At the first moment you think you should. That’s probably what any captain will tell you. As much as he likely abhors that first jolt—when the shout of his name or a shake of his shoulder rouses him out of a deep slumber—the second moment, when his mind clears and he realizes your intent in waking him is because you sense danger—real or merely perceived—he is grateful. A well-intentioned, albeit false alarm wake of the captain is welcomed one hundred times over a skittish hesitation that makes it too late for him to salvage the situation. I can only hope I speak earnestly on behalf of most captains, as I have not served as one myself, merely as a relief captain here and there. I have never been the person, the only one fully responsible—at all times—for the safety of the boat and crew. That’s quite a responsibility. I can speak, however, as the first mate who has woke the captain both too early (i.e., unnecessarily) and too late. All lessons are free today.
“If the CPA is less than five nautical miles, wake me up.”
This was the “too early” incident. Phillip and I were sailing across the Gulf to Cuba, sharing helm duty during the day and each taking two-hour shifts at night. Aside from the monstrous dredging vessel we squeezed by in the Pensacola Pass, we hadn’t seen many ships the first couple of days and nights on passage. This was night number three, however, and we were crossing the large shipping channel where many carrier ships make their way into the Gulf and across to Texas. We had already had to watch, call and maneuver around several big vessels during the dark evening hours before our night shifts began, so I asked Phillip before he went below to lay down around 10:00 p.m. when he wanted me to wake him if we began approaching another vessel while he was sleeping.
Could I have monitored our CPA alone, haled the ship and/or deviated course if necessary to avoid a collision? Very likely. So, why did I ask for specific instructions? I’ll admit I like my role as first mate under Phillip. I would rather be the one following instructions, than making them myself. That may sound lazy or meek and that’s fine. I will be the first to admit I do not enjoy the stress of being solely responsible for the vessel or our navigational decisions. I like sharing those duties with Phillip as captain. While I will hold the helm as long as necessary for Phillip to sleep, I do so with the comfort of set parameters to follow in case a situation arises, the decision for which exceeds my pay grade. The decision in this case was what to do if our closest point of approach with an oncoming vessel dropped below five nautical miles. That was when I was told to wake the captain.
I had been watching him for about a half hour. He was a bright beacon, a blazing battleship on the horizon, easily visible and definitely far enough away from us to not cause any danger—at the time. I had learned from Captain Ryan with SailLibra during my voyage to Isla Mujeres that you can use the CPA (closest point of approach) on the AIS to determine whether you are going to cross the ship’s bow or stern by turning your heading toward the vessel’s approach (meaning, turning your vector line toward the oncoming ship) to see if the CPA increases or decreases. If you turn toward the ship and your CPA decreases, you’re going to cross the ship’s bow and that’s when you need to worry. If it increases, you are going to sail behind the ship’s stern and you are likely safe. You can turn back to your heading and you should be able to watch the CPA continually increase and take comfort in your approach. If you cannot turn enough due to the wind angle (or the CPA is too erratic) to allow you to make a clear determination that you will cross behind the ship’s stern … better pick up the VHF and give him a call.
Here is a sample screen shot of AIS. You will see the vessel receiving AIS on the left and the oncoming vessels on the right, showing their approach (i.e., their heading) and CPA. This looks a little different than the AIS screen on our Niagara but it will give you an idea. I apologize I don’t have a good image of ours. Turns out, when a ship is coming, thinking about filming the AIS screen is the last thing on your mind:
Ryan’s rule is a great theory and it does work, but some vessels are not charging ahead on a constant heading. Some bob and bounce around in the waves. Some stop to drop fishing lines in the water or check on their nets. This means the CPA can sometimes bounce around erratically and not give you sufficient confirmation as to whether you’re going to collide with the vessel or not. I hate when it does that! And that is exactly what it was doing with this stupid bright beacon on the horizon, night three during our voyage to Cuba.
I had done what Captain Ryan told me by turning our Niagara toward Mr. Battleship and the CPA seemed to increase (although it was somewhat erratic, not constant), so I fell off again and continued watching as he crept toward my bow about eight nautical miles out (or so I believed as we do not have radar on Plaintiff’s Rest). I believed he would cross safely in front of our bow and we would pass behind his stern, but I wasn’t 100% sure. I tried to hale him on the radio for my own comfort just to make sure he could see me and let him know that I was under sail (which in theory means the ship under engine power will divert if necessary to avoid collision). But what happened? He didn’t answer. Three times he did not answer. Ryan did tell me this can happen often because many commercial ships have to log a radio call and make a report of it and sometimes they’re just lazy and don’t want to do that. In that case, if they see you and know they’re not going to hit you, they will just ignore your weary cries. Of course that doesn’t give YOU—the poor little bobbing sailboat out there—any comfort, but it just happens sometimes. And, of course it was happening to me on my shift! I was cursing the ship channel Gods!
