Dispatch: Rugged Adventure on The South China Sea!

Posted by Keith on August 16, 2007 at 4:30 am  

18:30 Local Time
About 400 Miles South of Bangkok
Entering The Gulf of Thailand from The South China Sea

A Major Change in Conditions

In my last dispatch I described the South China Sea as bright and calm, even benign.

But within hours of sending that report things changed dramatically.

We entered a vast shallow area of the Sea, where the ocean floor rises from an average depth of more than 4000 feet to only about 100 feet, and sometimes less.

Water this shallow promises two things: An armada of fishing boats, and rough seas.

The Fishing Fleet

They began appearing en-mass our third night out: Fishing vessels of every shape and size — hundreds of them scattered in long lines across the horizon in every direction. Many carry the flag of Vietnam. Most carry no flag at all.

At night we watch their lights, if they have lights. Some ships are lit up like a bright city street. Others carry a single weak lantern. Many of the smaller boats carry no light at all. During the day we scan the horizon in search of vessels to avoid.

Day or night, only a few of the ships reflect on our radar, so we must maintain a constant vigil. We look not only for ships, but also for the nets they often leave, marked only by a few bamboo sticks that float vertically at the surface.

In the dark we use the night vision camera mounted on the brow of our ship to help us avoid ships or nets at the last minute. But it’s a backup tool at best. Mainly we spend each watch scanning the sea with binoculars, estimating the distance, size and course of each vessel we see, and trying to surmise where they might have set nets or lines.

Fortunately most of the ships anchor in these shallows. But still, more than a dozen times we have found ourselves on an intercept course with ships that are also underway.

This area is vast, but based on the size of the fishing fleet we’ve seen – often more than 200 miles from shore — it is easy to suspect that these waters are being over-fished.

But still they come, as they have for thousands of years, but in greater numbers now, in small boats and large, plying these choppy seas in search of fish for profit, or fish for sustenance.

Storms from Nowhere

The storms come from nowhere. One moment the horizon looks fine, the next it is black with low ominous clouds. They sweep through quickly, intensely.

The storm video I took, and have posted here, does little justice to the impact of a storm’s leading edge on the water. By the time I grabbed my camera and made it to the the aft cockpit, that particular storm’s leading edge had passed. But initially, these storms whip the water into a frenzy, kicking spray high above the waves.

Just behind the wind, they bring torrential rain. The rain actually flattens, or calms, the sea. Then lesser winds are brought by the trailing edge of the storm, and then it’s over, usually in minutes – until the next one arrives.

Heavy Seas and a Cracked Rib

I grew up in Cleveland on Lake Erie. I remember being told that because the Great Lakes are often shallow, they can be very rough.

I believe that this portion of the South China Sea – extending south to Singapore from beneath the southern tip of Vietnam, then west to the Thai-Malay Peninsula – may be much the same, and for the same reason.

Vast quantities of water are pushed up from the ocean depths across these thousands of shallow square miles. The water surges to the surface and above it forming intense, choppy waves.

We’ve been in heavier seas as we crossed the Pacific. But those were swells, often ten seconds or more apart. These waves are relentless, and push each other against and past the hull of our ship one after the other in staccato fashion.

The Global Adventure continues to acquit herself most admirably; but there is no denying that it’s a rough ride.

In these conditions, and with the bow into the wind, the salt spray constantly attacks the forward windows of the pilot house, but the ship’s wipers are equal to the task.

At night we lower the brightness on our navigation monitors to make the pilot house quite dark and to increase visibility out the forward windows. But there is still a bit of reflection on the windows from the monitors’ glow, and with a constant spray against the forward windows, it can be quite difficult to see outside at night.

To get a better view, last night I stepped out of the pilot house and stood on the starboard companionway next to the pilot house hatch, just above the stairs that lead to the lower deck. I was attempting to use a pair of hand-held night vision goggles to search for unlit ships.

A wave hit and nearly threw me down the steps backwards. The impact slammed me against the starboard rail, cracking a rib. At no time was I at risk of being tossed overboard, although at the moment of impact, I would probably have preferred that.

Not to worry, this particular rib and I have a long history. I manage to crack it about once a year in the same spot. Let’s see, once I broke it trying to jump across a small stream while hiking with the family; twice I’ve snapped it wrestling with my boys; and on one occasion, while coaching flag football, a third grader the size of Refrigerator Perry blindsided me with an excellent demonstration of his blocking skills.

But nursing a cracked rib in rough seas is not something I would recommend, if you can avoid it.

On the other hand, if that’s the cost of my ticket for this E-Ticket ride, its one of life’s great values.



2 Comments so far

  1. Bob Anderson on August 17, 2007 8:51 pm

    Dear Keith,
    Bette and I WISH YOU A VERY HAPPY BIRTHDAY. It’s Aug 18 already over there so THIS IS THE DAY. CONGRATULATIONS !!! I figure that you were 18-19 when you were a Marine in Da Nang in ’68 so you must be 58-59 now. To which I say,”Enjoy your youth”. And again I reiterate that you are a very brave man. What an incredible adventure you have undertaken. May the Lord assign Guardian Angels to look after you and your crew and your boat. Bob (81) and Bette (78) from Sun City, Az.

    Thanks, Bob. It is always a pleasure to hear from you and Betty. I was 19 when I arrived in Vietnam in May, 1969. I celebrated my 20th birthday in a foxhole south of Da Nang. Today I celebrate my 58th with long phone calls back home from the comfort of The Sheraton Pattaya, Thailand — a five star resort. I definitely recommend this over a foxhole.


  2. D. P. Brittain on August 23, 2007 12:41 am

    As usual, your trip sounds great. Are you using your nightvision system much? Also, it would be great if Wolf could keep us up to date on all the maintenance going on the boat.

    Your twin,


    We’ve used the night vision equipment to a limited extent, D. Don’t know about the maintenance update at this point. Wolf is pretty busy getting us ready for our final voyage to Xiamen.


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