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Night Flight Page 2

Not a sliver of moon nor a single star could pierce the thick clouds. We were sailing, levitating, in total darkness. Keeping Brick House, our Valiant 40, just half a mile off the unlit rocky shore was the only way to stay out of the swift counter-current as we fought our way south along Mexico’s Caribbean coast. It was important to sail all night and make good time

Then the sonar numbers suddenly tumbled like a slot machine as the bottom contour climbed to 1,400 feet.

My heart thumped. This was enough of a change to get my attention. I decided 1,000 feet was the drop-dead depth at which I would turn Brick House directly out to sea. Continuing south, the bumpy sonar line still gave no indication of a consistent vertical rise to the surface. We were now sailing well inside the charted shoal, and straight ahead on the plotter was a sounding of just 12 feet. As we moved toward it, the sonar line again began ascending. First to 1,300 feet, then up to 1,250. I was up off the nav seat with my toes on the companionway ladder, but held myself back to watch the instruments. The sonar soundings suddenly increased and the color line began descending, first to 1,400 feet, then to 1,500. We sailed south down the center of the shoal and now there appeared nothing to be concerned about.

We sailed parallel to the coast and out of the charted shoal into 2,000 feet of water, but just 3.5 miles south another shoal loomed on the chart. This one extended 1.5 miles off shore and had an outer depth contour of 328 feet shoaling up to a minimum depth of 66 feet. As we nosed over the line into the charted shoal, the sonar soundings stayed around 1,800 feet. The black shore was now punctuated with a string of evenly spaced white lights. The nightvision scope is overwhelmed by such brightness, so I pulled out our Fujinon Techno-Stabi 14-power binoculars instead. Cutting through the darkness with stabilized optics, the binoculars showed me what appeared to be a low-slung hotel stretching along the shore. At its north end was a stubby lighthouse blinking every six seconds. As we cruised south the shore turned black again. Now the night-vision scope showed the gray outlines of several small fishing boats moored stern to shore. After that, there was nothing but the rocky shore and black night.

My eyelids were drooping as Brick House moved south, away from the most worrisome areas on the chart. As the navigational suspense decreased, so did my adrenalin levels; my arms felt weak and my thinking was getting sluggish. What had seemed like a couple of hours was in fact seven.

As the black horizon yielded to the gray dawn, Rebecca awoke and made it clear that she was annoyed I had taken an all-night shift. Before handing over the watch, I showed her the plotter track. I explained why I had closely followed the coast and hoped she would do the same. Suddenly she was wide awake. When I awoke many hours later, I looked at the track on the chartplotter. I could see that as soon as I had gone to sleep, the track had veered to seaward and then had turned back slowly and continued south.

Veteran circumnavigator Patrick Childress is currently in the Pacific

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