A Light in the Dark

We left Swansea at 3pm on Saturday, sailing non stop to Brittany, France. Our sail plan was to complete the 240 nautical mile journey in one go.

By 10.30pm dusk turned to dark. A flashing amber light was seen several miles off to the west. A submarines surface signature. By midnight, all was black as pitch. The wind was giving us a good sail coming from the North West. Suddenly the engine alarm sounded. It had overheated. We sailed on allowing the engine to cool before investigating the problem.

I groaned, as the alarm signified an old problem that I thought that I had solved. The problem was quickly resolved, just a loose wire.

The night passed quickly, the wind now just a gentle breeze. Dawn came surprisingly early, followed by the warm sun. By eleven o'clock, we had turned the corner at Lands End, and were now steering a course for Brittany. A few ships were around, as well as Longships and Wolfs Rock lighthouses. The new radar was performing well, allowing us to see those few extra miles ahead. The autopilot and Bukh engine were doing all of the work. We were just passengers on board of the 32' yacht.

June 13th was my crew's birthday, a day to be largely spent out of sight of land. A birthday breakfast was served, presents given and opened. The weather was now calm and warm. The slight breeze was enough to just hold out the main sail. We both dozed in peaceful surroundings, feeling very secure despite being out of sight of land.

The day went soon enough, evening came, and soon a glorious sunset was in the offing. We approached the divergence zone at the eastern end of the shipping zone around Ushant. The radar suddenly picked up a group of five ships. There no threat to us, but it was pleasing to know where they were and where they were heading. The ships were soon heading away from us, more were approaching. I quickly learned that the ship on our beam was a threat. He remained on the same compass bearing for some while, confirmed by the radars bearing line.

I decided to stay on course until we were a mile away, before making an obvious change if course. Three miles from the ship, I changed course, as our gap was rapidly closing. My course now was directly towards the ship. Through the binoculars it seemed as if the ship was rafted up to a large raft. It was an odd spectacle, and did not seem right. It took a minute or two to realize that the ship was sideways on to me, and was stationary in the water. As if my realisation of the situation was a cue, the large ship suddenly motored of at right angles away from us.

Our sailing boat now resumed its course for Britanny. The encounter with the large ship made me wonder whether I was beginning to suffer from tiredness. As dusk passed, more ships passed by, fortunately none within a several miles. A shipping lane bouy light was seen on the starboard, some distance away, its light flashing every few seconds.

Now it was dark, ships lights seemed to everywhere, though the radar showed nothing. The loom if lights from the French coast were now visible. A large liner, with all of its lights blazing seemed to be taking the coastal shipping lane around the Ushant. Fishing boat lights were only a couple of miles away, I was becoming confused. Whilst our boat was on a constant course, the ships and lights were moving around us in circles.

Alone in the cockpit, I dozed. The long night was taking its toll, especially as now I had been awake for 36 hours. The shipping had now gone astern. The liner was well off to the starboard and was beginning to disappear. The sea was flat and oily. The decks were wet from the night dew. I awoke, and stood up to look around. Two lights were visible, and seemed to be very close. A greenish light from a beacon nearbye lit up the vicinity. I saw a bouy, some twenty foot high was on the starboard bow. It seemed to be only 50 yards away. I changed course to avoid it. I could see the tide pulling the bouy, and the small wave coming from it. I was in shock, having just missed this bouy, and felt very guilty that I had been dozing.

The radar showed nothing. The chart was a blank. What had I seen? I looked back, the light from the bouy was astern, fading into the black night. I looked forward again, and was surprised to see a red flashing light, at what seemed to be only few hundred yards ahead. Again I looked hard at the chart. Nothing was there. I took a bearing on the light, and plotted the direction on the chart. A light on the Ushant was what I was looking at. Some twenty miles ahead!

The rest of the dark night passed without incident. Visibililty was reducing, mist and dew made the darkness cold and univiting. Dawn came, damp and miserable. An hour later, The French coast was in evidence, between the fog banks. We were now within striking distance of the Chanel de Four. As there was no wind at all, I doused the mainsail. Using the waypoints from the chart, we navigated Chanel de Four with several other boats. We had arrived at some three hours after high water, and had a whoosh through the chanel in some style.

The journey finished at Cameret early in the morning. We tied up the boat, switched off the engine, and collapsed.

Two weeks later, we passed through the Chanel de Four going northwards this time. It was mid morning. The tide again gave us a good whoosh through. I re-read my log from a fortnight before, and was determined to find the green bouy that had frightened me in the southwards journey.

After several hours, our position was within a mile or so of where I had recorded the bouy. Nothing was to be seen. The radar showed nothing either!

Was I that tired that I had seen somethingbthat was not there? Not sure even now, I can still see the bouy, and its wash in the tide, and can still see its light fading in the distance.

All over now, and hope we don't come across it next year.

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