we passed through a very weak cold front. We we’re smack in the Gulf Stream to boot, but starting to make progress again in the right direction.

Loud voices and a luffing mainsail rousted me. I grabbed my glasses and peered out the companionway to see what the commotion was all about. Behind us – just, and I mean yards away – loomed the dull grey sides of a Navy ship as she slipped past. I could make out a helicopter on her aft deck bathed in yellow work lights and a few guys milling about. ‘Holy shit, holy shit!’ was all that Doug and Alyce could muster in the immediate aftermath. I didn’t fully comprehend what had happened until I climbed outside and watched the ship slide by our port side. Another few seconds of inaction – or should I say WRONG action (I’ll get to that) – by Doug, Blue Heron’s owner, and I’m sure we’d be dead.


Well, we aren’t dead. At least I don’t think so. I had to pinch myself to be honest in the aftermath just to make sure. I’ve never ever come that close before. But I do have a similar story that I shared with Doug that I’ll get to. But first, what actually went down.

Doug and Alyce were on watch, the rest of us asleep. They had the graveyard shift (ironic name) from 0000-0300. Around 1230 or so, according to their story that we talked through after, a Navy ship came on the radio asking them to change course so they could safely pass. We’re about due East from Norfolk, by the way. Doug obliged, and they safely passed. They were even on AIS, ‘USNS APACHE’. It’s breezy from the NNE, but otherwise clear. The stars are out, and with the new northerly wind, all the humidity is gone from the air, a welcome respite.

Anyway. Shortly thereafter, Doug and Alyce identified another set of lights on the horizon to starboard, and started monitoring it. Nothing on the AIS though. Alyce thought she saw something on the chart, but it’s not clear what, or if she meant AIS or actually printed on the chart. They’d been navigating on the Furuno NavNet chartplotter that’s in the cockpit under the hardtop. Alyce is on her first ocean passage. She’s been sailing before, but only recreationally and never at night to my knowledge.

Both Doug and Alyce were unsure of these new lights. They concluded that it must be a platform of some sort, anyway something that was stationary. Doug altered course slightly to port. The object was still on a constant bearing (though Doug didn’t think of it this way yet), so he continued altering course to port. All the while I’m asleep. Eventually, and almost too late, Doug realized his mistake – it was a ship after all and had actually been moving. Doug’s course alterations – they were wrong, which I’ll get to – were simply keeping it on a collision course with us. In the end, he turned hard to port and actually did a loop to let it pass. And JUST. It wasn’t even funny-close. It was effing scary-close.


Rule #1 when I came aboard Blue Heron as skipper for this shakedown cruise (Doug and Tasha had bought the boat, an HR43, about a year ago and hired me to help them get safe offshore experience) was that the crew wake me up at the SLIGHTEST inkling of doubt. Whether course change, sail change, confusing lights, whatever. My life when I’m asleep is literally in the hands of those on watch and I needed to be SURE they’d get me at the slightest question.

I think we’d all gotten dulled into complacency by the ease if the trip so far. Nice sailing, good visibility. The homeward leg, only 275 miles to NYC to complete the circle. For whatever reason, Doug and Alyce didn’t wake me, and proceeded assuming what they saw was a stationary platform.

As an aside, I made exactly the same mistake in 2012. Mia and I were sailing Arcturus across the North Sea from Scotland to Sweden. Our first big double handed passage, four on, four off. The North Sea of course is littered with oil rigs. At any given time at night we could see a dozen of them. Arcturus was motoring in light air, I was hand steering. I saw what I thought was just another platform and altered to port. Same thing happened. Before it got too close though, I woke Mia for a second opinion. In my sleep-deprived state I’d made a poor call. She saw right away it was a ship and we averted disaster a lot sooner than in this case tonight, though it was a strikingly similar series of events that could have caused trouble.

The first mistake was not waking me. The second was not realizing he was in a CBDR – Constant Bearing, Decreasing Range – situation. A collision course. The third was the following.

In both cases the un-identified lights were to starboard, and in both cases we incorrectly altered course to port. Since it was indeed a ship, and we were both under power, we in fact were the give-way vessel. Anytime you’ve got another boat from dead ahead to 120 degrees to your starboard, they’ve got right of way (assuming you’re both motoring). And in that case, you ALWAYS alter to starboard. Mistake number 3. By altering to port, Doug was keeping Blue Heron in that CBDR situation. Because it was nighttime, he had a tough time judging the distance (range), and didn’t realize his mistake until it was almost too late.


