Below is an incident I wrote in 1972 after a four month sail from San Diego through the Panama Canal and up to Key West, under sail alone—no engine, in a 46′ trimaran, similar to the one shown. We were a crew of four: the captain and his thirteen-year-old son, and my partner and I. This anecdote became part of my first book, a memoir. Says Philip Marchand, “The vital principle of any memoir, the red corpuscle in it’s bloodstream, is the anecdote.”
My watch. No wind. No moon yet. Two hundred miles offshore from Costa Rica. The three others asleep, the sea silent. Warm salty droplets on my bare arms. A freighter appeared on the horizon at 2230 hours. From the lights I could see it was on a collision course with us. No worry, it was eight miles away. Make a log entry. Five minutes later it was considerably closer. The range lights were still in line, and both red and green running lights were visible. Too far away to worry, I decided. I looked at the orange drifter hanging limp on the forestay. Our headway through the water was zero knots.
In no time the freighter was closer. Surely their radar has picked us up, I thought, mildly apprehensive. To be on the safe side, I flipped on our running lights, usually left off to save the battery. About a minute later, I could see only their red light, which I decided meant that the freighter had veered off to pass us to port. Or had the green light picked that moment to burn out, or had someone stepped in front of it?
The freighter was still rushing toward us at a ferocious rate. Again, to be on the safe side, I unfastened the xenon flasher from its place on the life ring and held it high. The brilliant strobe burst its staccato message into the night, lighting up our whole ship every other second, but I knew it would do us good only if someone were looking. We had read that some freighters are too short-staffed to carry full-time watches. We’d heard about disastrous collisions at sea due to cavalier regard for the night watch.
It was really close now. I looked up at the empty heavens and prayed for a sudden squall that would send some power into the limp sail. Although I was reasonably sure it was giving us right of way, I called Captain Don out of a deep sleep.
Then I heard the engines. The ship was upon us. I braced myself, hand tight on the tiller. If Don was perturbed by the sight and sound of this freighter bearing down on us, he hid it well. He took the flasher from me and stood on the cabin top to give it as much height as possible. The engines screamed, the bow wave frothed white.
A few seconds later the freighter passed us fifteen metres off the stern. The crew shone a spotlight on us, we heard them laugh, and they roared off into the blackness. I pushed my heart back down my throat and told Don to go back to sleep, thank you very much.
Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir, which offers guidelines for memoir writers.