An encounter off the Eastern Seaboard serves as a scary reminder about safe offshore practices.

Navigator 2, Navigator 2, this is the motoryacht Angelo, channel 16. Switch to channel 68 and come in, please…come in, please.”

The urgency in the voice coming from the flybridge VHF radio surprised us. For a couple of hours, our radars had been tracking the vessel closing in on us from astern—which, at present speed and course, presented a potential collision risk.

Now, we learned, the boat had been following us on purpose. Responding on channel 68, an agitated voice informed us that the late-model, 40-foot motoryacht had been experiencing problems since leaving Cape May, New Jersey, which we’d had about 5 miles directly abeam some 12 hours earlier. The weather had since shifted: The wind was blowing a solid 20 knots from the north, gusting to 45. Seas were 4 to 6 feet from astern and short frequency. The 40-footer, we were told, had become uncontrollable in the prevailing sea conditions and broached several times, causing interior damage and setting loose a television that was bouncing around like a construction-site wrecking ball.

Flopper stoppers engaged—namely two 18-foot booms hinged outboard, each carrying a 75-pound Vosper paravane and a fathom of chain to help stabilize the boat.

Flopper stoppers engaged—namely two 18-foot booms hinged outboard, each carrying a 75-pound Vosper paravane and a fathom of chain to help stabilize the boat.

We watched with some alarm as the 40-footer’s bow dug in, her rudders came out of the water, and she broached sideways at 8 knots down the face of yet another wave.

Of even greater concern was the possibility that the boat might not recover from a broaching event. The crew asked if they could follow us, so we could rescue them in a worst-case situation. They wanted to come even closer astern.

We were confident in the strength of our own ride: a 57-foot John Alden trawler that Hodgdon Brothers in East Boothbay, Maine, had built in 1964. ITT Decca Marine, the U.S. sales and service agents for Britain’s Decca Radar company, had bought her in the spring of 1973 to use as a demonstration platform. I was on board in the fall of that year as captain, along with my wife and a mate, heading for a product demonstration with the U.S. Navy in Norfolk, Virginia.

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By the time our VHF radio started crackling with the 40-footer’s news, a cold front was delivering a chilly northerly breeze, gusting to 30 knots. We had deployed our “flopper stoppers,” which were two 18-foot booms hinged outboard from the mizzenmast, each carrying a 75-pound Vosper paravane and a fathom of chain to stabilize the boat, albeit at the expense of a half-knot of speed. We heard the distress call while comfortably enjoying soup and sandwiches on the Isinglass-enclosed flybridge.

Our newfound cruising companions hung in behind us for a couple of hours, and then requested a course to steer to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge channel. We gave them the information but suggested that they stay with us for another 30 minutes, since the course we gave them would be close to shallow water at the south end of Cape Charles. They didn’t heed our suggestion; it seemed that their ongoing distress had reached its limits. Within seconds, they changed course and, with throttles wide open, took off. The request for information was the last communication we ever received from them.

On our arrival at Norfolk a few hours later, we asked whether there had been any reports of a 40-foot boat in trouble. We also read the newspapers and checked the local TV news the next morning. No accidents were reported, so we assumed the boat had made it safely to land. I speculated that they were probably holed up in the first pub they found. My wife suggested they might be shopping for a new TV. The mate was unconvinced of either: “probably signing a brokerage agreement right now,” he said.

Navigator 2 rests at anchor in more favorable conditions in the Bahamas. 

Navigator 2 rests at anchor in more favorable conditions in the Bahamas. 

In the years since, I have often wondered what that boat was doing out there that day. It was a light-displacement boat running offshore into a building cold front that had been forecasted for several days. The boat was patently not capable of making the trip without problems. Why hadn’t that crew instead run across the Delaware River, through the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and down the relatively protected waters of the Chesapeake Bay? Why hadn’t they secured the boat, including the attack TV, knowing the kind of conditions they were likely to face?

While these questions remain unanswerable, they do remind me about the elements necessary for a safe offshore passage: a capable boat, a competent crew and preparation. Call it the “triangle of confidence,” if you like. The lack of one or more of the three elements spells trouble; the lack of all three, potential disaster.

There are, of course, thousands of boats out there on a daily basis being operated by people with varying degrees of skill and experience. Most states now have mandatory boater education laws, which didn’t exist at the time of this encounter, and there are now many seminars at boat shows and events, and online.

If you’re planning to head offshore, ask yourself: Is your boat designed to handle this kind of cruising? Does your crew possess the necessary navigation, boat-handling and seamanship skills? Are the forecasted weather conditions suitable for your scheduled departure time?

Your answers to these fundamental questions may well determine whether you experience a trip filled with danger, trauma and rampant TVs, or one of relative comfort, soup and sandwiches on the flybridge.

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