We’d already spotted the occasional AIS target, but until you can see them, they’re sort of just virtual. Last night started off by actually sailing close enough to a fishing vessel to physically see it. We even spotted a buoy for one of their fishing nets. But after sunset, the excitement of spotting a vessel turned into a problem. Fishing vessels out here seem to put AIS on their fishing net bouys. I’d like to think that it’s so other boaters don’t run into them, but it’s probably more so the fishing vessels themselves can retrieve their nets.
So, after dark, south of the equator, we’re sailing south east and AIS alarms go off with new targets. There’s a net somewhere in our path, but it’s still 10 miles ahead. As we get closer, more targets spawn and we quickly realize there’s a whole field of nets in front of us. AIS class B doesn’t have great range, perhaps about 20 miles or so, so we still don’t know how big the field is. Luckily, the winds are slowly shifting in our favor and we’re able to head more east hoping to be able to go around the field. Transversing between buoys and nets at night seems like a risk we don’t want to take.
As we head southeast, the field keeps expanding. Separated by 6 or 7 miles, the buoys are 3 rows, by 5 columns. It’s more than 20 miles in our easterly direction. That same distance takes us more than 4 hours to cover, but we keep pinching the wind, heading as far east as we can and things look promising for clearing the east most buoys.
Then, after a few hours, more AIS targets. Two more columns of buoys are seen in the distance. By now, we’ve travelled almost 20 nautical miles east and it looks like we’ve got another 20 to go to clear the field. The wind has died down, lots of squalls in the area, and we’re not gonna make it by sailing, so we decide to burn some of our precious diesel fuel and run the engine to head east of the field of nets and AIS targets.
A tanker goes by. We try to hail them on VHS, hoping they can give us a better view of the fishing field as they have better antennas, but no reply after multiple tries. None of the fishing boats reply to our hails either, I don’t think they speak English. 3-4 hours of slow engine idling, shouldn’t take more than 3 gallons. We have 90 left. After about 3 hours, the end is near, just need to pass two more buoys.
Then, two more show up. It’s 4 am, I’ve been up all night and still don’t know how wide this field is. So far, we’ve only seen 2-3 nets deep going north to south, so we make the decision to cut between, hoping they’re all marked and their AIS are working. We set sail again. If we are to run into a net or line, I’d rather not have the propeller running and the winds are favorable.
We head dead south as much in the middle between two columns of AIS marked nets as we can. As we approach one to port, still 2-3 miles away, we see a light. Looks like they’re lighted. Turns out they’re not. A new target on AIS shows up as a fishing vessel. It’s there to retrieve a net in the middle of the night and it’s the fishing vessels’ lights we see. Then, suddenly to starboard a flashing light. We should be 4 miles away from the closest AIS marked buoy, this is a lot closer.
We keep trying to track the flashing lights. We think there might have been two separate ones. I keep watching the angle of the light as they pass the spreader and move towards the stern. They move fast, indicating they’re really close. It’s almost impossible to properly judge distances at night. At last they move behind us, and however close they were, the danger is over.
Then our chart plotter goes off with a “Dangerous Target” alarm. The fishing boat is heading our way and our paths are set to intersect the with a possible collision course. The fishing boat is moving at 19 knots, we’re only going 5 with sails up and we don’t have a lot of options to avoid another vessel. We turn on our steaming light. It’s for when you run the engine, but since it’s in the middle of our mast it lights up our head sail, making us extra visible at night.
The fishing vessel is still far away, so we calm our nerves and tell ourselves he must see us. After all, we emit an AIS location too, just like all the buoys the fishing vessel is tracking. As he keeps coming, I try to hail him on VHF. No reply. A few nerve wrecking minutes later it becomes clear that he’s dropping another buoy and the fishing vessel slows down to 9 knots. He passes behind us just 3/4 of a mile. We can clearly see the boat in the dark night.
Another hour later, we finally clear the south most fishing net buoy and resume our course to south east. The winds pick up, just as we leave the minefield of fishing buys. I estimate that there were probably about 30 or so fishing nets with AIS in that field. The field we passed during daylight before was probably of similar size. If you ever wondered why there’s less fish in the ocean, wonder no more.
Later that night, we were thoroughly doused with rain showers from a squall that lasted almost an hour. More radar and AIS monitoring throughout the morning, this was the most exhausting and surreal night of this trip. Imagine encountering a fishing field in the middle of the Pacific that’s 60 nautical miles or more in width. In perspective, that takes 10 hours to traverse on most sailboats. Not only that, they’re laid out like a grid pattern. The multiple vessels servicing the field even have similar names ending in numbers. The one who almost hit us, was no 08. We kept close watch on another that was nearby, no 06. It’s horrible to think how these fleets of fishing vessels are systematically emptying the oceans of fish. I wonder how long it will take, before it’s too late for the ocean to recover.
On a brighter note. Only 750 nautical miles to our destination, hopefully it will be all clear and open water from now on to Rangiroa. Time to catch up on some sleep.
Aloha from Petter and Octavia