I was too scared at first to be angry (that came later), but once the dust settled, we talked through what happened. I guarantee that Doug will never get himself in that situation again. Nothing quite like a near-death experience to properly engrain some new knowledge.

In the end though, we took away the following:

1. Wake the skipper when there are ANY questions.

With my new business on Isbjörn, our Swan 48, I’ll be putting myself in this same situation over and again – inexperienced crew on watch while I sleep. Somehow I need to do a better job of getting this point across. And crew, you need to take it seriously.

2. Learn your lights & Rules of the Road.

3. Learn how to determine a CBDR situation at night.

It’s as easy as watching the un-identified lights in relation to a fixed point on your boat. A shroud or stanchion, say. Or get out the hand bearing compass. You have one right? If it doesn’t move in relation to that, you’ve got a constant bearing. It’s hard to judge distance at night, but constant bearing is enough to know you ought to do something.

4. Recognize a chain of events that might lead to trouble and break it!

Doug’s decision-making process was the classic domino effect that so often leads to disaster. One small error compounded over time and before you know it it’s too late. Recognize the POSSIBILITY of such a chain of poor decisions – even if you think you’ve made the right one – and take action to break that chain, even by simply getting a second opinion, before it’s too late. Be humble.

5. Plan for the worst.

What would have happened had we been too late in turning? Tasha, Oskar and I were all asleep down below. Doug and Alyce might have wound up in the drink unscathed if we’d had a direct collision. They had PFDs on, and presumably the offending ship would have stopped to help. But us three in the cabin? Our chances would have been pretty slim of escaping the wreckage for one, and staying afloat without PFDs.

If you recall the Rambler 100 incident in the Fastnet Race a few years back, you’ll know they lost their keel shortly after rounding the rock and the boat turned turtle rather suddenly. But they were a pro crew and had drilled for this kind if thing. Remarkably, the off watch had the presence of mind to not only escape the boat, but grab their PFDs in the process. They all survived.

When you’re asleep on passage, do you know EXACTLY where your personal PFD is, and could you grab it in the dark in a panic? We’d been lax in this area too, chucking our PFDs in a pile on the starboard settee. Correctable mistakes were made to cause this near miss with the ship, but what if we’d have hit a container? You’ll never see that, so not much you can do there but be prepared when the water starts rushing in. I think I’ll be sleeping closer to my PFD from now on.


I got a bit angry at Doug after the adrenaline wore off and I tried to go back to sleep. He broke Rule #1, and in doing so, put us all in danger.

But I got pissed at myself too. Somehow that ‘call the captain’ rule wasn’t taken seriously enough, and I have to shoulder some of that blame. We also hadn’t, in hindsight, briefed the chart in enough detail. There are no fixed platforms in this part of the ocean, so that error should have never happened. Doug was also conferring with Alyce. Nothing against her, but she’s the least experienced crew on board, and he should have asked me.

Anyway, we escaped unscathed, and now all we can do is take this forward, learn from it ourselves, and tell the story to others as a cautionary tale. Doug knows that he’ll forever be the subject of my ‘what not to do’ speech anytime I brief a new crew from now on! That may be a little embarrassing, but he’ll certainly never make the same mistake.

Until next time..

This article was syndicated from Andy's Blog - 59º North Offshore Sailing Adventures


  1. John Meskauskas

    Andy, thanks for sharing this experience, and the writers of the various comments. This blog is a great reminder that, at night, we will see some vessels which follow the Rules and experience others which do not. It’s easy to be lulled into thinking that all is well when it’s not. It’s also easy to not deploy all the tools we have- judgment, AIS, radar, and ultimately a strong light in a sweep. Most of all, don’t expect ANY of them to be definitive. I’ve been almost run down by a barge when I tacked aft of a tug (not realizing it was towing- my fault, don’t remember why) and had to do a crash tack to avoid it. Relative to the Navy, it’s disconcerting to be on a coastal voyage and recognize that there are ships out there which don’t want to be “seen” but that’s the way it is. For me, I think the key is to EXPECT that they will be there and to maintain course and speed unless there is VHF contact to the contrary. If necessary to change course, I’ll go on the VHF, announce who I am, where I am, and what I’m doing. Finally, having experienced a VHF radio failure on a short voyage lately. I have a handheld and a spare now.

  2. Daria

    I love Jim’s comment “Call me if in any doubt about being in doubt.”

    Thanks for sharing this experience. I’ve had no close calls like this but have had several offshore experiences when I just couldn’t figure out what I was seeing. One turned out to be a fish factory ship with multiple smaller vessels deploying nets – very confusing visually. I called Alex to come on deck and we figured it out together. When we came close enough to see it, the factory ship was enormous.

