Navigating at Sea: Rules of the Road

At sea, this is how another boat looks at night.

Note: The following is taken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.

Operating a boat safely isn’t as easy as it might look. Before we embarked on our 13,000- mile journey aboard our Bristol 40, Impunity, Bruce insisted I take Coast Guard Auxiliary boating safety courses. I took several series of classes on boating safety, sailing skills, seamanship, and shoreline navigation. In addition, we had reference guides and nearly 200 charts on board.

Many books have been written on navigation rules of the road, and the reason for it all is safety. On the water, there are no visible traffic signals or lanes to use as guides. When you come upon another vessel, who has the right of way? How can you tell?

Like any specialty, the boating world has its own terminology. Such common words as right, left, front of a boat, back of a boat have nautical terminology (starboard, port, bow, stern). Even something as common as rope has another name: line. I could go on and on: a ceiling is overhead; wall is bulkhead, closet is locker, windows are port lights. There’s no sense arguing about it, it just is. Ocean travel is another world and if you’re going to be a part of it, you need to know the language.

Navigation rules to be observed:

●The first rule is to always have a proper lookout, someone on watch. We maintained a 24-hour watch system of 4-hours on, 4-hours off. That meant that at sea we never got more than 4 hours sleep. It also meant that our boat was in safe hands at all times.

● Boaters must have the ability to determine risk of collision. Use everything you’ve got: eyes, ears, radar, radio.

● Know how to read ships lights for night time visibility.
– Different types of ships— tugboat, fishing boat, cargo vessels, sailboats— have different light configurations. Aboard Impunity we had a handy chart we used for quick reference when we didn’t recognize another boat’s light configuration. Lights determine the type of vessel.

● International rules dictate that when underway all vessels must display prescribed lights.
– All boats must have sidelights: a green light on the starboard side; a red light on the port side.
– All boats must have a sternlight.
– All power boats and sailboats over 65-feet must have a masthead light, or lights, depending on the type of boat, placed over the center of the vessel.

● Know how to determine which direction a ship is sailing
– If you see a green light, the ship is passing from port to starboard (left to right).
– If you see a red light, the ship is passing from starboard to port (right to left).
– If you see both green and red lights, the ship is coming toward you and you are likely on a collision course.
– If you see only a white sternlight, the ship is sailing away from you.

There are many more “light” rules for various types of boats, but these are the basics that every boater should know.

● Know responsibilities between vessels and which vessel must give-way in an approach situation
– Learn the duties of the “burdened” (or give-way) vessel
– Learn the duties of the “privileged” (or stand-on) vessel

● Learn what to do when approaching buoys and markers

If you don’t know the rules of the road, you’re putting yourself and other vessels in danger. Knowing and following the Rules of the Road is not difficult. It is smart, courteous, and safe. And it’s the law.


Our Little Tagalong

Note: The following is taken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.

On the first day out of Bora Bora, when checking the jib and looking over the bow, Bruce noticed we had a little tagalong, a pilot fish. A beautiful little fish, silver with dark vertical stripes, the pilot fish was about 12 inches long. Impunity was scooting right along at 7 knots and the little fellow had no trouble keeping up.

Pilot fish normally congregate around sharks, rays, and sea turtles. Sharks, particularly the oceanic whitetip, are the pilot fish’s most common and advantageous companion. The ocean can be a perilous place for small fish with hungry predators lurking to strike the most vulnerable. For protection, many small fish travel in large schools, but the pilot fish has made a reciprocal partnership by offering a unique service: keeping the sharks free of harmful parasites and cleaning up bits of excess food. The pilot fish apparently knows that when it comes to making powerful friends, nothing beats the shark and the assurance of safe passage.

There is such trust between them that pilot fish are even known to enter their sharks’ mouths to nibble away food debris. It is extremely rare that a shark will eat a pilot fish—there seems to be a working bond between them.

Pilot fish are also known to swim along with boats and ships. Our little tagalong was probably feeding off Impunity’s “jaw” or hull. We enjoyed his company for four days.


Tapa Cloth: A South Pacific Treasure

Note: The following is taken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.

We first saw tapa at the Pago Pago market where decorative pieces were sold. Most tourists bought them for wall hangings, but for South Pacific Islanders tapa has many more uses.

Tapa is a barkcloth made in many of the South Pacific islands, primarily in Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, but many other islands, too, including Hawaii. In olden times it was often used as clothing, but nowadays it is highly prized for its decorative value and is often found hung on walls or as room dividers. Tapa is a highly prized gift at events such as marriages and funerals.

