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Old 04-29-2008, 09:52 AM   #1
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Hi everyone,

We were out this weekend on an overnighter. We left San Diego harbor shortly before sunset Saturday and set a course NW. Both David and I love to be on the water at night and with a 70% moon we knew we'd have enough light to enjoy the sail. Because of currents and lack of wind, we knew we were barely keeping a position due west of the harbor entrance; by midnight, we'd only moved about 10 miles from the harbor entrance. We were having fun, so we kept sailing rather than startup the motor. At one point, the wind totally died and on a glassy sea we watched the moon rise.

We were surrounded by dolphins at the time and the water fluoresced with tiny white/green light around their bodies as the played with each other diving under the boat and popping up on the other side. Before the moonrise, in the darkness it looked like the ghosts of dolphins racing around underwater. The wind picked up a bit and we started sailing NW again (well, pointing NW, but maintaining W); the only sound still the jumping of the dolphins, their "blow" sounds as they surfaced and an occasional sound of the rigging in the shifting light wind.

The dolphins played alongside the hull for another half hour as we sailed and then left us on our own. After hours of swimming alongside us they were gone. Then, we heard the faint deep hum of a high power engine to the south of us. As we listened, the faint sound of the engine quickly grew louder. It was coming from the Southwest and as it grew louder it appeared to be heading right for us. To the east, with the moon, we could see all the way to the city some 10 miles or so away; to the west, we could see nothing. We could not see a boat but we could hear its fast arrival. Thinking of drunken people out for a joyride or possibly nefarious ones coming up from Mexico smuggling something (Mexico is only a few miles to the south of us) we decided not to count on them seeing our cabin-top mounted navigation lights against the backdrop of twinkling lights in the city 10 miles away, and knowing it takes too long to run below to turn on the white mast-top strobe light or use the radio set up to transmit, I grabbed a battery powered spotlight and flashed it up onto the sails, lighting the boat and then swung the light towards the now very loud motor. I could see nothing. But, immediately on the handheld radio that we monitored channel 16 on in the cockpit we heard a faint, crisp, non-English accented "Salud." We'd not heard a radio call for at least a half hour and this came within seconds of my flashing the light on the sails. Still, no call to us, no identifier of who they were or what they'd just see (sailboat flashing a white light on the sails?), we weren't sure that the greeting was for us except within a few more seconds, the constant bearing-decreasing range ever louder sound of the motor changed direction...ah...they were going behind us, so close and we still couldn't see them but as they passed in the dark we breathed a sigh of relief.

Relief, until they turned on their nav lights about 100 yards behind us and we could see them turning towards us in an arc. Their boat came alongside us with a blinding spotlight shining and then as they came to match our snails sailing pace, we could barely see on the side of their boat under the blinding (did I mention blinding?) spotlight pointed our way, the emblem of Homeland Security. Ah, relief, we weren't about to be accosted by a bunch of drunken folks or nefarious folks bent on smuggling something to or from Mexico! It was just Big Brother. Asking the usual--where did you come from, who are you, how many people are on board type questions...oh yes, and after ruining my night vision with that durn spotlight, they roared off to the South-Southwest. A bit later, we heard on the radio "Salud" and figured they'd come across another victim. A few minutes later, the numerous dolphins returned and stayed with us until 7:30 the next morning.

What would YOU have done? I mean, make a radio call? And say "to the nut with no nav lights headed directly towards me, please don't hit me?" That's pretty lame. We didn't have our GPS turned on, so we couldn't quickly cite our location with a call to "look out! you crazy nut headed my way with no nav lights..." Plus, if they weren't bothering with nav lights, who knew if they actually knew where they were in terms of lat/long.

We both are a bit incensed that a security authority/law enforcement entity would completely disregard the use of navigation lights while operating at high speed. I mean, its not like we couldn't HEAR them--they certainly weren't sneaky. Perhaps (hopefully) they were using infrared lenses to direct their own movement, but I'm quite perplexed about this.
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Old 04-29-2008, 10:15 AM   #2
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Having worked for many years in a coast guard organisation (not the U.S. but one quite similar in its organisation) I can tell you that it is not uncommon for surveillance vessels when on specific duties to run without navigation lights. This puts the entire onus for collision avoidance on the patrol vessel but, as you say, if their engines are so loud then they may as well light up the skies as far as sailing vessels are concerned. Power vessels would probably not hear the patrol boats engines over the sound of their own.

What is worrying is when you know that there is a vessel out there without running lights. One wonders are they the cavalry or the bad guys?

Of course, directing a searchlight directly into the bridge or cockpit of a smaller vessel is not on. This is extremely intimidating and dangerous as it blinds the watch-keeper. But when have US authorities been worried about intimidating others?

I remember a similar incident about 35 years ago when I was passing Corrigan (spelling?) Island at the entrance to Manila Bay. We were outbound from Manila to Keelung and so the authorities should have known well who we were but none the less when I looked astern I clearly saw a patrol boat illuminated by the moonlight and following us sans navigation lights. Being a little provocative, I took out the Aldis lamp (the signal projector being far too strong a light at the short distance) and signalled that their lights were out or burning badly. No response. New signal. No response. New signal and they reversed their course.

