Paul Dale has a harrowing near-miss with an unlit freighter at night while on a 110-mile voyage from Trinidad to the Grenadines

‘Dead ahead were the bows of an unlit freighter’. Paul Dales shares the lessons he learned after a near-miss with an unlit freighter at night

Amid the humid late afternoon, the four of us – owners Marjorie and I, and crew Mary and James – checked ourselves and our Dufour 41 Alexa out at the Customs and Immigration Office at Chaguaramas, Trinidad in the Caribbean.

This is always a slightly scary experience as this was – infamously – one of the least friendly immigration offices in the Caribbean.

It stank of rum and weed, which we did not find very comforting, and the officials were aggressive: ‘Hey, if the paperwork ain’t right I seize your boat!’

But we got the paperwork done and chugged out of Coral Cove Marina, weaving through the crowded anchorage toward Scotland Bay where we dropped anchor, though this would have made the immigration people deeply upset – you are supposed to check out and leave – but most cruisers arriving or leaving do a stopover at gorgeous Scotland Bay.

A yacht anchored at Coral Cove Marina in Trinidad

Alexa in Coral Cove marina, Trinidad, before leaving for the Grenadines and their subsequent freighter encounter. Credit: Paul Dale

We listened to the howler monkeys in the surrounding jungle at sunset, had supper and turned in early.

We needed the sleep as the following day we planned to sail to the Grenadines, 110 miles north, bypassing Grenada.

During breakfast I asked Mary how she would define a ‘good skipper’.

She immediately replied, ‘Someone who makes me feel safe.’

I considered that, as we hauled up the anchor and motored the mile round the corner to the Boca de Monos, a narrow passage between Trinidad and one of the islands separating it from Venezuela, where the Orinoco empties into the Atlantic.

It’s a spooky place, with vultures circling overhead.

We had done this trip many times, and the constantly ebbing brackish water puts up an alarming sea at the mouth – the Boca – reminiscent of Chichester Bar on a bad day, but worse even if warmer.

And, as ever, the boat heeled sharply to the constant 22-24 knots north-east breeze.

Whatever the forecast said – and we always waited for a good one for this passage – it delivered the exact conditions it promised.

Alexa anchored in Scotland Bay before the freighter encounter

Alexa anchored in Scotland Bay, Trinidad. Credit: Paul Dale

The sail up to Grenada and other points north is always a horrible one.

You have to beat directly into the tradewinds and Atlantic swells, and the west-going equatorial current is doing its best to push you leeward toward Mexico.

Everything is against you.

I could not imagine doing this passage in a boat that wasn’t a good windward performer.

At night the voyage is even worse, as there is a higher risk of Venezuelan pirates boarding you, and you have to avoid the Hibiscus oil platforms mid-way, being chased away by zealous guard boats.

This time it was a day passage.

Bang, crash wallop, 30 knots apparent, heading as high as we could to pinch every inch to windward, two reefs in the main and half the genny rolled up.

Every now and again the boat would slam and shudder in a rainbow cloud of spray, and I reluctantly had to ease off to leeward.

The crew were huddled under the bimini shade, while I was perched behind the wheel, autopilot on.

Even in a 40-footer it’s hard for people to be comfortable in a cockpit going hard to windward.

Women on a deck of a Dufour 41 in Scotland Bay in Trinidad

Mary James and Marj in Scotland Bay. Credit: Paul Dale

Going below was so hot it wasn’t an option.

Fast forward to midnight – at the time I wish I could have done!

The coastal lights of eastern Grenada were glittering about 10 miles to our west, so we had made good progress to windward.

I had been in the same position for 13 hours. I scanned the dark horizon every few minutes, but there is virtually no shipping in that area, just the very occasional yacht as everything goes to the leeward side of Grenada.

Marj and James had finally gone to their bunks. Mary, who was more passenger than crew was sitting, as ever, in the most comfortable position on the cockpit’s leeward bench bravely holding her sick bucket.

I decided I would rather like to sit where she was, stretched out so comfortably.

So I said: ‘Mary, I can see some weather ahead and I need space to work the boat, I think it’s time you went to your bunk.’

She said: ‘No, I will be sick if I go below.’ I tried again: ‘No, you will fall asleep as soon as you lie down.’

She refused, so I said: ‘I am going to count to 10, after which I am going to drag you below.’