    Whenever confused, I always turn on the radar and try to hail the other vessel on VHF. If you can see them, they can hear you. Had several very good conversations with skippers of giant ships out there. A few in very broken English but clear enough to get our points across. One told me he would pass precisely .5 mile astern of me and asked me to maintain course and speed. Another told me “I am longliner. I stop engine.” Taking action early makes a big difference in outcomes. And comfort.

  3. Rich

    It is easy to become complacent, feel weary, sick, queezy which allows errors to creep in. And it is really easy to watch/snooze the dark hours… especially shorthanded.

    The final analysis is to remember the classic definition of seamanship.

  4. Andy

    Thanks for all the comments gang. Sorry for those of you who think the intention of this post was to ‘chastise’ the owner. Doug and I discussed this at length and how we could talk about it so other’s can learn from OUR mistakes! I was the skipper, I take the blame – somewhere along the line I wasn’t explicit enough in my standing orders, and hadn’t briefed the chart for that part of the ocean. This post was intended to make an example of us and how others can avoid a similar fate. Classroom theory is one thing – being in the moment is yet another. Eventually you have to put your knowledge to the test in the real world, and sometimes you get it wrong.

    In fact, Doug very happily came on my podcast to discuss what happened from his perspective (that episode comes out tomorrow at 59-north.com/sailingpodcast). So to all the haters out there, maybe it’s worth waiting to see how the owner himself felt about the situation and putting my article into context. So thanks to the vast majority of you who wrote positive comments and actually saw the point of me publishing this piece.

  5. Mike Harrington

    Like Jim, we are thankful that all on board are here to talk about their experience. Thanks for sharing this incident; it’s not easy to parade our mistakes for all to see. The lesson is a great reminder that there is no substitute for planning and safety. The article made me look at myself; I can get complacent. Sometimes inexperienced crew are reluctant to ask because they don’t want to appear “inexperienced.” We need to insist that they get over that. Thanks

  6. Jim

    Thanks for a great article and thankfull all were ok. Having stood many bridge watches as an OOD on a destroyer this story reminded me of The “Captain’s Night Order Book”, detailing certain things the skipper wanted to be called for. The last paragraph always added:
    Call me if in doubt.
    Call me if in any doubt about being in doubt.

  7. George Stone Bear

    Already been said. Where was the RADAR? Always avail yourself of all tools on hand when navigational questions arise underway, and cross compare what you’re seeing to arrive at the best course of action. Assumptions have consequences…

  8. Craig Ramsey

    Rings home with me. CBDR
    Returning from a 150mi race along the Texas coast, I was sailing a Hunter 38 with a full moon and no radar. I had been using a lit rig as a point of sail for several hours and at about 2 miles I changed course 10 degrees to pass the rig (3 vertical white lights) on the lee side.
    It seemed to be taking forever to get past the rig and I altered course 2 more times to lee before over taking another sailboat underway. He had his anchor light ON along with stern and mast head lights.
    At 5kts I should have covered the 2mi in a much shorter time but I didn’t feel safe correcting back to windward.

  9. Hilton Libanori

    AIS does not substitute a radar. If they had the radar on, the CBDR condition would be recognized much before they could see the ship. What if the visual conditions were bad? Radar use was not considered in the whole text.

  10. Rollo

    Well, I was a Navy officer (OD Underway)The Apache was a USNS ship; not a combatant. They frequently do not have the full watch complement of a warship. It was probably traveling under “Iron Mike,” an autopilot, and didn’t want to change course. They didn’t have any obligation to do so unless a collision was imminent.

    The problem was a terribly inexperienced crew crossing a busy sea lane at night. If someone was a hired “Captain,” they should have ensured the people on watch knew what to do and when. It’s lucky you people were not killed.

  11. REn

    If they had known lights/colors this would not have happened. Hello, first basic piece of knowledge.

  12. Kevin Rundle

    Are you sure about your statement, ” Anytime you’ve got another boat from dead ahead to 120 degrees to your starboard, they’ve got right of way (assuming you’re both motoring). And in that case, you ALWAYS alter to starboard.”

    A vessel 120 degrees to starboard would put that vessel behind you and turning to starboard would head you towards or closer to the target. Rule 14 does not include a reference to 120 degrees of sweep.

    Rule 14 – Head-on Situation

    (a) [ Unless otherwise agreed ] when two power-driven vessels are meeting on reciprocal or nearly reciprocal courses so as to involve risk of collision each shall alter her course to starboard so that each shall pass on the port side of the other.

