Strange Lights & Close Call
19 June 2010 | Outside harbor of Papeete
Picture is of cloud cloaked Tahiti some 60 miles out coming from Fakarava.
As we were crossing from Fakarava to Papeete the seas were flat and calm and it was a long motor boat ride. We had our first sighting of Tahiti about 80 miles out and it was cloaked in clouds with only the highest peak standing out to signify that a island was hidden within. We were motoring at 5.5 knots and realized that we needed to slow down in order to arrive at sunrise. So, we dropped the speed to a mere 4 knots...barely moving, but comfortable and quiet.
As we took our standard watches, Lori ended-up with the last one as we were nearing the harbor entrance around 5:30 am. I was asleep in the V-birth when I heard Lori yelling for me to come look at a strange light. When I got to the helm, I could see a white light. Lori said she couldn't see it on radar and it had been getting closer and closer for the past hour. She thought it was a rising star for most of the evening till it suddenly changed colors and became a red light with a white light below it. When I looked at it, it was actually appeared to be flashing and I could see it as a small dot on radar just 500 yards directly ahead. We would hit it if we didn't change course.
The lights were directly in line with the entrance to the harbor and Lori said she saw boats pass under the light. Nothing was marked on the chart as a channel marker at this location, so I placed a waypoint marking it as a dangerous location. We passed by the light at about 300 feet placing it on our starboard side. It was not moving and appeared to be a fixed channel marker with strange red over white lights.
About 10 minutes later, I looked back at the radar and realized that the target was no longer in the position that I had marked with a waypoint, but rather it seemed to be following us! This was really strange. Keep in mind that it is pitch black with cloud cover and a bit of foggy mist. Visibility is only fair.
I suddenly realized that it was probably a boat that was sitting with no engine or sails waiting for sunrise. I hailed the boat several times and someone finally came on and said they were a 50 foot catamaran. They were indeed waiting for sunrise to enter the harbor and the voice sounded as though he had been asleep.
The real problem with this encounter was that I didn't recognize that it was a stern mast light due to the fact that it changed to red over white just as I came to the helm. This happened because we changed course enough to place it to our starboard and we then saw a red mast light with a white steaming light below it. The problem with the white steaming light is that they were not moving! I'm quite certain they were asleep.