As told by Sprague Theobald
How one man’s adventurous spirit almost got snuffed out early by a rogue container ship.
It was a long time ago, around 1987, and I was racing in the Annapolis to Bermuda race on a Nicholson 32. At the time, that race was really a mom-and-pop operation. Nothing big about it. There were three of us onboard, and we had just gotten past Hatteras and were headed to Bermuda. We were making maybe 1.5 knots, just ghosting along, and darkness was coming on. It was still light enough to read, and with the gentle breeze it was a very pleasant evening to be in the open ocean on a sailboat. We were heading southeast of course, and at one point I looked up and saw a light in the distance coming at us heading northwest. We couldn’t tell what it was, but we knew it was something large because it had the big, white, range lights in the front. But there was really no cause for concern. That’s a pretty standard event when you’re out there. Typically we’d just call the other boat and somebody’d be in the wheelhouse, and we’d make sure they knew we were here, it would be no big deal, everything’s good.
So I called the boat on channel 16, but nobody answered. Again, not a big deal because those guys, the bigger boats, sometimes monitor 13. So I called them on 13 and again nobody answered. So now I’m a little concerned because she is coming in fast, at 15 knots or so, and maybe a mile away at this point. So we put up all our lights so they can see us, but the course still doesn’t change. So we get out the flares, and shoot one up over the boat’s bow. But still nothing. We could hear the engines at this point. Loud, and getting louder. And now she’s about 500 yards off our bow.
Now normally, I’d just pop the boat into gear and motor out of the way, as a last resort. But since we were in a race, the race officials had sealed our transmission with a metal cable. They do that so you can prove that you didn’t use the engine during the race. It’s literally the first thing the officials check when you finish the race. And if it’s broken, they ask if you can document it. Of course, with this monster ship bearing down on us with no one at the wheel, suffice to say, documentation would be no problem.
So I went to kick the boat into gear, and pushed the controls forward, which would have broken the seal. Should have broken the seal, I should say. But I couldn’t do it. The cable was too tight or too strong, too something. I just couldn’t budge it with my hand, and now I’m thinking shit, we are in trouble. You know how it can get, the “oh shits” are flying around the boat as everybody realizes what’s happening. So, I stand up and kick the controls, hard as I can with my heel. Still nothing. I cannot pop this thing into gear. And now we’re looking straight up the bow of this monster container ship. Things were getting desperate.
I start thinking, when do I jump in the water? And do we have time for a life raft? And then I realize there is no time. The boat is right there on top of us. The only encouraging thing was that I could see the bow was angled slightly to the north of us. And it ended up being just enough. When the ship passed us, it felt like it missed us by about three feet, but it was probably closer to 15. Close enough, either way. This thing, up close, was huge. It was a building. A floating building made of rust. The hull was all dinged up and a mess and I was thinking to myself: Is this massive, ugly thing the last thing I’m going to see? But it missed us, thankfully, though its wake rocked us rail to rail. Whatever, man, at that point, I’d take it. As long as we were dry and breathing.
Honestly, the first thing I did after the boat stopped rocking was jump to the side and take a leak. I literally had the piss scared out of me, and I was shaking like a leaf.
I went to write a report to the race committee about the incident, and I couldn’t write because I was shaking so hard. It took an hour for me to be able to write. And I remember one of the other guys on the boat telling me over and over that there’s nothing we could have done differently.
That was the beginning of my offshore years. And I would come to find out that oftentimes on container ships, nobody’s on watch. They figure it’s a big, wide ocean, you know, and the mate on watch might go down to have a half-hour meal with the crew and nothing ever comes of it. That’s not to say most steamer ships aren’t run tight as a drum, but others aren’t. Maybe they have a skeleton crew of eight to ten guys, tops. And it’s sort of standard fare. And to be honest, it would have been fine had the transmission not been sealed. I’ve crossed the Atlantic before doing races, and have had to call container ships and ask them to alter course, and usually they don’t have a problem with it, and they’re actually very chatty and friendly. But you know, all it takes is one time for it to go bad.
That night on the boat, after I got over being terrified, I remember getting really, really angry at the race committee for setting that seal so hard. And when we got to Bermuda the first thing I did was ask the committee to break the seal. And they ended up needing to use a cable cutter. It was that strong. I mean I guess we had a cable cutter onboard too. But there was simply no time.
The thing I learned from this experience was to double-check the pros. Just because they’re race officials doesn’t mean they’re infallible. Always check the transmission seal. If it’s too strong, get a new one. Because if that container ship had been pointing one more degree in our direction … I simply wouldn’t be here today.
Sprague Theobald, 63, is an accomplished author and fimmaker. In 2009 he cruised over the top of North America via the Northwest Passage on a Nordhavn 57. He produced a documentary about it called The Other Side of the Ice, but the journey was so arduous he hasn’t set foot on a boat since.
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.