Yesterday we saw clouds forming in the sky, indicating a change in weather. After sunset we could see lightning in the distance, well away from us and moving in the other direction. We stayed up late with drinks and talked our way well into the night.
I couldn’t sleep. The wind had picked up and swell was coming in. Maybe having decided to drink rum and coke before bed was part of it, it seems the older I get the stronger my body reacts to caffeine. While in bed, I kept hearing things over the murmur of the water, René’s snoring (love you) and the sound of the wind. I heard voices and alarms. I heard the waves break on the shore louder, the grinding sound of the anchor chain under water and convinced myself we were drifting, while at the same time talking myself out of it. I tossed and turned for a while and, feeling uneasy, anxious and hot, went back outside again. For some reason I didn’t trust our anchor tonight, even though we hadn’t moved for 4 days. The wind picked up some more and kept changing its direction. Every few minutes my surroundings changed.
I ended up staying in the cockpit until well over 4 in the morning, as if my presence there would ensure our safety. Finally exhausted and with enough proof we really weren’t going anywhere and that our anchor would, in fact, hold, I went back to bed.
I slept until six. I woke again to the sounds of voices and went outside. Just like a few hours before, no one was there. No alarms did go off and no people were talking. The only other boat in the anchorage was rolling just as badly as we were, but was still a safe distance away, just as it had before. My mind was playing tricks on me, making me hear things that weren’t there, fed by my anxiety.
I made a bed on the cockpit bench and just before sunrise I dozed off.
Not more than two hours later René woke up and came outside. The rolling had subsided a little but as we already planned on leaving the anchorage to sail to Cartagena, there was no point in waiting. With the kids still asleep we made our preparations and picked up the anchor, waking them in the process. There is no silent way of doing things on a boat.
The first couple of hours we close hauled and tacked, until the wind changed again and blew straight from where we wanted to go, so we turned on the engine.
Just after noon we saw a small plane coming in our direction. It flew by as if they were checking us out, a practice we had read about online. It flew off but kept circling the stretch of sea between us and the land.
On the AIS René could see it was a SAR (search and rescue) plane. We wondered what they were looking for. Did something happen? Did someone go overboard? We didn’t receive any transmission on the VHF about it.
Then we saw smoke in the distance, coming from something that was in the water.
We talked it over and wondered if the plane flying by was to get our attention, although it didn’t tip its wings indicating we should follow and didn’t hail us on the VHF. René tried to contact the plane but they didn’t respond.
We quickly decided to change course and check out the situation. Maybe there was a ship on fire and in need of help. We didn’t see any other boats that were closer by so maybe we could be of assistance. In any case, we should go over there to make sure.
As René put away our mainsail I quickly went inside to prepare the kids. Then I went to the nav station, wrote down the time and our postion and listened to the VHF for more information. At some point between transmissions I picked up something about ‘distress’ and ‘motoryacht’ and relayed the information to René.
At this point we were certain there was a ship on fire and that people maybe jumped ship, and that they were what the plane was looking for. We still couldn’t get into contact with anyone from the SAR so René made a general “ship on fire” transmission, stating who we were and that we were approaching.
After about 15 minutes we approached upwind from the object where the smoke emitted from. We were now close enough to actually see what it was.
It wasn’t a ship.
It was an enormous professional-looking smoke flare.
No people were in danger.
We had just witnessed, and responded to, a SAR drill.
this is what we saw when we got close(r):
this is what it roughly looked like :