    (b) Such a situation shall be deemed to exist when a vessel sees the other ahead or nearly ahead and by night she could see the masthead lights of the other in a line or nearly in a line and/or both sidelights and by day she observes the corresponding aspect of the other vessel.

  13. Sailor Sam

    While there is never a shortage of arm chair critics to second guess others _____ the truth of the matter is simple that as humans each one of us has a variable ability to see at night and our minds all have a varying degree of ability to actually recognize what we are seeing and to mentally use the information we are seeing to determine the correct course of action.
    The best decision any sailor can make is to turn off every light that is not absolutely required and necessary in the cockpit. The ability of all humans to see at night is vastly improved when we are not looking at lights such as chart plotters or radar screens in the cockpit. The darker the cockpit is the better. Whenever we are uncertain and confused we should always turn on our spreader lights and a spot light to make sure the other vessel sees us and knows we are there also. Never assume the other vessel sees you or knows you are there.

  14. Jim Carey

    Several years ago I was on a drug patrol with the USCG. We were returning from patrolling 300 miles off of the Carolinas en route to Cape May when we saw two fast movers heading west to Norfolk. When “painted”, they were too big for druggies. They were just the right size for USN frigates. Attempts at radio contact were ignored and there was no way we would even be able to intercept them had we wanted to do so. We would have appreciated a response on VHF however. I once asked a cruise ship captain operating primarily in the Caribbean how we sailboaters came up on radar if we weren’t “flying” a reflector; his response was the only thing they could consistently make out wasn’t the rigging, wasn’t the mast, but was the engine block! And that isn’t a big target!

  15. brian eiland

    Many years ago I had a really freaky encounter with a number of Navy ships conducting night maneuvers off of Hatteras. I was on night watch aboard a beautiful 62 ft ketch sailing south when we encounter a aircraft carrier and support ships mostly ‘blacked out’ for some sort of carrier landing practices. Our radar images were not ‘jiving’ with all the ships in the area, and the carrier was so dark we did not realize it was a carrier until a couple of jets launched off of it.

    Then another radar contact that appeared directly in front of us appeared, the disappeared (we figured it might have been a sub that usually accompanies carrier forces.

    The 2 far off helo’s that were flying at sea level, and were far enough away that we could not detect their noise added to the confusion. I wrote about it long ago on some forum, but can’t find that posting. It was a freaky night at sea.

  16. Tom R

    I’ve had several close encounters of the scarry kind. All occured in the Straights of Florida and at night.
    The most notable was during a training trip with a married couple on my 30ft boat. We were heading back to Marathon Florida from a round trip to near Havana in 35 knots of wind blowing counter to the Gulf Stream and 15 ft seas (read lots of spray in the helmsman’s face). The glasses-wearing husband was on watch
    and couldn’t see well with his wet glasses. I was taking my off-watch rest in the cocpit. He suddenly shook me awake and shouted “Are those lights over there?” Yep, red and green and really close. I threw the autopilot into nutral and spun the wheel just in time to miss a container ship.
    I hadn’t realized he was near blind without his glasses and couldn’t see with them because of all the spray. When you assign a watch, be sure the person is able to perform all the required duties in the current conditions.

  17. Jeffery Hanson

    One thing to note is if you are moving a stationary object can never be constant bearing unless it is dead ahead or dead astern.

  18. ARL

    I agree with Mr Sandberg comment. No need to chastise the people who hired you by name. They hired you to learn seamanship not to have their mistakes broadcast on an international forum. Sounds like a CYA move; very unprofessional

  19. CDR Andrew Graham, US Navy (ret.)

    Even the Navy gets complacent. Years ago I was aboard a Sumner Class destroyer steaming down Long Island Sound in heavy fog. We were returning to Brooklyn from Newport as part of a 2 week reserve cruise. We were light on crew so the skipper was pushing as he had no relief for the engineering watch. As a junior officer with little sea-going experience (but a lot on small craft) I took a position on the starboard wing of the bridge where there was mounted a pair of very powerful binoculars. Through the fog, I saw what appeared to be a white super-structure. Noting the bearing, I waited a minute and checked again. It was the same. I promptly notified the captain(who had the con)in the pilot house. He took a look and said it was a house on the CT shore. I took another bearing – still the same. Again, I reported with obvious concern to the captain that I was seeing a constant bearing. He checked again and this time I was rebuffed. I looked again. The bearing was unchanged, but then I saw something new. Not the hull, but the white bone in the vessel’s teeth. When I told the captain this, he came out took one look and ordered all back full. A Sumner Class destroyer at cruising speed can stop in 3 times its own length, so the approaching ferry easily passed ahead in plain view. The skipper didn’t have much to say to me the rest of the day and I never found out why it wasn’t seen on our surface search radar in either Combat or the bridge.

