16 minutes in a stormy night- Looking for the lost Buoy!

November 3, 2020

Most shipwrecks have happened not in the open oceans – but occur when bits of  land get in the way and interrupt an otherwise pleasant trip.

Navigation out in the open sea is not the difficult part of any journey. Sailors have been doing this from long before the Vikings plundered Europe, or Irish monks maybe landed in America in the 6th century. They did manage all this without much in the way of navigation tools, and tobacco and potatoes are some of the fruits of their daring.

The difficult bit of navigation is Pilotage – managing the approach and travelling near land. Testament to this is the number of wrecks around our shores. While the advent of GPS is a great development and can be a magical aid for pilotage, it is after all a technical device, and as such is subject to failure or interference – human or electronic.

Nowadays most of the land we sail near is well marked with buoys of one kind or another, but a good pilotage plan doesn’t just take us from buoy to buoy – it should have other means of confirming position.

I remember one winter evening on a training course with aspiring Day Skipper and Yachtmaster students in the Solent. The crew were practising night navigation. A key turning point on their route was planned around the navigation mark at the end of the Calshot Spit. This marks a shallow and drying area between the mark and the shore and needs to be avoided. This used to be marked by a manned light vessel, but today is a small anchored catamaran with a light. The chart shows the catamaran as a small vessel coloured red, and the light sequence given as Fl 5s.

This buoy was to be a course changing waypoint on a rather sketchy buoy hopping passage plan. When we got near to where the crew thought the buoy should be, they could see no sign of the red flashing light they were looking for. Finding it was now a matter of some urgency, as there was a strong tide sweeping them off course, Red Jet high speed ferries were closing in and a very large container vessel was approaching. It took the crew just sixteen minutes for panic to fully set in.  They came to the conclusion they were lost, since they had pinned their hopes on finding that one buoy. Now that they established the mark was not there, a decision was next taken by the crew that as they couldn’t find that buoy, they would just head for the next buoy on their route which they had spotted.

This was not a great idea. Such a course would take them straight aground onto the Spit with potentially very serious consequences. Grounding on a choppy night with a falling tide is the stuff that can at best make the most enthusiastic of sailors hang up their sailing boots. Also it’s not popular with the RNLI or insurance companies.

At that point, I could see my vision of a nice cup of hot coffee by a roasting fire in the Yacht Club fading into the distance. So I called a halt and said let’s look at what we are doing here…

What the crew had missed was that all lights given on charts are white unless otherwise stated. They spent a long time looking for a red light flashing every 5 seconds. If they had prepared a more detailed pilotage plan, showing distances travelled, depths, and some other bearings they would have had position confirmation that didn’t rely only on finding one buoy and they could have double checked exactly where they were.

Fortunately it all ended well and we managed our destination once the crew figured out their mistake. And I did get my nightcap coffee…

Created by: Splash News Room