We sailed out of Joao Pessoa around midnight. Around 3 am, while sailing north from Joao Pessoa to Natal, I saw a red flare in the night sky on the starboard side. The flare was so bright that illuminated the sea below. It looked like it was descending towards the water, in an east to west direction. What was it? I hoped Yuka was in the cockpit with me to confirm what I saw, but she was off watch, sleeping in the cabin down below. The night was dark with no moon. 20 knots of wind on the beam, waves 2 meters high.
I looked at the radar and couldn’t see anything in the direction of the flare. I looked at the AIS, and there were a couple of cargos going north 10 miles behind me, and one going south 20 miles in front of me. I played with the radar settings, trying to see if it detected a vessel in my starboard direction. Nothing.
How come my radar doesn’t return any echo for a vessel? Is the person who fired the red flare in a liferaft?
I made sure my VHF radio was on channel 16 and that the volume was at the max. No communications. I took a picture of my lat and long and the time on my i70 to mark my position.
We were about 10 miles from the coast, and 15 miles from Joao Pessoa, where there is a Navy base. The wind was about 20 knots, and we were sailing with one reef. The sea was big. Should I alter my course and proceed in the direction where I saw the red flares?
We were not equipped for a long range visual inspection at night, we had no night vision binoculars or long throw flash light.
I had to quickly take a decision. So I grabbed the VHF radio and I called a Mayday Relay:
Mayday Relay, Mayday Relay, Mayday Relay. This is Sailing Vessel Oroboro, Oroboro, Oroboro. My position is (lat and long). I saw a red flare on my starboard side, some 5 nautical miles east of my position.
I waited a few minutes. No answer. Then I launched the Mayday Relay again, this time in Portuguese.
Again, no answer.
At this point I hauled directly the ship I saw behind us on the AIS. Somebody responded in a good English. I explained what happened, I gave them my position and asked them to call by phone the Brazilian Navy station in Joao Pessoa. They were only 15 nautical miles from us, they could arrive on the spot in 30 minutes at the most if they wanted.
I waited for the Navy to call me on the VHF and give me instructions. But this didn’t happen. After 30 minutes or so, the Navy base broadcasted a message. The reception was very weak. The message was in Portuguese first, then in English. The English message mentioned a vessel in distress and a Crew Over Board. They gave lat and long (I wasn’t able to take notes, so I’m not sure they were the same I gave them) and asked all vessels to keep a sharp eye out.
30 minutes later, the same laconic message from the Navy.
Had I been in open ocean, I would have turned around and searched the area. But been so close to the shore, the Navy base been only 15 nm away, I thought that it was too risky for us. We wanted to get to Natal before dark and we only have a couple of hours of margin.
Also, in the back of my mind there were two other considerations:
- Maybe it was a drunken fisherman on a jaganda with an expired flare that wanted to have some fun.
- Maybe it was a pirate lure.
Also, another thing that doesn’t add up is why the Navy reported a COB. I only reported a red flare sighting, which is a vessel in distress sign. Maybe somebody else reported a COB?
What would you have done in my place?