Strange Sights in the South Pacific

Photo courtesy of Nick Lobeck

Photo courtesy of Nick Lobeck

At sea, sailors always have to be on the lookout for hazards. Besides the ordinary hazard created by meeting other vessels, there are less common things to watch for, like wayward shipping containers, abandoned fishing nets, sleeping whales, and even waterspouts. But there are some strange sights in South Pacific that you would never, ever expect to see.

Bob, one of we three co-authors of Beer in the Bilges, Sailing Adventures in the South Pacific, tells some tales from his long history with the sea that almost beggar belief. Here is one story that took place just east of the Kingdom of Tonga, located near the international dateline and about twenty degrees south of the equator in the remote South Pacific.

Photo courtesy of Calvin Dexter

Photo courtesy of Calvin Dexter

It was an ideal spring day, with clear skies and steady trade winds that produced nice, regular seas. Bob was sailing on a broad reach, traversing the waves on a steady track that would see him in the capital of Nuku’alofa in about a day and a half. The yacht moved enthusiastically in the moderate winds, the sails urging it forward with determination. The motion seemed effortless and Bob had a light hand on the tiller, entranced by the glory of the day.

Photo courtesy of juandescal

Photo courtesy of juandescal

He was following roughly the line of the Tonga Trench, a chasm in the ocean floor about 35,000 feet deep, and the second deepest point below the ocean’s surface on earth. It extends from the top end of New Zealand to run past the east side of the Tongan archipelago where it curves northwest, just short of Samoa. These are waters that may harbor secrets yet to be discovered by explorers, but on this day there was no sign of anything that would ruin the idyllic setting—at least until Bob observed a most extraordinary sight.

As he gazed into the distance, a huge black shape emerged from the water in utter silence, filling the foreground as it rose vertically at a quick and steady pace. It was no more than a hundred yards away off the port bow. At first he blinked to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. Then as it rose to tower at least six stories above him he recognized the glistening metallic sail of a submarine.

As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain

A submarine cruises at periscope depth.
As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain

Photo courtesy of Blanquart matthieu

Photo courtesy of Blanquart matthieu

The yacht pressed on and Bob didn’t change his course. The submarine remained stationary, and as it came abeam of him, three heads appeared at the top of the sail, seemingly no bigger than peas at their immense height. They made no sign of acknowledging him and retreated from view. Then, without a sound, the submarine moved slowly ahead and shrank back below the surface of the water. The hull itself was never visible.

Photo courtesy of Slawomir Gluszczynski

Photo courtesy of Slawomir Gluszczynski

Bob was left alone once more, bewildered. This was one of the strangest things he had ever seen at sea. The whole episode had taken no more than three or four minutes. He continued silently on his way. He glanced up at the sails. The sun shone as brightly and the wind blew as steadily as before, but the tranquility of the sea had somehow disappeared.

What is the strangest thing you have seen at sea?

Featured image courtesy of Michael & Christa Richert

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