As we sailed out of Joao Pessoa around midnight, I felt the excitement of adventure coursing through my veins. The dark, moonless night enveloped us as we headed north from Joao Pessoa to Natal.
Suddenly, something caught my eye on the starboard side. A red flare illuminated the sea below, so bright it was almost blinding. It looked like it was descending towards the water, in an east to west direction. I strained my eyes, trying to make out what it was. Could it be a ship in distress?
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.
My heart raced as I looked at the radar, but couldn't see anything in the direction of the flare. I checked 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, but still nothing.
How come my radar doesn’t return any echo for a vessel? Is the person who fired the red flare in a liferaft?
As fear started to set in, I made sure my VHF radio was on channel 16 and that the volume was at the max, hoping to hear any communications. But there was only silence. I took a picture of my lat and long and the time on my i70 to mark my position, feeling the urgency to act fast.
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 rough with waves 2 meters high. Should I alter my course and proceed in the direction where I saw the red flare?
With no night vision binoculars or long throw flash light, we were not equipped for a long range Search and Resque at night. I had to make a decision, and fast. My heart pounding, I grabbed the VHF radio and 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 anxiously for a few minutes, but there was no answer. I launched the Mayday Relay again, this time in Portuguese, hoping someone would hear me. Still no answer.
At this point, I decided to haul 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 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.
As I waited for the Navy to call me on the VHF and give me instructions, my mind raced with all sorts of possibilities. Had there been an accident? Were people in danger? After 30 minutes or so, the Navy base broadcasted a message. The reception was weak, but I could hear the urgency in their voice. 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, 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 had 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 didn’t add up is why the Navy reported a COB. I only reported a red flare sighting, which is a vessel in distress signal. Maybe somebody else reported a COB?
What would you have done in my place?
When we arrived in Natal the next day, I searched the news to see if there had been any search and rescue operation. Nothing. However, I found somewhere in the news of a huge meteor seen by many people along the coast of Brazil and acknowledged by a Brazilian observatory.
It was a big relief for me!
This is a similar meteor accidentally captured on a webcam, so that you can understand what I saw: