A strange kind of night sail

Up to now, my night sailing experience has been far from land in the open sea: between the Isles of Scilly and Ireland, the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay. A few days ago we decided to cover the 100 nautical miles between Leixoes and Nazaré in one go, departing at 7pm and sailing south through the night along the Portuguese coast.

It started out as normal, despite our rather ham-fisted departure from the marina. We ate the chilli I had cooked earlier and the girls took themselves off to bed around 9pm, at the same time as Julian lay down in the saloon port berth and I took the first watch.

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy night sailing. Despite having to battle fatigue, I love the solitude of being on the helm alone with my thoughts after dark, the moon or stars bright in the sky, phosphorescent plankton shimmering in the water. The Portuguese coast had other ideas.

As soon as I was on my own in the cockpit I became aware of a dull hum coming from the land. Over the next two to three hours this grew louder and more penetrating. It was a rock concert, although all that reached me, three miles off shore, were the percussion and bass. Now, I’ve been to some pretty loud rock concerts in my time, but is this how they sounded from a distance? It was horrible, like sitting in a train carriage and hearing the noise from someone’s tinny headphones. It filled my left ear and reverberated through my body and I was relieved when we were eventually on the other side of the Doppler effect, and the reverberations faded into the background. The audience certainly got value for money – the show went on and on.

To the west a long line of cargo ships anchored in a queue, I imagine awaiting their turn to enter Leixoes port to off-load. Now, before I go any further, I need to explain VHF Channel 16 to the non-seafaring amongst you. Most vessels, Carina included, are fitted with a VHF radio to facilitate communication. The radio is switched on at all times when at sea, and is tuned to Channel 16.

Channel 16 is the sacred channel. Its purpose is ‘Distress, Safety and Calling’. 16 can be used to briefly established contact with another vessel, but both then quickly switch to a mutually acceptable channel, leaving 16 clear for its main purpose – distress calls. The Maritime Guidance Notes (bear with me…I’m going somewhere with this) state:
‘The following should be avoided: (a) calling on Channel 16 for purposes other than distress, and very brief safety communications; (b) non-essential transmissions, e.g. needless and superfluous correspondence; (f) transmitting without correct identification; (g) use of offensive language’.

The point I’m laboriously making is Channel 16 must be used as little as possible, so that vessel in distress (man overboard, fire on board, holed by whales, etc etc) can use it to contact emergency rescue services.

So, back to that line of cargo ships awaiting entry to Leixoes port. Shortly after dark the air was filled with the noise of some awful pop song (a woman whining on about something, with Gangnam Style sampled through it) playing on Channel 16. It made me laugh and I had a little dance in the cockpit. There was radio silence for a few minutes, followed by an extended conversation between what I can only imagine were crew members of different cargo vessels. Of course they didn’t identify themselves, but the fact that the conversations were all in heavily-accented English suggests they weren’t local Portuguese fishermen!

The conversations, with a decidedly racist tone, carried on for over two hours. At one point someone even radioed ‘Coast guard, coast guard, help me’. I’m not sure which annoyed me more – the racism or the fact that these gobshites were endangering me and my family, and anyone else at sea that night, by hogging the emergency channel.

Sailing around on the south coast of England I have often heard the Coast Guard quickly cutting in on conversations between two yachties who have forgotten to switch from channel 16 and are discussing where they will rendezvous for dinner later. I waited and waited, expecting the Portuguese authorities to ask these guys to take their conversation elsewhere. It was over two hours before an older sounding man, in a jaded tone, asked them to keep Channel 16 clear.

Well, that was my four-hour watch, and at 1am Julian and I swapped places. He got radio silence, but I’m not sure he got a better deal. This part of the Portuguese coastline is littered with lobster pots, laid in 60 metres of water, tethered to buoys at the surface. Many of the buoys fly flags from one metre poles, but many of the flags have ripped or disintegrated, and so only a thin black pole sticks up out of the water to alert vessels of the presence of the pots. Lobster pots are a curse, because if you happen to pass over one, you can easily befoul the boat’s propeller, rendering the boat incapable of motoring, until the rope has been removed from around the prop by someone diving in to do it manually.

We slalomed through clusters of these all down the Portuguese coast. During the day they aren’t a problem, but none of them are lit and after I went to bed Julian ran through a few particularly thick patches which, in the dark, could only be seen when Carina was almost on top of them. To add to Julian’s woes, a pod of dolphins came alongside and he was distracted by their phosphorescence-covered bodies as they leaped and played around the boat. A couple of times, so distracted by the dolphins, he only narrowly missed some lobster buoys and it was sheer luck that our prop wasn’t befouled.

I got up at 5am, just in time for the fog! Early morning fogs are typical of this stretch of coast, so we weren’t surprised. But it meant that Julian couldn’t go to bed, as a look-out was needed – not for ships for once, but for lobster buoys. By 6am the fog had listed sufficiently that I could see a few hundred metres, so Julian could get some rest.

It wasn’t a bad night sail, so much as a different one to what we are used to. The sailing itself was pleasant, until we lost the wind in the middle of the night and had to motor. The stars filled the sky, the Milky Way ran over my head, and in the middle of the night the yellow half moon rose up from behind the land. But if I had to choose between the open ocean and listening to the bored crew of a cargo vessel while dodging lobster pots, I know which one I’d go for!


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