Since then, I have spent many years at sea in coast guard cutters and other patrol boats but unless I knew I had a "bad guy" in front of me I never directed a searchlight into the bridge or cockpit of a boat. With the bad guys it is a different matter as one wants to ruin their night vision.

IMHO Homeland Security have in this case shown very poor seamanship and ought to be chastised for that.

Aye // Stephen
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Old 04-29-2008, 10:19 AM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by redbopeep View Post
Hi everyone,

It was just Big Brother. Asking the usual--where did you come from, who are you, how many people are on board type questions...oh yes, and after ruining my night vision with that durn spotlight, they roared off to the South-Southwest. A bit later, we heard on the radio "Salud" and figured they'd come across another victim. A few minutes later, the numerous dolphins returned and stayed with us until 7:30 the next morning.

What would YOU have done? I mean, make a radio call? And say "to the nut with no nav lights headed directly towards me, please don't hit me?" That's pretty lame. We didn't have our GPS turned on, so we couldn't quickly cite our location with a call to "look out! you crazy nut headed my way with no nav lights..." Plus, if they weren't bothering with nav lights, who knew if they actually knew where they were in terms of lat/long.
Brenda,

Obviously I wasn't there , but my natuaral reaction would have been to open VHF Comms,

Demand to know who they were . Not to be intimidated, Take photographs - report - inform forums like us - include Lat 38 nearer to home.

Richard
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Old 04-29-2008, 10:27 AM   #4
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Hi,

IMHO if they need to run without lights to catch the bad guys- then they should do it. But agree - the actions in this case seem strange. The few times we've contacted a US warship by radio they've been extremely polite and helpful.

If I were in the same situation I would have as you suggested, used the radio to hopefully make contact with the approaching vessel - and by doing so also let the wider world know what was happening.

Cheers

JOHN
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Old 04-29-2008, 11:37 AM   #5
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Back in '86 as we were crossing the Mona Channel from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico, a similar thing happened to us. The Mona Passage is a lumpy strait with lots and lots of ship traffic and a hard on the wind sail for us to make P.R. I was alone on watch when I saw a ship with their navigation lights on approaching us on a collision course. We didn't have a hand-held radio then and rather than go below to hail them, I shone our light onto the sails to show the ship what we were. It didn't change course and kept heading straight for us, so I called Peter to get him up and alert. He got onto the radio and tried hailing them, with no result. Finally, they got close enough to shine their spotlight onto our cockpit, and then identified themselves and asked us to identify ourselves. If I remember correctly, they also asked us to prepare for boarding, which made me very anxious. However, we had already been boarded by the USCG twice in the past six months, so Peter gave them the two boarding I.D. numbers and they confirmed we were who we said we were and told us to be on our way.

From their point of view, we might have been a drug smuggler, or more likely a boat from Haiti, Cuba, or the Dominican Republic smuggling illegals into the US. Since Puerto Rico is a port of entry there is no passport check required to fly to mainland US. It's how so many illegals get/got into the country.

I don't like it, we were needlessly disturbed, but I can also understand why they behaved the way they did. Same with the go-fast boat that encountered redbopeep, which sounds as if they were trying to trap smugglers of .. whatever, drugs or people.

I guess we have to put it down to the uncertain times in which we live.
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Old 04-29-2008, 04:01 PM   #6
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To swiftly eturn to the searchlight issue. The use of the light was totally irresponsible and unnecessary. In this day and age warships, coast guard cutters etc have night glasses which turn darkness ino daylight, albeit monochrome daylight. They are equipped with infra-red cameras which can read the name of you vessel in darkness. The use of a searchlight in the manner redbopeep described is nothing short of intimidation and an example of poor seamanship.

The people on the government vessel may be good civil servants but their seamanship skills are off the scale. Good seamanship is 90% common sense and courtesey. These people exhibited none of either.

Obviously smugglers need to be trapped but we are living in the 21st centuary and the US if any country has the wealth and knowledge to do that without recourse to Victorian methodologies and standards.

Aye // Stephen
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Old 04-29-2008, 04:13 PM   #7
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Leaving Ft. Lauderdale some 25 years ago. We got the same sound of a powerful engine. Twilight had just started, and then we noticed the sound started to increase. Coming closer, and closer the people on our boat started dragging out pistols, shotguns, and rifles. I thought OH MY as they hunkered down in the hatches, and companionway. Finally theapproaching boat used the spotlight, and announced themselves as the DEA, and to prepare to be boarded.

They came aboard, and were a bit aggressive. They did their paperwork, and the last guy who jumped from our boat to the cigarette boat. He miss timed his jump, and crashed on his knees hard. He let out a yelp in pain, and we all had a good chuckle at his expense.
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Old 04-29-2008, 04:16 PM   #8
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Hi!

... but surveillance vessels can act more in the sence of the anti collision rules at sea:

Way back in the past we were checked by a purtuguese coast guard vessel way offshore a little north of the the river Tejo(Lisbon).

Is was also at night, they had their navlights running while they were heading at us under great speed. But at good distance they altered course in the way for us to realize that they are aware of us and they came closer in a great circle, never heading on us directly. We felt safe all the time. Wasn't that friendly?

