'How I dodged a radar-assisted collision'
On the 46th day of a solo transatlantic race from Plymouth to Newport, Rhode Island, a fatigued Denis Gorman falls victim to a case of mistaken identity that nearly proves fatal
Denis Gorman falls victim to a case of mistaken identity that nearly proves fatal
M y head and body craved sleep. I’d been napping whenever I dared; up and down every 20 minutes or so, keeping a lookout, staying prepared for whatever might happen. I couldn’t afford to relax. After midnight, as we entered the 46th day of the Jester Challenge 2010, the fog lifted. From horizon to horizon it was clear and at last, I had an uninterrupted view of the stars and heavens above. My 27ft Albin Vega
Lizzie G and I were under full sail and the wind vane was steering us nicely.
The sea was calm with an oily swell and the gentle breeze was giving two or three knots of speed, in the right direction. I began to unwind mentally. It seemed like the right time to catch up on some rest, so after taking a good look around, I set the alarm on the AIS and turned in. My eyes closed and straight away I fell into a deep, mindand-body restoring sleep.
At 0200 hours I was awakened by the angry little ‘Beep… Beep… Beep… Beep’ of the AIS alarm. I got up, stiff and slow, lumbered over to the control panel and switched off the alarm. I put on my glasses and looked blearily at the screen. There was a ship at our four-mile perimeter. I pressed the data button. It usually takes a few moments for the information to come through, so I climbed into the cockpit to have a look. No fog, it was still clear. To our left, coming from the south-west, I could see the ship’s nav lights clearly. She looked big. I looked around and another set of lights was on the horizon to my right. This was a much smaller vessel, perhaps a fisherman or even another yacht. ‘Maybe a Jester,’ I mused.
I returned below. The data had come through. The ship was Sea-land Racer, a 60,000-tonne cargo carrier doing 19 knots, and she was slap bang on a collision course with us. I gave a hearty yawn and then got on the radio. ‘ Sea-land Racer, Sea-land Racer, Sea-land Racer, this is sailing yacht
Lizzie G, Lizzie G, Lizzie G, over.’ Sea-land Racer replied. I went on, ‘I have you on AIS. We are on a collision course. I am directly in front of you four miles out. I am limited in my ability to manoeuvre. Can you please take avoiding action? Over.’ The reply was reassuring: ‘Roger,
Lizzie G, we have you in sight and on radar and will pass you to port.’
‘Thank you Sea-land Racer. I shall stand by on channel one-six. Lizzie G out.’ Lizzie and I had gone through this routine many times before. Ordinarily I would watch and wait until the ship had safely passed by, but I was dog-tired and desperately needed to rest. Sea-land Racer had spoken to me, seen my lights, had me on radar and had agreed to alter course. The situation was under control. I set the egg timer to 15 minutes and lay
on the bunk. I put my head onto the warm pillow and draped the stillwarm sleeping bag over me. It was so comfortable. My little oil lamp was creating its warm, restful glow and my eyes were heavy, so heavy. I began my downward spiral to the land of rest and relaxation, thinking, ‘In 15 minutes I’ll get up and re-set the AIS alarm. Sea-land Racer will be gone by then. I must get up in 15 minutes…’
Then another thought flashed through my mind. What if it was not me on their radar screen? What if they were looking at the other vessel instead, the one to my right? Sea-land
Racer would still be racing towards me right now! My eyes opened wide, I threw off the sleeping bag and scrambled across to the AIS screen. There she was, less than a mile away, heading straight for us at 19 knots! I grabbed the mike, and this time all semblance of calm was gone.
‘ Sea-land Racer, Sea-land Racer, this is Lizzie G. I am under your bows. We are about to collide. I am 0.8 of a mile directly in front of you. Please alter course hard to starboard. Hard to starboard!’
I threw the mike down, grabbed the ignition keys and clambered into the cockpit. There was no time to lift the servo blade. If it got wrecked from our propeller wash then so be it. As I fumbled with the key I looked to my left. There she was, square on, looming large, with all three lights showing, red, white and green. I heard the radio comeback.
‘Roger that, Lizzie G. We are altering to starboard.’
I was too busy to reply. I put the ignition key into the switch. ‘No time to pre-heat,’ I told myself. ‘I don’t have fifteen seconds to mess about with. Let’s just rev up and clear off as quickly as we can.’
I should have used the pre-heat. The engine refused to fire. It was too late anyway. I just stood there staring helplessly as the great ship bore down on me. It was up to her now. The liferaft was at my feet. I wrapped the trigger cord firmly around my hand and resolved to hold tightly onto it, whatever happened. If by some miracle we missed the propellers, there might still be a chance. Maybe.
I looked up again. I could see the red port light, but the green starboard light had disappeared. She was turning but it was going to be close, much too close. I could hear engines, smell the burning oil, feel vibrations through the air and water and see the great white foaming wash break off her bow. She missed us but as she raced by, her turning action was sweeping her stern towards us. The push of water from the side of the ship helped to fend us off. We pitched and tossed violently as the wall of steel careened past, blacking out the horizon. As the stern quarter shot past we found ourselves, miraculously, in the wash of her mighty propellers, rolling on a calming slick, a sea of phosphorescence. Somehow Lizzie and I had survived.
The radio crackled into life and
This was Denis Gorman’s route, with a stop in the Azores and the incident described on day 46. The Jester Challenge 2010 was a 3,000-mile rhumb line route from Plymouth to Newport RI. It was open to solo sailors over 18 years of age at the start,...
The Jester Challenges are Corinthian events organised by Ewen Southby-Tailyour
Denis Gorman waves from the mast of his 27ft Albin Vega Lizzie G at the start off Plymouth of the Jester Challenge 2010
As you can see from this sistership to Sea-land Racer, she makes a terrifying sight from the cockpit of a small boat