As I mentioned, I was fairly confident this Kiratzatsoo (or something like that I swear, a very hard name to say three times in a row on the radio) was going to cross our bow and we would sail safely behind his stern but the CPA was very finicky and dipped a couple of times below five nautical miles. What did that mean for me? You got it. Wake the captain. Even though I felt I knew we were safe (I knew!)—and when I did wake Phillip because I had been instructed to do so and we both watched as the ship moved safely across our bow and we sailed safely behind its stern, I did not apologize for waking him. Why? Because I knew I’d been given orders to follow and I should never trust my own judgment over the captain’s as to when is the right time to wake him. How did I know this? Because I had breached this sacred command before. I’m not proud of this, but I share it because it is a valuable lesson to learn. Your knowledge, pride or even fear and embarrassment about waking the captain should never come before a very clear order you were given on when to wake the captain.
It was on the Naples delivery, my spur-of-the-moment invitation to crew on the delivery of a Leopard 48 from Pensacola to Naples, FL under a very good friend of mine, Captain Jack.
It was an awesome adventure, an honor to be included and an opportunity I will forever be grateful I was able to seize. And while I believe (and hope) I served as a valuable contribution to the crew, I do know I made one could-have-been-very-bad mistake. That was not waking the captain soon enough.
We were holding two man watches during the delivery. Two hours, two crew at the helm, with the captain floating. It was around 5:00 a.m., our first night on shifts. I was supposed to be on with my buddy Bill. Bill was sleeping and I felt energetic so I propped myself up at the helm with the plan to let him sleep another hour before waking him. Looking back on it, that was probably an unwise deviation from the captain’s orders as well. If he wants two men on shift, don’t try to be the hero and hold watch alone. Wake your partner. While two-man shifts was an indirect order, Captain Jack had also given a very specific order:
“If a ship comes within 6 nautical miles on the radar, wake me.”
That’s a pretty clear instruction, right? You’re right. It is, and it should have been followed. I was holding alone around 5:00 a.m. and I saw a ship coming toward us on the radar. The Leopard did not have AIS, but having used radar extensively to “acquire targets” via radar during the Atlantic-crossing with Captain Yannick, I felt pretty comfortable using the radar to watch oncoming vessels. However, Yannick typically kept the radar set at 12 nm miles out and (my first mistake) I assumed this one, on the Leopard, was on the same setting as I was watching the ship approach. Lesson #1: I should have looked more closely at the nautical mile ruler and I would have noticed it was set on 8 nm. So, ships were actually closer than they appeared.
It was difficult to tell which way the ship was going as I did not have an AIS vector or heading to confirm its direction. I was looking intently at the ship itself for a red or green nav light to tell me which way the ship was heading. It was off my starboard bow, so I knew if I saw a red light (on its port), that would mean it was coming toward my bow. A green light would mean it was headed away from me. I repeat these things to you now as these are the things I ran through my head three times over to make sure I had them right (“port is red, starboard is green, port is red, starboard is green”) thinking this entire time I’m being very careful and doing all the right things. Poor Annie. Because what have I yet to do? During all of these critical tactical moments? I’m sure you know the answer, but humor me a little longer.
A few moments later, Bill wakes up. I ask him to come quickly to the helm to get a second look at what I’m seeing and gather his thoughts. While this is good practice, when there is plenty of time to react, I’m sure (and I hate to admit this, but it’s just likely true) I likely did this as well because I was the only female sailor aboard, one of the least experienced, and I wanted a second opinion before I … you know what. This is precisely the reason I’m sharing this story. Do not let your pride or nerves cloud your decisions out there. Bill squinted and looked and clicked and few things and then we both saw it: a red light on the oncoming ship, which was now well within 6 nautical miles of us, likely closing in on five at that point and aiming to cross our bow. “Go wake Jack,” I told Bill.
While it did afford Jack *just enough* time to quickly jump to the helm, assess the situation and fall off so we could clip behind the ship’s stern, it shocked me how long it took for that maneuvering and a safe passing to occur. In my indecisiveness and attempts to assess the situation myself, I ended up giving Jack just enough time to react quickly and correctly. That’s not the kind of margin any captain wants! They want plenty of time, which is why you should wake the captain when?
I hope you all said it out loud. At the first moment you think you should. Trust me, he would prefer too early as opposed to too late to take the helm and save the ship. Stay alert, follow orders and sail safe out there crew. More Cuba footage, stories and lessons to come.