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Menacing boat, scary encounter for Fort Wayne family on high seas

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•To read the Veldmans' website and blog, go to www.veldmansailing.com.

Friday, March 22, 2013 - 12:01 am

Editor's note: Elle Veldman wrote this blog post on the family's website, www.veldmansailing.com, on Feb. 12, when the family was sailing off the Honduras coast and had a scary encounter with a tugboat. The Veldman family of Fort Wayne is on a 10-month sailing trip in the Caribbean.

Last night I was on watch with Dad from 2100-0000 hrs and all went well. There were only three boats' lights on the horizon that I had to keep my eye on, and Dad and I were just having good conversation and passing the time with the topic of piracy. We talked about how we were off the coast of Nicaragua and Honduras, an area that has been known for piracy. With that knowledge we strongly believed “buddy-boating” was a good idea. Dad and I talked strategy about approaching boats just as a precaution. If we felt that a boat was not altering course and was headed toward us we would turn off all navigation lights on our boat and sail away under the cover of darkness, hoping we would be lost to the other boat. In the end all went well through the night and the three lights in the distance faded into the horizon and were out of sight. It is an eerie feeling being out in such open waters with no land around and nothing but a light in the distance, not knowing who the light belongs to. (By this point, Act III, our buddy-boat, was shortly out of sight and out of radio range because, sailing with a spinnaker, they took the lead.)

The following morning things changed a little bit…

0545 hrs — Dad was the only one on watch, steering alone with no auto pilot. He noticed a boat show up on the AIS (Automatic Information System) Receiver Radio that all commercial boats are required to have. AIS puts out the boat information such as GPS heading, speed, bearing, boat name, and other information of any boat within a 15 nautical mile range of our boat. Anyways, the boat showed up on AIS and was barely visible on the horizon because it was dawn. Based on the AIS information we were on a collision course but we held our course because a boat under sail has the right-of-way over a motoring vessel. The motor vessel at that point was supposed to make a “clear and obvious” course change away from the boat under sail. Dad noticed that they were not changing course so we altered our own as a precaution. Shortly after we altered ours, so did they, straight for us!

0610 hrs — Because Dad was the only one awake and we had the sails up with no auto pilot he had to be quick when he left the helm seat. He darted down below to where Mom was sleeping and said, “I need you on deck,” and ran back up to the helm station to get back on track. Dad continued to make small changes in our course to avoid the approaching vessel, and they continued to make small changes to stay on a very clear collision course with us. Mom grabbed the binoculars hoping the boat would be a luxury yacht because they would be less threat than a working boat such as a tugboat, which is what the boat turned out to be. It was a 60-70 ft tugboat, bearing down on us at 10.8 knots. Dad tried several times to hail the boat saying, “Motor Vessel (M/V) SAAM ANAHAUK this is Sailing Vessel (S/V) Laeto Loco. M/V SAAM ANAHAUK this is S/V Laeto Loco.” We did not get any response except for the turn of their bow toward us a little more.

0630 hrs — I was woken up by a determined Dad. I was very quickly updated on the situation and told we need to take down the jib and resort to motoring alone so we would have more control of our position, as well as making a “clear and obvious” course change — we made a 45 degree course change. Still they only altered their course to stay bearing down on us. They were getting very close and I could now see them on the GPS with both of our boats flashing red signaling that we were on a dangerously close collision course. They still did not answer when we hailed them so Dad called “Any station this net, any station this net this is S/V Laeto Loco.” Nothing.

0635 hrs — Even when we did a 180 degree turn they followed for about a minute then finally headed away! We held our position and direction in the opposite direction for about two minutes then got back on course so we would no longer be fighting the current and wind. We thought all was well because they were headed away at 10.8 knots and the boats on the GPS were no longer red or flashing. Next thing was a garbled call on the VHF radio and we could not understand what was said or who was calling who so we continued on course.

0645 hrs — I was driving alone now and Dad was working behind me in the cockpit on getting the spinnaker (a very large sail that we put up out front if we are sailing dead downwind) ready and Mom was down below again. Claire and Adam were asleep.

0650 hrs — THEY DID A 180 DEGREE TURN YET AGAIN AND THEY WERE HEADED STRAIGHT FOR US! Their boat and our boat were again on a collision course and both boats were flashing red on the GPS. It was a frantic scramble from there on out. Dad called Mom back on deck then started up the port engine for more power and control. He then put out another distress signal on the SSB and VHF. No replies. Mom gathered up any weapons she could find such as knives, lighters, flare gun, and a baseball bat. Claire was stashing all electronics and Adam was woken up with the statement, “Wake up, a boat is headed straight for us!”

0700 hrs — By this point the boat was within 100 yards off of our port side paralleling us. They were too fast for our 3 knots (with engines, not sails) so they would parallel us for a while, peal off to the left to do a circle and come back to paralleling us again. We were unable to see any people on board and we believed their intentions were to either board our ship or ram us at an intimidating speed, both terrifying to the point we were shaking and praying. We weren't sure which would come first and didn't know why they would be messing with us for over an hour at this point if they didn't plan on doing one of the two options. Dad was down below during the seemingly endless 8-10 minutes they were doing circles putting out more distress signals on EVERY distress channel and putting out our position blindly hoping someone could hear and would respond. Still nothing. I was driving and praying.

0710 hrs — They call us as they are now in front of us headed straight for us. They demand that we state our problem and position. Dad replies, “We have no problems here, only that your boat is bearing down on us, PLEASE ALTER COURSE!” Conversation like this continues for about 3-4 minutes with a struggle because of a small language barrier as they circle to our left, do a circle, then head for us. At one point all I could see from the helm seat was the bow of their boat and the HUGE BOW WAVE headed straight for our 37-foot boat, which felt tiny and helpless at this point. Finally Dad conveyed the message that we had no problems, we needed no assistance, and we would very much appreciate if they would alter course, IMMEDIATELY! The captain states that he thought we needed assistance and he was just trying to help. Lies! They were messing with us for an hour and a half and only the last 15 minutes did they make contact with us (as they headed for us) and pretend they were helping.

Once more they did a 180-degree turn and headed away from us, but we were not convinced they are leaving for good because of how many times they had done this same thing. We slowly watch them disappear out of view and off of our radar as we celebrated and said a prayer of thanks. All is well with us, but oh what a miserable experience!!!