Two Ships in the Night




We’re putting the kids to bed, or at least trying. Cooper is swinging from the pull-up bar in his bedroom door jam and Zoe is writing in her journal. My wife is telling them for the third time to brush their teeth and wash their face. And I’m looking at my phone. I know it’s totally ridiculous, but I’m starting to see a ship crossing taking shape in real time on this FleetMon app that’s costing me around $70 a month.


There’s a car carrier – Atlantic Highway – coming from San Francisco Bay and another car carrier – Guangzhou Highway – that just unmoored from the Port of Benicia and is about to start heading west in the Carquinez Strait. It’s hard to tell at this point where exactly they might pass each other.


It’s like one of those word problems back in middle-school math class that I was never good at: If Boat A is traveling west at 12 knots coming from San Francisco Bay and Boat B is traveling east at 9 knots coming from Port Benicia, where will they cross?


Two ships passing in the night. It’s a total cliché, but I’ve been trying to capture it on film for over a year now. To be at the right vantage point from land as they pass in the narrow Strait, at night. Not in the day time, but in total darkness, with their lights glowing.


Here’s the weird thing – earlier that same day I captured two ships passing, which is still a rare occurrence – the oil tanker Kouros and the bulk carrier Moning. I filmed them between the Ninth Street public bathroom and the tree to the right of it, looking southward. Check the shipping logs, I kid you not – it was Feb. 4, 2019.


Now as these night ships move closer, I’m beginning to think they might cross at the exact same spot again.


My wife gives me that look like, really? You’re busy looking at your phone and we’re trying to get the kids to bed?


“There’s a Shipping Lanes going on,” I tell her with a guilty smile.


“Uh huh,” she says, nodding her head as if to say, good for you, but right now we’re putting the kids to bed.


“This might be a really good one,” I say.


On her way to read to Cooper, she says, “At least make sure Zoe and is in bed reading before you go.”


I love this woman. These are the little things. I kiss Cooper good night and get Zoe set up with “Dork Diaries 2.” Before she finishes the first page, I explain that I’m heading out to film some ships. The kids are used to it at this point.


“At night?” she says.


“Yeah, don’t you think that would look cool? Two ships passing in the night?”


“Super cool, will you show me in the morning?”


“You got it.”


I run down to my office, grab the tripod and camera, making sure the right lens is attached, and race out the door.


Watching the app as I drive, I start to realize it’s highly likely they’ll cross somewhere near the Ninth Street boat launch. That’s where I set up, realizing it’s kind of weird – a guy filming at night with a tripod outside a public bathroom. I try to picture what it might look like to a cop driving by. At least I’m filming toward the back of the bathroom and not toward the entrance.


And then it happens. Atlantic Highway comes under the Carquinez Bridge from the west and Guangzhou passes by the pier from the east. It’s like I totally scripted it, like I called the ship pilots and we all planned it. Atlantic Highway enters the frame first from the right and there’s a chance it will pass completely across before Guangzhou Highway enters the frame from the left. But Guangzhou emerges just in time and they pass, a blaze of lights and reflections intertwined. And then it’s over. I just stand there in the dark, blown by the wind, camera still rolling, looking over my shoulder occasionally to see if anyone else noticed.


I drive home and drink a beer while watching the footage over and over on my camera. Everything looks good so far, no camera shake, the focus is pretty well dialed in (you have to manually focus on a spot out in the middle of the Strait before either ship enters the frame, so it can be a guessing game, especially at night). I don’t want to drop it into Premiere Pro yet and take a closer look and find out there’s something wrong. I just want to go to sleep a happy man.