May 26, 2011
When we lived in the Alvarado house there was a library at the top of the stairs. The books were all my parents’, but though I spent a lot of time in that room by myself I rarely asked about them, preferring to explore on my own.
I can vividly remember a few of the volumes: the big Time-Life History of World War II, three volumes, was on the lowest shelf, which was at waist height above raised panel cabinetry. The next shelf had a book of baby names, and above that I discovered a completed workbook that had accompanied some sort of Dr. Spock parenting guide. Beneath samples of childrens’ requests/complaints/demands, the parent was to fill in the proper Spock-approved response. Apparently Dr. Spock thought that to be a good parent you had merely to mimic your child’s statements in the form of questions: beneath the printed text “I want some chocolate pudding!”, Stephen had filled, in his blocky architect’s handwriting, the blank lines with You want some pudding? Under “I want to wear my cowboy boots to school!” he had pencilled in You want to wear your cowboy boots to school? At age 9, I thought that was the stupidest thing I had ever read. I kind of still do. I always wondered why Stephen had worked through those exercises and what he thought of them, but I never asked. As far as I can remember he never actually used the parenting technique, either, though perhaps if he had I’d be much more sensible and well-adjusted. (If you want to try it now, Dad, there’s a comment space below, and I WANT SOME PUDDING!)
Anyway, on the very top shelf there was a book that held much allure. It was a largeish hardback with a white slipcover and the title PASSAGES on the spine. The letters were sort of squashed together, and each letter was a different color — a rainbow progression. I could read the spine even when lying on the floor but to get to it required climbing the shelves, which was a pain as the books were nearly flush with the shelf edge. But I imagined that the lovely colors of the letters on the spine matched the colors of the maps inside, the maps that surely detailed the passages one might make across land and sea, passages to various exotic locales. Thus I was deeply disappointed to find, when I finally scaled the shelves, that there were no maps inside, nor color plates of any kind, just hundreds of pages of black and white Times Roman.
Years later I found out that Passages was some Gail Sheehy joint about menopause.
And now, this becoming that and whatnot, we’re on what cruisers* call a passage. A passage is a trip, a real trip, to some place on a boat. So you wouldn’t say, “Hey Bob, want to come with me on a passage to Sam’s for cocktails? We can tie up to their guest dock.” But there are coastal passages, and overnight passages, and ocean-crossing passages. A passage might take a day, or (as in our case) 17 days, or (if you are a sailor and the wind fails) 30 days, or longer. The passage we are doing, from the west coast of North America to the South Pacific, is one of the longer of the common passages.**
During the years we spent preparing for this trip, I read many reports of passages, some made by sailors, some by other trawler owners. There were good passages and bad passages, of course. The bad ones typically were made bad by difficult weather, but there was one terribly sad story of a woman who started having symptoms of what turned out to be a brain tumor while on a Pacific crossing with her husband. Good crossings were characterized by the sailors’ “fair winds and following seas” (though trawlerers might prefer no wind at all), abundant wildlife (flying fish landing on the deck figure prominently), successful fishing, and crew harmony.
What I found strange, though, browsing these logs, is how often people talked about being busy on passage. Okay, sailors, we get it — you’re constantly pulling on ropes, or gathering oakum, or making water with a still, or pedaling a rig to charge up your batteries — but there were trawler people claiming to “keep busy.”
- Wake up. Pad upstairs to the pilothouse. Greet whoever is on watch. Sit down on the pilothouse settee and spend fifteen minutes watching whatever movie the watchstander has playing on one of the four computer screens at the helm.
- Walk down to the galley. Open the fridge (not too long, or the boat takes a lurch and things fall out) and squint at all the stuff packed in there. Realize the mayonnaise is behind the pudding, cheese sticks, tortellini, Geisha mandarin oranges, Kool-Aid jug, and Mexican lunch meat. Close the fridge and open the sliding cabinet. Retrieve a salty snack and close the cabinet.
- Go back up to the pilothouse. Watch some more of the movie while eating your snack. Realizing that watching minutes 56-91 of Blue Valentine is pointless, and stop watching. Flip or click through a few pages in a magazine or on the Kindle.