Tapa comes from the bark of the mulberry tree. The bark is stripped in sections about hand-wide and person-long. The inner bark is stripped away from the outer bark and the outer bark discarded. The inner bark is dried in the sun before being soaked in water. Then the bark is beaten with wooden mallets and the strips flattened and layered using a glue made from tapioca flour or potato starch, and the painting and design process begins.

The woman in this picture is shown designing a piece of tapa. At the time we thought she was using charcoal, but after doing more research, I now think it was probably brown paint made from the koka tree.

In Tonga we often saw people, mostly elders, with tapa around their waste and down to nearly their ankles. It didn’t look like a comfortable garment to us, but we learned it was a traditional sign of respect and worn when attending important gatherings.

People in the South Pacific take tapa very seriously. It is to be treasured.

Excuse Me: Isn’t That a Pig?

Note: The following is taken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.

Although every port-of-call was special to us, the hands-down favorite was the Kingdom of Tonga. Tonga is a Polynesian sovereign state, which means it governs itself, and is an archipelago of 169 islands, 36 of which are inhabited. Four major groups of islands form the Kingdom: Tongatapu, Ha’apai, Vava’u, and Niua groups. Tonatapu is the main island and its capitol is Nuku’alofa. We spent about six weeks in Tonga, all in the Vava’u group.

The only Pacific Island nation never colonized by a foreign power, the Kingdom of Tonga is known as “The Friendly Islands.” Tongans are strongly Christian, the people helpful and friendly.

Upon arrival we anchored Impunity near the small town of Neiafu and rowed our dingy ashore. Tongans constantly swept their wooden sidewalks and packed earthen streets–we were impressed with how clean everything was.

Surprisingly, pigs wandered around at will. I wasn’t sure where they did their business, but we didn’t see any pig-doo along the streets. We saw pigs, of all different colors and sizes, on church steps, sidewalks, streets, in yards. They were apparently a part of the community.

Pigs had their useful purpose. The Tongans didn’t mow lawns; pigs kept them neat and trim. They ate much of the soft garbage, like fallen fruit. And, of course, pigs provided meat. We learned that domestic pigs played an important role in social obligations mainly for gifts and exchange at feasts, weddings and funerals.

During our stay in Tonga we moved Impunity around to anchor near different islands. The water was clear and beautiful–ideal for snorkeling.

Off one of the uninhabited islands where we regularly anchored, we often rowed ashore to feed a couple of piglets. Because of their coloration, we called one of the piglets Stars and the other Stripes. The mother stayed clear of us, hovering in nearby bushes, ready to protect her babies. I would have loved to hold them, but was afraid I would alarm their mother. We enjoyed the little pigs and saved our kitchen scraps for them.

Tonga was a paradise and those little pigs added immensely to our enjoyment.


Injured at Sea


Note: The following is taken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.

On-the-nose winds made the sail between American Samoa and The Kingdom of Tonga tough. After a five-month absence from sailing, my stomach rebelled. I wasn’t over-the-side sick, but for the first day and a half I didn’t feel my best.

On the second night, Bruce had gone off watch at 10:00 and settled down in Impunity’s midship bunk. I scanned the horizon and went below decks to make a cup of tea. Bruce had put the teakettle on the stove to heat the water for me, so I didn’t harness myself into the galley for the quick trip to fill my cup and grab a tea bag.

The boat surged up, then suddenly dropped off the back of a wave and threw me backwards across the cabin. I landed on the edge of the chart table, hitting my lower back, three inches from my spine on my right side.

I knew immediately I was hurt, that I’d probably broken a rib. Bruce had leapt out of the bunk with my scream as I crashed into the chart table. He wanted me to lie down right away, but I was anxious to see how badly I was hurt, so I insisted on standing my watch, with the understanding I’d call him if I needed to. Reluctantly, he agreed.

Sticking to our normal night watch routine, I set our kitchen timer for every 15 minutes and at that time did a 360-degree horizon check. I checked the knot-meter, compass, and trim of the sails, to make sure everything was okay. Because the seas were so rough, I sat tucked up under the dodger to stay out of the spray. By the 16th time I stood up on the rocking boat, I knew that nothing vital was broken. But I also knew that I was really hurting and that once I lay down, I’d probably not get up again until we arrived in Tonga.

