On Don Quixote, we have the luxury of having someone awake, at the helm, all the time. At night, we are even more cautious than during the day as we assume someone else is ignoring the horizon, the little navigation lights on the front of our boat, the ping on their radar, and the incredibly loud sound of our air horn when we try to get their attention. We have reason to believe this is a Good Policy. Close calls between two boats at night at sea are not like horseshoes and hand grenades, they are more like nuclear bombs; Even being within sight of the flash is too close. During our years cruising, we have had our share of "two ships passing in the night." With the South Pacific crossing, we are statistically underway a much greater proportion of the time and so find this happening more frequently.
Night encounters seem to fall into roughly five basic categories: Behemoth, Ghost, Panga, Misplaced Lighthouse, and Yachtie. Let's take these in order.
A behemoth is a boat so damn big that hitting you is tantamount to a 16-wheeler smacking into a mosquito while crossing Minnesota. You and your boat will barely make a smear on the bow. If it happens off watch or at night, they might not even know they've hit you. Behemoths include tankers, cargo containers, and cruise ships. The bad news is that frequently, no one is paying the slightest attention on the helm. The good news is that virtually all behemoths are visible from many miles away, and legally all of them are required to broadcast over AIS their position, bearing, and name. Basically, your job is to spot them well in advance and get out of their way as quickly as possible.
A ghost is a return on your radar or a light on the horizon that doesn't respond when you call. Sometimes ghosts even disappear after you hail them. Ghosts come in many sizes, and it's pretty fair to assume that all of them are doing something illegal. While some are drug runners, by far the majority are poachers illegally fishing out of internationally established seasons or in prohibited locations. Alternatively, they are simply a product of your exhausted imagination. I hate ghosts. They scare the heck of me, particularly when they disappear off the radar. I don't like the fact that a well lit boat with a hard return on my radar less than 2 miles away suddenly disappears when I try to establish whether I will pass them on port or starboard. After the ghost disappears, you just have to assume they have full responsibility for avoiding a collusion.
Pangas are small, hard bottomed fishing boats. Technically, pangas are a very specific brand, size, and conformation. However, we've come to use the term to refer to any idiot fisherman or pearl farmer out in the middle of the night without lights in a very small boat. To make these guys even more fun and interesting, they inevitably trail strings of nets, lines, and other assorted crap in the water, also unmarked. Generally, they are too small to show up on your radar. The way they signal their existence is to shine a flashlight at you… assuming they see you… assuming they are even awake. The bad news about pangas is that they are a serious navigational hazard which can cause tremendous damage to your boat. The good news is that they are not really offshore craft. As a rule, you can assume that if you are 30 or more miles off shore, the only panga you'll encounter is someone who is dire need of a rescue. Pangas are yet one more excellent reason to avoid sailing at night near any land mass. The really dangerous part of sailing across an ocean, remember, is the hard bits on the edges.
On our boat, we call it a misplaced lighthouse when we see a light somewhere that makes not the slightest bit of sense. This sobriquet started the night Jaime and I spotted a lighthouse about 1000 miles off the coast of Mexico. It was very tall, rotated on a regular periodic schedule, and scared the bejesus out of both of us. We pulled out both electronic charts and the hard copy to make sure we were not encountering some hitherto unstudied island in the middle of nowhere. If you've ever visited an atoll, this notion is substantially more plausible. However, in this case, we have no idea what we were seeing. It was probably a ghost, actually. But I swear it looked like a lighthouse. We also call random lights in channels, along shorelines, and in the middle of nowhere misplaced lighthouses. We see few of them in French Polynesia, but the Mexican coastline is speckled with such lights which have broken from their moorings and drifted hither and yon.
And finally, there are your friends, neighbors and fellow travelers, the yachties. Honestly, these guys are sometimes the most dangerous bunch of all. You'd think given the size of the oceans and the relatively tiny wetted surface of the average sailing or motor yacht, it would be impossible to bump into another boat in the middle of nowhere. Yet it happens all the time! The only boat we've routinely had on our horizon has been our buddy boat, but over sundowners on the decks of fellow cruisers, we hear all sorts of first person encounters with yachts at sea. Of course, the most dangerous type harken back to the first paragraph of this essay -- the ones that are asleep. Alternatively, they might be below reading a book or watching a movie, secure in the perfection of their signaling radar, auto-pilot and charts. We on Don Quixote are a bit old school. We don't really trust our charts, we definitely don't trust our radar or the alarms programmed into it. We trust our eyes and our ears, and when the adults start to get sleepy, we willingly sacrifice our children to the cause and stick them up on the helm for the night.
Night watch can be some of the most beautiful, introspective, and meditative part of your passage making. Just make sure that you are on watch to enjoy it, as well as to avoid the chance of anything going bump in the night.