Ships that pass in the night… The words, originally penned by Longfellow, ran through my head the other night while motoring up Chesapeake Bay, as there were plenty of ships doing the same. Sometimes on night watches, particularly offshore, if there’s a ship in the distance, I like to let my mind wander about what’s aboard the ship, and where it might be going. At these times, it’s easy to get the full meaning of this phrase, which has come to refer to strangers who make a brief, meaningful connection and then continue on their separate ways. Though, in the case of actual ships passing in the night, the connection is merely that we’re occupying the same stretch of water at the same time.
Back to that night on the Chesapeake — I wasn’t actually pondering the phrase in the vaguely romantic sense, but in the way that actually passing a ship at night has completely changed. About 20 or so years ago, when I was new to the sailing life and standing my first night watches, a ship on the horizon would cause me a bit of panic. What do those lights mean? Are we going to get too close? Over the years, the panic thankfully faded, but there was always that bit of uncertainty. These days, however, with AIS technology, there is really no doubt (of course I still keep an eye on the ships and track their bearings).
With a few taps on the chart plotter, I can see what ships are in my vicinity, what their names are, their origins and destinations, and (most importantly) what our closest point of approach is, among other info. If I’m bored or just curious and within cell range, I can log onto the MarineTraffic app and usually even see a photo of the vessel in question. All of this of course only works with boats equipped with AIS, but with each nighttime stint at the helm I do, it seems like the info is there for more and more boats. And when you’re in a busy place like the Chesapeake, having this info and knowing that I can easily contact or be contacted by any of the vessels in question makes for a much less stressful night. Indeed, with each crossing I do, passing a ship at night has become much less like ships that pass in the night.