Saturday, July 26, 2014

Yahoos in the Night

South Burlington, VT
Have you ever seen the film clip showing the infinite vastness of the sand dunes in the Kalahari Desert. As it zooms in, you see two beetles running across the surface. They cross dune after dune until, bam, head on collision. It was funny because it was so preposterous.
We love crossing Lake Champlain at night. It is especially nice on a calm clear night when the stars are brilliant. As a rule, there is very little boat traffic out there to watch out for. But (here comes the story) not always.
We had just passed Juniper Island and we were headed for Shelburne Point. Libby was at the helm and (luckily) I was on deck helping watch out, for buoys with a hand held search light. I saw a vessel 1/4 mile to starboard. It appeared to be sitting still, so I ignored it. We had running lights and steaming light on.
Suddenly, the still vessel came to life and headed toward us at high speed. Perhaps 30-40 knots. It had running lights, but also a search light that appeared to be fixed in position pointing straight ahead. I pointed our search light at the driver's eyes. That's the standard way to get attention of another vessel at night. There was no time to reach for the horn and give the danger warning of 5 blasts. The yahoo on the other boat probably would not have heard anyhow.
No response. It continued coming faster and faster. I flashed again and again. Finally I ordered Libby "Emergency Full Reverse".
Just then, a third vessel appeared. It was a motor boat overtaking us on the starboard side between us and the speeding boat. It too shifted to emergency reverse and stopped beside us. At the last moment, the speeding boat finally saw us and it too stopped.
There we were, that whole big lake with 1000 square miles of surface, with three boats in the middle of the night stopped with less than a boat length between us. After a minute to catch our breath, all three boats went on their way. Whew, what a close call.

My theory was that the speeding boat's search light ruined the driver's night vision. Since that light was pointing straight ahead, the driver could not see the other vessels approaching from the side. Part of the beam may have illuminated his own bow right in front of him. He didn't even see my search light flashing at him. Coast Guard rules dictate minimum lighting, but not maximum lighting. In my humble opinion, any lights which impair the helmsman' stability to see ahead of his vessel should be banned.

P.s in my own post mortem assessment, I realized that I might have warned him better if I used my search light to illuminate the side of our white hull. If we had our sails up, I would have illuminated the sails.


  1. I am content sailing offshore at night, but I avoid restricted waters after dark for the very reason your tale illustrates. For example, although we travel the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays by day, we are almost never caught there after dark.

  2. Perhaps a handheld airhorn at the ready may have been useful. Lights at night are deceiving, so it's obvious why the other driver didn't make the connection. If you travel at night you can't rely on your 'lights' to attract or alert another boater, even colored steam lights. Everything blends. We don't understand how those little fast fishing boats can travel so fast at night without 'seeing'.


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