At the end of my watch Bruce got me settled onto the bunk and that was it for me for the next day and a half, other than brief trips to the head. Keeping our regular ham radio schedule, Bruce talked to our doctor friend George on Wind-dancer in Pago Pago. I had already taken aspirin—lots of it. We had stronger pain medication on board, but I was hesitant to take it and be totally “out of it.” I knew if I had to I could get up and help Bruce. While George and Bruce talked on the radio, another person in Neiafu Harbor in Tonga chimed in, introduced himself and said he was a doctor, a fellow yachtie.

As we approached Tonga, the seas calmed allowing me to gingerly walk around, even prepare meals. Bruce was weary, having run the boat by himself and taken care of me.

We pulled into Neiafu Harbor mid-day and a customs agent came aboard first, inquiring about me. Word had spread about my injury. I was again lying on the bunk, not able to stand comfortably while the boat jostled into place at the wharf for the customs inspection. Then a doctor to whom Bruce had talked on the radio, the yachtie, came aboard and verified it was likely a broken rib, or a badly bruised one. In any event, the treatment was the same. He gave me ibuprofen, a pain medication I’d never used before, which was more effective for me than aspirin. He offered to tape my torso, but I declined. It was just too hot. He suggested that I could swim, very gently, but no diving off the boat. Not to worry. I knew diving was not in my immediate agenda.

It felt so good not to be crashing around at sea. Once we were anchored, I carefully climbed down our boarding ladder to enjoy a cooling swim. Tonga was blissfully quiet and unbelievably beautiful. It didn’t take long before I could freely move around and enjoy life in this true paradise. It was awhile longer before I could dive.

Our First Landfall: The Marquesas

Note: The following is taken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.

We had been at sea for 35 days. Except for the day we left San Diego, we hadn’t seen another boat. It had been just the two of us in a world surrounded by endless water. Like a little kid, I asked Bruce when we would “get there,” reach the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia.

“Oh, probably early Wednesday morning.”

If that happened, I would be impressed with the exactness of his calculations. Without navigation know-how, you can miss an island by days, going right past it. If an island is more than 10 miles away, a small-craft sailor can’t see it. To cross an ocean with no landmarks, using only the stars and sun for navigation, takes skill.

In any event, I had my sights set on Wednesday. I was ready to get there, to set foot on land, take a long walk, and drink something cold. Strangely, I also felt reluctance to again open our lives to others. We’d been in a world of our own and we were comfortable with that.

On Wednesday, as we approached the Marquesas, from miles away we were aware of the islands’ aroma, a tropical arboretum rich with scents of earth tinted with tropical flowers and fruits. We passed north of Ua Nuka before approaching Nuku Hiva, the largest of the twelve Marquesas Islands.

As we neared land, dolphins greeted us with wild cavorting around Impunity’s bow, slicing the water at extraordinary speeds. Our depth sounder was turned on and the dolphins kept setting off the shallow water alarm. We finally turned off the depth sounder since we had plenty of good light to see any obstacles. I stood in the bow, ready to signal Bruce if I saw any coral heads or changes in water color. I had to laugh at the dolphins’ playful antics as they welcomed us to French Polynesia.

Bruce found a place to anchor among other boats in Taiahoe Bay, yachts from the United States, Sweden, New Zealand, France, Zambia in South Africa, Germany, plus a French Navy ship. The rattling of our ground tackle was a welcome sound as the anchor was lowered 28 feet into the bay.

We made it! We’d traveled 3,200 miles in 34 days. This was the first of many landfalls, but probably the most exciting. We’d proven to ourselves that Impunity was sail-worthy. And so were we.

Surrendering our Weapons in The Marquesas

First Landfall: Nuku Hiva, The Marquesas

First Landfall: Nuku Hiva, The Marquesas


Note: The following is taken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.

At our first landfall, The Marquesas, we had an experience we later laughed about, but which at the time was no laughing matter.

Upon Impunity’s arrival and after clearing customs, we were required to surrender our weapons at the police department, more property called gendarme, since French was the official language. We had brought our weapons on our journey in case we should be accosted by pirates at sea, a very real concern in some areas. Before relinquishing them to the local authorities, Bruce had put trigger locks on both our handguns, his Ruger .357 Magnum and my Smith & Wesson .38 Special. We had been warned to lock the triggers so they couldn’t be used by others. The law is that visitors leave the country with the exact weapons and ammunition they had when entering.

Surrendering our weapons made us nervous, but it was the law and we would comply. Luckily, this was the only location we would be visiting in the in the South Pacific where this action was required.