She looked up directly at me: ‘You would, wouldn’t you?’ She knows her skipper. She went below.

Ten minutes later I went below and I could hear her gently snoring. Seasick people always fall asleep when they lie down – remember that!

The route of Alexa and the position of her near collision with the unlit freighter

The route of Alexa and the position of her near collision with the unlit freighter. Credit: Maxine Heath

So, in the early hours I settled down alone, at last to enjoy our night passage. Bliss.

The wind had increased to 26-28 knots so I reefed the genny a bit more.

Trade wind clouds scudded across the starry, sky, with a low moon. I reflected on how great it was to be night sailing at 0200 wearing just t-shirt and shorts.

English Channel sailors, eat your frozen hearts out.

For some reason – I don’t know why, but it was going to save our lives – I stood up and scanned the sea ahead.

Endless breaking waves were darkly rolling toward us.

I was about to sit down when I thought I glimpsed something, a sort of absence, or rather, an area without breaking waves.

I looked again, and yes there was a vague shape.

I shouted down the companionway: ‘James, wake up. Bring me the mega-beam searchlight… now!’ Which he did.

Nothing like fear in the skipper’s voice to get the crew moving.

I turned it on and thank God it had battery life: 200 metres dead ahead were the bows of a medium-sized and very rusty freighter. No nav lights.

My mega-beam lit up the bridge and I saw two figures scurrying around.

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Nav lights came on – green and red worryingly close and equidistant. I threw the helm over to starboard; as I did, I saw the bows of the freighter slowly moving to their starboard.

We missed the freighter by less than 50 metres.

I think we survived through sheer luck.

The stern light of the freighter faded in the swells as my adrenaline drained away. I called them on Channel 16. No response.

Four hours later at dawn we motored into the palm-fringed anchorage between Petite Martinique and Petit St Vincent.

I had been on watch for nearly 20 hours and couldn’t wait to just stop.

As I was scouting the turquoise anchorage for a good spot, Marj called up that the bilges were full of water!

I rushed below, lifted a sole board and tasted it. Fresh, thank God.

I could hear the demand pump buzzing. During the night’s crashing and bashing a ‘push-in’ connector in the pipework had slightly popped out, so I turned the bilge pump on and then changed course to the Petit St Vincent fuel dock 300 metres away, tied up, and bought 200 gallons of water.

Paul Dale

Paul Dale, 72, has been sailing out of Itchenor in Chichester Harbour for 39 years. In the 1990s, he campaigned his Sigma 362, Alexis in UK and European evens such as Cowes Week. Paul completed the ARC in 2003 and kept his Dufour 41, Alexa in the southern Caribbean for 12 years. He now sails a Jeanneau 30, Alexia. Credit: Paul Dale

Marjorie was amazed at my calmness. I wasn’t calm, just utterly done in.

Finally, we were able to set our anchor.

I took a cup of tea into the port aft cabin: ‘Wake up Mary, we have arrived in Paradise, have some tea.’

She opened her big blue eyes: ‘How was the rest of the night – did everything go OK?’

As a postscript, we sold Alexa in 2016.

Two years later we were chartering in Antigua and were anchored alone in a small bay, when another boat dropped anchor next to us. It was Alexa!

I had sold her remotely through a broker in St Maarten.

So I motored over in the RIB. I didn’t enjoy the experience.

It was like meeting an ex-partner, looking a bit worse for wear and with a stranger.

‘Dead ahead were the bows of an unlit freighter’: Lessons Learned

  1. This was a classic ‘sailing to a schedule’ error. One of the crew’s holiday was coming to an end and she wanted to see the Grenadines. Going direct – rather than having a stop-over in Grenada – was too punishing a voyage with an inexperienced crew.
  2. Don’t undertake a tough overnighter unless there is at least one truly competent crew who can take over from the skipper and stand a night watch.
  3. Keep a constant lookout, even going to windward in the dark, although there is not lot you can do without AIS with an unlit ship! The only AIS targets you see in the Caribbean are other yachts.
  4. Never allow seasick crew to clutter up the cockpit in any sort of weather. They take up space you need to work the boat and may suddenly lunge at the lifelines! I should have got Mary below much earlier. They say they will be sick if they go below. Ignore them – better sick than dead! And they always fall asleep when they get horizontal.