Fright Night

Illustration by Gil Adams

There’s more to after-dark navigation than having high-falutin’ electronics onboard.

I was curious, really. I hadn’t done any hard-core, nighttime navigation in years. Sure, over the past couple of decades, I’d briefly piloted a few recreational vessels around in the dark, plying parts of rivers and bayous with little more than a chartplotter, a careful hand on the wheel, and a trusty spotlight. But frankly, in all that time I’d never shepherded a vessel through the darkness into a big, working seaport with radar as my primary navigational tool. Would I be as good as I used to be?

A pompous question, perhaps. But during the ’70s and ’80s as a Merchant Marine officer, I became exceedingly comfortable with piloting commercial vessels into and out of unfamiliar ports at night. And I got that way for one reason: I was good at it. 

At any rate, the ship’s clock struck 11 as we drew abeam of Cape Henry Light, just east of Norfolk, Virginia. I put the Kadey-Krogen trawler I was navigating on course toward Annapolis via Chesapeake Channel. The lofty old lighthouse on the cape hovered in the mists.

Rain spattered the windshield. “Just what I need,” I grumbled, turning on the wipers. Captain Greg Gandy, head honcho of our little delivery team, snored softly on the settee at the rear of the wheelhouse.

It was not a soothing sound. My psyche was rapidly succumbing to a case of nerves such as I hadn’t experienced since I’d made my first after-dark runs in broken-down old oil-field boats. The horizon scintillated with a veritable phantasmagoria of lights from dredges, tugs pushing barges, tugs pulling barges, fishing boats, warships, regular ships, recreational vessels, aids to navigation, onshore facilities—you name it!

Having top-notch plotter cartography alongside the touchscreen radar helped me decipher the scene. After identifying each AIS target on the plotter I’d double-check its CPA (Closest Point of Approach) using the radar’s range and EBL (Electronic Bearing Line). AIS data also facilitated hailing vessels on the VHF, making it easier to sort out the traffic. 

But here’s the deal. In spite of all the sophistication of the electronics package I was using, the calm self-assurance I’d enjoyed in former years was gone. Disappeared. Poof! And in it’s place had arisen a state of mind that was way too intense, overly reactive, and jumpy.

“Carnival Pride, Carnival Pride,” squawked the VHF. “Calling the boat a couple miles ahead, north of the Chesapeake Bay Tunnel.”

“Whoa,” I gulped, grabbing the VHF mike. Apparently there was a cruise ship coming up the channel from astern—a detail I’d somehow missed, perhaps because our wheelhouse had no after windows, perhaps because my mind wasn’t focused, perhaps both.

On a working frequency, Carnival Pride’s pilot explained the traffic situation. His ship, he said, was heading north in the fairly narrow channel and another cruise ship was heading south. The two would meet and squeeze past each other in a matter of minutes.

“Can you get out of the channel for a while, Cap?” the pilot asked. “It’s gonna get pretty tight for you.”

My next move was a humble one. Because I didn’t want to shoulder the responsibility for leaving the channel and possibly tangling a prop in a crab-pot warp, I shook Gandy awake, and, with his blessing, headed for the hills right sportily. Pot warps be darned!

“Well, Greg,” I said, as the two monstrous vessels swept past us like brightly lit floating cities, “I’ve just learned something.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“You gotta stay on top of this runnin’-at-night stuff,” I explained. “You either maintain the skill set you need through regular practice or it’s gonna be fright night every darn time.”

“Yeah, Bill,” he agreed. “You snooze, you lose.”