A Tow in the Dark
A Tow in the Dark
We had sailed from Guantanamo Bay, headed around the eastern tip of Cuba, and turned back to the northwest to go home to Key West after our six weeks away. Eventually I wound up standing the night watch on the bridge. The water is deep along the coast of Cuba, but it shoals up to form the base for the Bahamas, so there is a very narrow shipping lane between the shoal on one side and Cuban territorial waters on the other. It was not as busy as many such shipping lanes I had experienced, but then we had less in the way of navigation aids in the area, so we were working hard at following a tightly prescribed course. The messenger of the watch was assigned to keep a constant watch on the fathometer and call out any changes in the depth of the water.
We met a ship or boat heading to the southeast in the dark. There was an overcast, but we had good visibility and I easily identified her running lights and masthead light. The standard thing to do was to pass port to port, so I edged closer to the shoal, and signalled the slight course change with one short blast of the boat's whistle, as required by the International Rules of the Road. The other vessel edged even closer to the shoal, but did not bother to signal the change. I realized that we were going to be making a tricky passage, so I called for the skipper. When he got to the bridge, I told him, "I would rather discuss this with you before it happens, not afterward." He agreed.
We finally settled on passing the other ship starboard to starboard. I turned left enough for her to get a clear view of my green light, hiding my red light from her. I sounded two short blasts to signal our action. We passed less than 100 yards apart, and not much farther than that from Cuban waters. As we passed, the skipper, the lookouts, and I decided that she was probably a fishing boat, though she was not showing fishing lights since she was in transit and not working. I turned back a few degrees to the right, and the skipper went below.
As the skipper was descending from the conning tower to the control room, he heard me yell at the helmsman, "Left full rudder!" The skipper shot up to the bridge again.
In the darkness, under the overcast, one of the lookouts had seen something in the water. It was a white line on the surface of the water, perhaps twenty yards long, and we were pointed right at it. Something clicked in my head, and in a second I realized that the boat that we had just passed was a tug, and that she had a tow on a very long line. And the tow was unlighted.
We passed perhaps ten yards from the unlighted barge. We didn't think we violated Cuban territorial waters. We are sure that the crew of the tug heard our cursing, though. We skirted the shoal for another hour or so, and Dan relieved me for the midwatch. When I sat down to write the entry in the official deck log, I realized that I had nothing formal to report. After all, nothing had really happened.