In 1968 I was third mate on the cargo ship in the picture, when we were sailing from Colombo (Ceylon, as it was then) to Muscat in Oman.
I was on the ‘graveyard watch’, which is the midnight to four AM and noon to four PM. I loved the time after midnight because the ship was quiet with most people asleep except for the helmsman and the lookout in the bow.
Cleaning out some papers recently I found a copy of a report that I’d written after an incident that I experienced one night during the voyage. It was the 09th June, 1968, which was the local time in the Indian Ocean, but 08th June GMT. The local ship’s time being 03.50 am.
Without going in to too much detail I thought I’d try and describe what happened.
I was in the chart room when I heard a single bell from the for’d lookout, who was stationed on the forecastle, at the bow of the ship – one bell meant that he can see a light on the starboard bow, two bells would mean the light is on the port bow and three bells would mean the light is dead ahead.
I walked out on to the starboard bridge wing and observed what looked like a moving star approaching from the North West – which is 315 degrees on a compass heading and we were steering 307 degrees, so it was just off our starboard bow. Most vessels in the 60’s had open bridge wings i.e open to the weather, and not part of the sheltered bridge area where the helmsman stood. Many ships today have enclosed wing areas, little if any open air area is available to the watch keeper.
I followed the strange light through binoculars because at first I thought it was a plane, but I couldn’t see any side lights or shape to the object. The light from the object was very bright. I checked the radar screen for targets, but the screen was blank, which wasn’t a surprise because the radar would screen approximately 40 nautical miles at sea level, but would not ‘see’ a flying object. The lack of target on the radar screen told me the light was not attached to another ship.
The light drew closer and as is curved over the ship and headed south I didn’t hear any noise. At no time was it moving fast, so I didn’t have any difficulty in following it through a telescope, which magnified better than the binoculars. It was brighter than any star. As it curved south I called the second mate to the bridge to witness this light knowing that he would take over the watch in a few minutes at 4.00 am.
We both observed the light, which was at an altitude of about seventeen degrees above the horizon. At this altitude the light stopped and appeared to hover. We watched it for about twenty seconds when we noticed a second moving light to the right of the first. It was not as bright as the first, but it was now moving towards our ship. It passed astern and headed in a north north easterly direction. I can not say if the second light was from the first bright light or independent of the first light.
The second officer left the bridge and I returned to watch the first light, but was unable to find it amongst the stars. I stopped looking and moved to the front of the bridge just in time to hear the bow lookout ring three bells, he’d seen a light dead ahead. I focused on a third light as it approached my ship from ahead. This light passed us on the starboard side and headed in the same direction as light number two.
I downloaded the night sky for the Indian Ocean on the night of the 9th June 1968. The stars were so bright that you had the feeling of being able to touch them if only you could reach that high.
The above is to illustrate the vastness of the cloudless sky, but I am not sure of which part of the sky.
I was unable to judge the height of the lights because the sky was cloudless, and the moon had set. Except for the occasional light from my own ship, aft of the bridge, the light pollution forward was nil. The night vision of the lookout and myself couldn’t have been better.
The weather at the time was as follows –
Cloudless sky, we didn’t have a moon (it had set), it was extremely clear with a westerly wind at about three knots. Air pressure was 1003.3 and the air temperature 83 f. Our course was 307 degrees true, at a speed of 14 knots.
I did report what I’d seen to the meteorological authority in the UK, but never heard back. It was also logged in the ship’s log.
Last week when I found the report this was the first time I’d read it since 1968.