- Wander down to the salon and lay down on the couch or a reclining chair for a while. Doze. Wake up sweaty. Reach over and grab the TV remote. Watch an episode of Family Guy.
- It’s your watch. Return to pilothouse, look out the window, then at the radar. See anything? Nope. Climb up on bunk, and read for a while. Look over at the radar. See anything? Nope. Climb down from bunk. Measure distance to the Marquesas using the course computer. Yay! We’ve gone 7 miles since the last measurement. Just 1,893 to go. Click over to the Environment tab on the vessel monitoring system. Water temperature is now 82°F. Wind is 11 knots. What were they last time? Um…82° and 11 knots. Measure distance to Marquesas again. Still 1,893!
- Every four hours, wander around in the super hot engine room, shooting things with a thermometer gun. Make sure not to wear a shirt, to get the full sensory effect of leaning against shiny bits of 140° stainless steel.
- Root around in the freezer.
- Stand at window and watch the waves and sea go by.
Look people, nothing happens on passage. We like it that way, because it means no scary crises, but really – nothing happens.
Except when it does.
I was dozing on the salon settee (see?) at about 2 p.m. yesterday — we were 700 or so miles from Mexico at the time — when I heard the radar proximity alarm go off. This alarm, or “guard” as Furuno calls it, is configured to sound when something shows up on the radar within 12 miles of us. I jumped up the pilothouse where Wayne was looking at the radar screen. “We’ve got a boat here,” he reported. That was exciting, as we hadn’t seen anything on radar for more than a day (and even those boats the radar had picked up were too far away to be visible by eye). I leaned in for a closer look.
Yep, good target, good enough that the radar could predict it would cross about 6 miles in front of us an hour or so later. The target boat was moving about 7 knots, which is pretty slow. Big tankers and cargo ships run in the 15-20 knot range. Seven knots is cruiser speed. But the unidentified boat was moving across our path, not on a cruisers course. We had another clue to the target’s identity, though: it had no AIS. AIS is package of technology — GPS, radio, computer controls and some other stuff — that allows a boat to broadcast its name, position, speed, and optionally stuff like cargo and destination. Larger commercial boats must carry AIS. Smaller commercial boats, like local fishing boats, almost never have it. More and more pleasure boats are adding AIS as the price has fallen rapidly in the last few years. (Eden carries a commercial-grade “Class A” AIS set that has greater range and is more likely to be noticed by the big boats.)
So in short order we knew four important things about the unidentified boat on our radar:
- It had no AIS, so it wasn’t a big commercial boat;
- It was far from the coast, so it wasn’t a coastal transport;
- It wasn’t on a cruisers’ course, so it wasn’t a sailboat or trawler headed to the Marquesas;
- It was moving slowly, so he was probably pretty small — maybe 50′-75′.
To Wayne and I, this fact pattern immediately said: “commercial fishboat”. Fisherman are great, we love maguro and all that, but they have a reputation when on the water of tending to focus more on their work than on the boat traffic around them — particularly when they’re 700 miles offshore. I leaned in close and studied the radar for a while. In order to maximize range and sensitivity, we had the “gain” turned up pretty high. This is good for picking up targets a long way off, but it means that there is more noise on the screen close in near the boat.
Noise shows up as little dots and blips. So do boats. What distinguishes the two is that on successive passes of the radar beam (you’ve seen how radars spin around, right?), noise disappears from one spot and shows up somewhere else, while real targets appear in the same spot each time the radar beam sweeps over them. Or that’s how it’s supposed to work. But we’re out at sea — we’re going up and down on the waves, and other boats are going up and down too. Sometimes you’re on a peak when he’s in a trough, so he doesn’t get “painted” by the radar beam for a pass, and disappears from the screen. Maybe on the next pass he shows up again; maybe two passes go by before you get another return. This problem is worse when the target is small (and thus easily hidden by wave action), the seas are big, or your radar is mounted down low (ours is about 20′ up).
Anyway, I’m leaning in close and studying the screen. And I see that there seem to be a couple of blips that come and go, but when they come again they’re always in the same spot. They’re not a consistent return like the boat is, but they’re definitely not random noise. And more importantly, the boat and the two blips seem to be in a perfectly straight line, and as we all know — say it together, now – there are no straight lines in nature.