  20. First Last

    I have taught Power Squadron courses. I have always instructed the sudents to:Pay attention to the (Nav) lights; believe them. Beware of the lights that do not move. We all rational based on our experience. “Local” knowledge, to me, would dismiss an (oil) platform in those waters.Of course I do not have complete knowledge of the event. Regardless of the rules, at night, waiting for another vessel to manuvuer correctly can have catastrophic
    consequences. If you see”red” manuvuer sharply to
    starboard, if ” green” move sharply to port. These manuvuers will allow you to pass astern the other vessel. Make sure the course changes are NOT gradual. This allows the other vessel to easily determine your intentions

  21. Bill Sandberg

    It was a bad situation, but did you publicly have to chastise these people and name names? I would never hire you as a captain.

  22. joel weinbaum

    I can’t imagine a US Navy ship operating close in to a small sailing vessel. Is there not a requirement for the smaller vessel to have a radar reflector hoisted on the mast. The bridge of a US Navy vessel operates with a full staff on the bridge and in CIC while underway. Radar operators down below, lookouts posted on the wings of the bridge, two conning officers, a helmsman and lee helmsman, all have eyes looking for other vessels. Where were the navigational lights of the sailboat. Was it an American ship. Was a marine radio used to contact the ship. Too many questions and too long an article not to the point. I’ve been there…way back. Hull numbers or name on the fantail?

  23. Bob

    I guess I’m being overly simple but were Doug and Alyce not familiar with the difference between stationary platform lighting config and running lights of a vessel under way (redundant I know). Seems to have missed honorable mention in the debriefing.

  24. Dave Melzer

    I also experienced a military encounter at night. Jorge may believe our military doesn’t possess cloaking capabilities, my experience convinced me it does have. My passing within 1,500 ft. At night no AIS targets, no radar returns, and no running lights, only when at CPA,did we see the 150′ grey vessel off to our starboard did we know something was out there. Y3s, the radar is accurate, I can pick up a nun buoy at 6 miles.

    S/V Slice of Life

  25. Eric J

    I was once motoring at night in a narrow canal. The hill in the distance, an otherwise urban area, was completely black. I figured they had a blackout.

    Until I realized one green light and one red light were on either side of the hill. I was head-on to an oncoming barge. I quickly scooted far to the side of a channel. Scart.

  26. Beth Tyler

    My husband, Ripper, tells the story of being a 10 year old on board a sailboat delivery trip from Annapolis to NYC with his dad as seasoned crew with others. Ripper was on night shift with 2 grown men, his dad asleep before his shift would start. the men saw lights, couldn’t make out what it was. decided it was so wide apart it had to be 2 boats. Skipper decided to split them and go between. This didn’t make any sense to Ripper, with what he dad had thought him racing in Annapolis, MD. Knowing these men wouldn’t listen to a 10 year old – Ripper went below, woke his dad, George, to come up and take a look. It was a freaking car carrier ship and they were aimed straight into her bow.
    They are alive, too.

  27. Jorge Bermudez

    I did not know that the U.S. Navy had mastered the art of cloacking devices. Andy I disagree on your statement about always turning right. You are speaking of Rule 19, Conduct of vessels in restricted visibility. That rule does not apply in this case. The Rule that applies is Rule 15, Crossing Situation which does not specify which direction to turn. It just says you have to stay out of the way. Hard to believe that boat didn’t have radar though.

  28. Tom

    I can think of many situations where not waking the skipper would be a violation of “rule 1.” But I think this scenario is perhaps not one of them. Or, its only a breach of the rule in hindsight. As the skipper made the ‘same mistake’ 3 years ago, with many ocean miles in the books, isn’t this near miss somewhat predictable with 2 new passage makers alone, in the night, surrounded by all the new and eerie weirdness of being in a small boat on a big sea? It has been said that ‘education is hanging around until you get it.” This crew gets it! No criticism intended, just saying this will be a hard one to impress on people before hand. Thank you Andy for sharing this.

  29. Rod Sauls

    andy’s encounter with a navy ship was indeed a dangerious situation. As he pointed out his vessel was at fault but what about the ship,
    I always thought one of the main missions of a navl ship is to know and monitor everything going on around it at all times. Isn’t this how they train.
    Let’s hear some responce from this ships officers or some ex naval officers.

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