Sudden Turn

One beautiful, sunny July day I was sailing Rondo, my Beneteau 423, about a mile off the famed Santa Monica pier in picturesque Santa Monica Bay, California. The wind was blowing gently at around 8 knots, and I was reaching along on port tack making about 5 knots. It was a typical Southern California day with a typical Southern California breeze. Suddenly, at a distance of about 300 yards, I saw a 30-foot powerboat on my starboard bow coming toward me at a good rate of speed. I quickly concluded it would easily pass ahead of me if it maintained its course and speed. All I’d have to deal with was its unnecessarily large wake. I expected that if the powerboat changed course at all, it would turn to starboard so as to increase the distance between us as it crossed my bow.

As we got closer the powerboat did alter course, but not in the way I’d expected. Instead it turned toward me. I began shouting at the powerboat operator, hoping to get his attention. I also immediately turned hard to starboard to get clear of his stern, or at least make sure we passed each other safely port-to-port. That’s what would have happened if the powerboat had maintained its new course. But then suddenly the boat seemed to lurch out of control and veered to port. As it roared past me, its port side struck my bow roller and anchor.

I stared in astonishment as it sped by. I could see clearly there was no one at the helm. In fact, I didn’t see anyone on deck until after the collision. This seemed to explain the boat’s erratic behavior, although the rather radical course changes suggested the boat was not even on autopilot. As soon as they heard the crunching sound of the collision, three men popped up on deck from below, each holding a can of beer.

As the powerboat kept going, without even slowing down, it dawned on me that I might have just been the victim of a seagoing hit-and-run driver. Not knowing what damage my boat had sustained, but fearing the worst, I picked up the remote VHF mike in the cockpit and called for assistance on Channel 16. Right after I had made the call, the powerboat stopped about 100 to 150 yards away. I shouted to them, though I had no way of knowing whether they could hear what I was saying. I told them to come back to me, and when they saw me talking on the radio, they began an animated discussion among themselves. Finally they turned the boat around and moved slowly in my direction.

Had they considered running for it? Were they calculating the chances of being caught if they did so? I couldn’t be sure but it seemed like a very real possibility. There were so many boats out on the water that day, some other boaters must have seen the collision.

Once they were close enough I asked calmly, “Exactly what were you thinking?”

“We’re sorry,” they said. “We didn’t see you.”

Of course, I already knew that. As far as I was concerned, the reason they didn’t see me was that they were all down below drinking beer.

Two Baywatch rescue vessels quickly appeared, one to assist me, the other to help the powerboat. Soon the threesome in the powerboat took off, and my rescue team told me they were heading to the sheriff’s dock in Marina del Rey to file an accident report.

I was unable to follow immediately because the collision had ripped my 60-pound CQR anchor from its bow roller, and the anchor, along with 300 feet of chain rode, was now hanging off the bow into the water. Two crewmembers from the rescue vessel came on board and helped me recover the anchor and chain by hand, a job that took us nearly an hour to accomplish.

By the time I finally reached the sheriff’s dock in Marina del Rey, the powerboat had filed its report and long since departed. I filed my own report and asked the deputies on duty whether they had performed a sobriety test on the skipper. Judging from their looks, I might just as well have been speaking a foreign language. One of them said, “We didn’t think it was necessary, since he told us that you had hit them.”

The official report of the incident was published by the sheriff’s office about a month later. In it the powerboat operator claimed his boat was dead in the water while his crew was fishing. When I hit them amidships, he reported, one crew member was on the starboard side, one was on the port side and the third was on the helm. What was interesting to me was that all three claimed they never saw me. The report concluded that the collision had occurred because my sails had impaired my vision forward of the boat, and as a result I took no action to steer clear of the powerboat.

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