So something’s going on. Obviously there aren’t three boats all perfectly in a line. And with “fishing boat” as the likely identity of the first target, Wayne and I are both thinking the same thing: longliner. Longliners are fishing boats that unroll a long, er, line behind them. The main line has little stub lines hanging from it every few feet, and those have baited hooks. Longliners unroll miles of this stuff, supported every so often with a buoy or float, let it sit, then roll it up and unhook the snagged fish.
We don’t want to run over a longline, for three reasons:
- Some guy is using it to make his living;
- It could get caught in our prop. The prop has a line cutter, but it doesn’t always work. And fishing line wrapped around a prop quickly melts into a big ball of fused plastic that can be nearly impossible to remove;
- It could get caught on our stabilizer fins. The fins have little shields designed to prevent this, but I don’t trust the shields. I’ve read stories of big yachts rapidly turned 90° by a fin catching a fishing line. Imagine you’re in a car on the freeway, and while passing a signpost you throw out a grappling hook tied to your bumper. (Hey, they should try that on Mythbusters!) I’m convinced the effect would be identical to catching a line on your fin.
Now, neither Wayne nor I are fisherman. Everything I know about longlining I learned from The Perfect Storm and the Discovery Channel. But our theory is that the secondary radar returns are some kind of float supporting the longline. Maybe they have radar reflectors on them, and that’s why we can see them. But we have precious little other information. For example, how deep does the longline run? We have a 6′ draft (that is, the amount of hull depth below the waterline). Is the line deeper than that? If so we could drive over it. If the line is supported only at the floats we see on radar, we reasoned, it would have to sink pretty deep in between them — the floats are 4 miles apart. But maybe there are intermediate floats we can’t see. And what if the current bellies the line out in a curve away from the floats? Which way would the curve go, and how close can we get to the floats? Wayne had told us the story of a boat he was on in the Pacific Northwest that dragged an entire commercial crab pot, perhaps for days — they didn’t find it until they got into the Ballard Locks. So I’m having visions of us trailing from here to Polynesia eight miles of longline, three radar reflectors, a couple dozen buoys — and an angry fishboat.
To gather more information, we decide to get closer (remember, this is happening in daylight — at night we would have given the whole situation a much wider berth). I’m scanning with the stabilizing binoculars, and as we get to within about two miles of the floats, I can see what they are: poles, 4′-6′ tall, topped with a diamond-shaped black radar reflector (photo right).
Our course is taking us directly between two of these floats (a third has now come into intermittent view on the radar, making the whole line, including the boat, about 12 miles long). We’re sticking with the theory that we can drive over the line, but only if we see no intermediate floats. A mile or so from the line, Wayne spots one — a fluorescent orange buoy (photo below), utterly invisible on radar.
I instantly haul the boat over 90 degrees to port. The plan now is to run down the line until we come to the end, then resume our previous course. Eve, who had been napping below (see?) now comes upstairs. We catch her up on the excitement, then she settles in for a game of spot-the-float. We pass another half dozen floats and one reflector. The last reflector is now in view. No others are visible on radar, but how do we know when we’re really at the end of the line? There are no rules for this stuff — the fisherman does whatever works for him (or perhaps the least he can get away with). What if the last radar reflector doesn’t represent the end of the line? As we’re passing that last radar reflector, I begin my turn back to starboard, but comment aloud that everyone should keep a sharp lookout.
Sure enough, moments later Eve sings out “there’s a buoy dead ahead”. Then I see it — a white stick. I veer off, and we get closer. It looks vaguely tapered and antenna-like to me, so I pick up the binoculars and sure enough, there’re the familiar blue and green stripes of the Shakespeare brand. It’s a transmitter buoy, so the fisherman can find the end of his line in the dark. Seeing it is a good thing — it convinces us we’re finally at the end of the longline. We snap a picture, bring our course back to 217°, and continue on our way.
So, yes, sometimes things do happen. But busy? Unh-uh.
Except right now. Season 2 of The Wire isn’t going to watch itself.
* Boaters who go on extended trips rather than just around the point to catch some snapper.
** But there definitely are longer ones, even on trawlers, like the one Starr recently completed from Japan to Hawaii.