We found the gendarme, a Marquesan, helpful and friendly. He admired our guns and said French weapons lacked accuracy. He spoke a little English and explained that with a French gun you aim here (he pointed) but it shoots there (he pointed in a different direction). We were given a carbon copy of the form we had signed surrendering our guns and about 100 rounds of ammunition.

Two weeks later, when we prepared to leave The Marquesas, we walked the distance to the gendarme station and presented our receipt to the same fellow who had originally taken our guns. His dark face colored as he said, “Yes, well, the Commissioner would like to talk to you.”

“Is there something wrong?” Bruce asked.

“Oh, no, no. But before I can give you your weapons, the Commissioner has asked to see you.”

Oh boy, what was this all about? We followed his directions to a big concrete building, the Commissioner’s residence and office. We were escorted to a large bare room with only a wooden desk in the middle and a chair behind the desk, where the Commissioner sat, and two wooden chairs in front of the desk. A huge ceiling fan slowly rotated above his desk. Tall, shuttered windows lined the outside wall. For some reason, the movie Casablanca popped into my mind.

The Commissioner rose, warmly greeted us and invited us to sit. He could speak very little English and what little he could was difficult to understand. After saying what we supposed was something to the effect he hoped our visit there had been satisfactory, he came to the business at hand. Leaning forward and folding his hands, he directed his attention to Bruce.

“I want to sell your small gun.”

I looked at Bruce’s furrowed brow. He didn’t understand, either.

“Oh!” I said, the Commissioner’s meaning dawning on me. “You want to buy the Smith & Wesson.”

“Yes, yes! That’s it. I want to buy that gun.”

In the first place, what he asked was illegal. I’m sure that’s why the gendarme looked so embarrassed. The law dictated we leave with the exact number of weapons and ammunition with which we arrived. Now the top official on the island was asking us to do something illegal?

In the second place, that was my handgun, a gift from Bruce, and I didn’t want to part with it.

My mind whirled. I glanced at Bruce. He was thunderstruck.

“But you see,” I said, gesturing to Bruce, “my husband gave that gun to me for Christmas. I cannot part with it.” I looked lovingly at Bruce.

The Commissioner was quick to respond. “Oh, but of course. It was a gift from your husband. I do understand.” His manner was gracious and he seemed to completely agree with our position.

The Commissioner stood and shook our hands. “Enjoy the rest of your journey.” At least that’s pretty much what it sounded like.

The Deckhand Who Never Sleeps

The wind vane's paddle is to the far right

The wind vane’s paddle is to the far right

Note: The following is taken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.

Impunity’s Aries wind vane proved to be one of our most valuable assets. As we prepared the boat for off-shore cruising, we even sent to England for spare parts for our wind vane, knowing how valuable it was to have self-steering capability. A wind vane is so valuable, it’s often thought of as an extra deck hand.

The wind vane, a thin plywood paddle that caught the wind’s direction, automatically adjusted the self-steering gear. Without it, all steering would need to be done by hand. Bruce kept an eye on the direction of the wind and tweaked the sails accordingly while the wind vane kept us on course. When the Aries steered the boat, the tiller was engaged to a chain hooked to the wind vane.

With favorable winds, hand-steering was rarely required. The wind vane did its job keeping us on course. Every once in awhile, it was necessary to make some adjustments, but for days on end we didn’t have to hand-steer or even change course.

Our easiest passage, a ten-day sail from Bora Bora to American Samoa, was blessedly uneventful. For awhile, we averaged 125 nautical miles a day; but settled into 100. Under these steady conditions ,the passage was so consistent that once Bruce adjusted the sails after an early rain squall, we sailed day-in, day-out with the same configuration. We never had to change sails or even adjust the wind-vane steering. It was the smoothest sail of the journey. The wind vane added immeasurably to our comfort and ease in sailing.

Months later, during one of our most difficult periods, a 30-day passage between American Samoa and Honolulu, we had some anxious moments with our wind vane. Around 3:00 a.m. while Bruce was on watch, he called to me, asleep below decks. He needed my help. Our steering vane had become partially detached from the boat. If Bruce couldn’t repair it, or worse, if we lost it altogether, it would mean having to hand-steer for the rest of the journey. Hand-steering makes a watch a real chore because you can’t leave the wheel or tiller without going off course.

Working upside down in the dark, his face inches from the rolling sea, Bruce hung over the transom to replace bolts while I shone a flashlight for him and held onto the seat of his pants to keep him from falling in. After about 20 minutes of fitting and tightening bolts, all the while upside down, he made the repair and reset the wind vane, and we were off again. Losing the vane wouldn’t have been life-threatening, but it would have been extremely inconvenient.