Alot more times we have problems with private speed boats heading at us and altering course too late and too little for us to feel comfortable. Too often speedboaters do not stick to the rules which clearly say that the one who has to give way has to change course in time and clear enough - so the one who has to maintain course and speed can know about the intention of the other. Everytime again it is nervewrecking! What can you do? Fly away? Does not work! Jump and dive? Too dangerous. Prey, that this jerk has seen you and just wants to impress you with his wonderful wake?

Guess, we have to live with these fellows...

Cheers

Uwe

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Old 04-29-2008, 04:17 PM   #9
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Since we do a lot of sailing/motoring at night, we keep a 10 Million Candle Light Power portable spot light on board. In this case, we would have blinded them first...especially if they had their night vision goggles on!

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Old 04-30-2008, 01:53 AM   #10
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Thanks for the responses all.

When the spotlight was on us, my husband was still at the helm and remained careful to keep his eyes/attention forward and Northeastward away from the spotlight. While they sat alongside (20' from me with that blinding spotlight pointed at us) I literally had my hand shielding my eyes the entire time--feeling rather stupid to be facing what appears to be an "official" with my hand over my face... I couldn't look at the people on board because of the light, I could only look at the water near their boat and it was a glancing look up from there that I could see the bottom of the Homeland Security logo on the boat. Until I did that, I wasn't sure who we were talking to--though clearly the fellow did NOT have a Mexican accent, he was American. I'm still not 100% sure who they were as they didn't ID themselves at all. Who knows, maybe it was illegal activity and they just slapped that homeland security sticker on the side of the boat... Their questions were a bit weird and their behavior not very familiar to me as I've had other dealings with USCG and TSA that were nothing like this. But never Homeland Security at sea.

I don't mind them behaving in a stealthy manner. However, they never once identified themselves. Their quick attempt at radio communication was entirely inappropriate. They didn't have to say "this is Homeland Security", they could have kept up their little "Salud" in an accented voice but simply acknowledged seeing us/our flash of light on the sail, period.

In the US, frequently the folks on various military and USCG security patrols tend to be very young and cocky--and the young often do stupid/inappropriate things.
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Old 04-30-2008, 05:35 AM   #11
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Everything worked acording to plan... you're safe and secure. My guess is they could see you and wanted to see what your reaction would be to them. Just a guess.
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Old 04-30-2008, 06:25 AM   #12
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My sole experience of being "persecuted" by a U.S. ship was in the early 70:s.

At the time, I was a young cadet on watch with the first mate and two seamen of a container ship on passage from Hong Kong to Tokyo. We were in a hurry to get into and out of Tokyo before the start of a national holiday so we had "screwed down" the safety valves on the boilers and were making 36 knots. The ship was a steam turbine PANAMAX vessel carrying 2200 twenty foot equivalent container units. Early in the morning, before dawn, we found ourselves rapidly catching up a smaller vessel. As we got closer that vessel increased speed but not enough to stop us from catching her. She was steaming the same course and after a while she again increased speed but again that was not sufficient to prevent us from catching up with her. As the day dawned we saw her to be a U.S. destroyer and just as the first mate was working out his star sights the warship started signalling by light.

"What ship? Where from? Where bound?" I answered the signals and by the time the questions were answered we had passed the destroyer. The commanding officer obviously was not happy at being passed by a merchant ship and started asking difficult questions. "What cargo?" Well, on a container ship the crew only get to know the containers' contents if they are classed as dangerous cargo or refrigerated/frozen cargo so I, a little flippantly, replied "boxes".

"Stop your ship. We are putting aboard a boarding party" was the next signal from the warship. I informed the first mate who informed the master who, being woken with such a demand from the US Navy, produced the expected response.

"Are we in international waters?"

"Yes"

"Tell him to *** off then! If he wants an international conflict he can try to stop us"

And so I signalled the warship and told him a little more politely to *** off!

The C/O of the warship obviously realised that he was on thin ice and had no grounds in international law to stop us as he altered course to starboard and steamed away from us without any further signals.

I retell this event for two reasons:

1. because it again demonstrated bad seamanship on the part of a US government vessel as he forced the watch of a merchant ship to signal to him unnecessarily rather than paying attention to watchkeeping duties especially at the time they should have know that the watchkeping officer would be working his morning starts

2. It demonstrates an unfortunate trait of US authorities who seem to think that they are the marine police of the world. In international waters they have no authority over other vessels with the exception of US registered vessels of course and the authority vested in all warships in accordance with UNCLOS to combat piracy on the high seas. This, if I recall correctly, was rammed home by several cases in the International Court, e.g. the US vs. the U.K. (on behalf of the Dominion of Canada) in the case of the I'm Alone).

Yes redbopeep, I think you summed it up well in saying that "they tend to be cocky and often do stupid/inappropriate things"

Yes, we need government agencies to enforce safety/drugs/smuggling legislation but what we need more than that is the same agencies to act in a responsible way without elements of pettiness, not to set themselves above the law and, above all, to demonstrate good seamanship.

Aye // Stephen
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