Again, we were thankful for our strict watch system. If no one had been on deck keeping watch and making routine checks on the equipment, the problem would likely have gone unnoticed until it was too late to save the vane. And, this was yet another affirmation of having spare parts on board for all the important systems on the boat, and also a reminder of the importance of a sailor knowing his boat intimately.

Our Aries wind vane was one of our most useful tools. It helped to make our journey a pleasurable success.

A Star to Steer By

b-sextant-sp_t1_2-cropI must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky; and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.
……John Masefield

Navigating by electronic devices using GPS (Global Positioning System) is usually accurate and convenient. But what happens if/when the electronic system fails? Before our 13,000-mile trip through the South Pacific, Bruce taught himself celestial navigation, finding our position by the sun and stars using a sextant. It was our primary source of navigation aboard our Bristol-40, Impunity..

Using celestial navigation during the daytime, the sun normally would be our only source of position information, and a sun shot would give a line of position. Bruce knew we were somewhere on that line, which he would draw on the chart.

During morning and evening twilight when Bruce could make out both the horizon and some stars, he could get multiple lines of position, one from each star, and where these lines intersected was our position. When getting a line of position from a star or the sun, Bruce would label the chart with “sun” or the name of the star, such as “Vega.”

Bouncing around on a small boat at sea while taking visual observations using a sextant is not entirely precise, but with care each line of position would be accurate, hopefully within a half mile or less. When many miles from land, that is close enough.

Note: The above was aken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.


Visitors at Sea


Note: The following is taken in part from my memoir, Sailing with Impunity: Adventure in the South Pacific.

On the first leg of our journey, about fifty miles out from the coast of Oregon, Bruce called me for my morning 6:00 watch. “Since about 3:30 I’ve been watching a light astern of us. It seems to be staying with us. Keep an eye on it.”

It seemed strange to have no one in sight for days and suddenly there was another boat and they seemed to be following us. I found it unsettling.

We ate our oatmeal in Impunity’s cockpit and continued to watch astern for the lights of whoever was following us. Finally, around 7:00 they called on the VHF, identified themselves as the Coast Guard Cutter Resolute. They asked who we were, the name of our boat, its documentation number, the number of crew onboard, and where we were going. Bruce answered all their questions. A long period of silence followed. Bruce wondered if something was wrong with our radio.

Finally, the radio crackled to life and the Coast Guardsman asked, “On which side of the boat do you want us to board?”

To stop the boat, of course, was out of the question. The Coast Guard wouldn’t expect that, nor would it even be possible.

Bruce offered to put a boarding ladder on Impunity’s port side. Within a few minutes a sixteen-foot RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) pulled up alongside carrying four heavily armed Coast Guardsmen. Three climbed aboard and introduced themselves, very professional and thoroughly efficient.

“We need to inspect all compartments of your boat. Please don’t be alarmed, this is mostly a safety check.”

Right, I thought. I would not have wanted to be carrying illegal cargo. These guys meant business.

The officer in charge, carrying a clipboard, nodded to Bruce. “Go ahead, Sir, lead the way.” He turned to me, “Ma’am, please stay in the cockpit with Seaman Turner. Two of them went below with Bruce. One remained in their large, inflatable dinghy, keeping pace with Impunity, but never touching it. Both boats rolled with the rough seas.

Bruce told me later that the fellows who went below decks with him searched every nook and cranny. One of them remarked that he’d never seen so many drawers and compartments in a yacht’s head. They checked the engine compartment, all the lockers, all the drawers throughout the boat. After the search, the officer in charge referred to his clipboard and began writing down the particulars of the boat. Bruce handed him a copy of our ”Vessel and Personal Information” document that he had designed. The Coast Guardsman was impressed. “All boats should be required to do this.”

In the meantime, the fellow and I sat in the cockpit and carried on a conversation. The Coast Guardsman still at the wheel in the RIB kept an even pace with Impunity, but never tied up to us.

The Coast Guardsmen then inspected the cockpit lockers. The officer in charge looked at his clipboard. They were satisfied that we’d complied, and presented us with a nice safety certificate. According to them, it’s rare to pass a safety check with no citations or warnings. In our case, not even a suggestion.

They climbed into their RIB, still never having tied to Impunity, and were off, back to the Resolute. They were onboard Impunity for about an hour.

We wondered if the Coast Guard thought perhaps we were carrying drugs. We didn’t mind the boarding. In fact, we approved. It was our tax dollars at work.