Remember the haunting sounds of Der-der-der-der-DUM when we communicated with aliens in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”? Nice stuff, Mr Spielberg. Well, I’ve never been to Wyoming, but anyone who has ever spent a lot of time out at sea at night will have witnessed strange lights, things that seem to defy the laws of physics and make those tiny hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
Thankfully, I’ve only ever had a close encounter of the first kind. Seeing unexplained flying objects in the night skies. I barely imagine what coming face to face with the real thing might be like if the accounts of people like Travis Walton (filmed as “Fire in the Sky”) and Whitley Streiber (author of “Communion” and a few other books on the subject) are true.
In the mid-1970s, my father worked for a mining company in the newly independent country of Papua-New Guinea. He was posted on the island of Bougainville and there was a lot of uncertainty in the region at the time. The bulk of Papua-New Guinea is a collective of remote highland and coastal tribes with very little contact with the western world or modern infrastructure or technology. Indonesia had flexed its might in the west and many assumed that it was only a matter of time before this neighbour embarked on a little territorial expansion after having just thrown off the shackles of its colonialist past. The many ex-pat Australian, German and British throughout the archipelago were either digging in or preparing to leave and it was with the latter that my father hit upon a business idea. Sail the yachts that many of these people owned to the safer waters of Australia. For a fee of course, leaving the owners free to sort out their own affairs and fly out at a later time.
It was the fourth yacht and my brother and I were going to make our first trip across the Coral Sea between Rabaul and Cairns. We lived in Rabaul for about six months prior to this trip. It is a spectacular place, a jungled town on the fringes of a vast sunken caldera, ringed by two active vents forming that seemed to regularly threaten to wipe the place off the face of the earth. The Japanese had held the town through most of the Second World War and established a major naval base here. My brother and I had a whale of a time exploring the network of abandoned tunnels, much to my mother’s dismay, later horror (when we came home one day with a few intact hand-grenades). The locals were totally taken with my bleach-blonde hair and I was almost like a mascot to them, showcased between local homes and treated like a king. It was without a shadow of a doubt the most exciting time of my childhood.
The yacht we were sailing across was owned by a British couple and was a gleaming white 50 foot sloop. I can’t remember what it was called now, something that sounded like a cow’s name, Annabelle rings a bell (no pun intended). It was beautifully crafted inside and out, lots of polished exotic timbers, and obviously the couple’s pride and joy. After motoring out of Rabaul, we hoisted sail and headed south. The idea was to punch south-east between Papua-New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to clear all the island obstacles dotting the Bismarck and Solomon Seas, head well out into the Coral Sea and then head west-south-west to Cairns. The owners would meet us there and take over for the shorter jaunt to Townsville where the yacht would be cleaned up and prepared for an eventual return to Britain.
The first half of the trip was uneventful apart from unpleasant tacking against strong south-easterlies. There was a large low pressure system threatening to turn into cyclone hanging about near the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), directing short steep seas in our direction. The wave heights were quite small, rarely more than ten-twelve feet, but they packed a bunch. Squat waves with steep faces that were quite unpleasant to sail through. After three days, we cleared the tip of Papua New Guinea and tacked west-south-west, favourable winds now almost pushing us from three-quarters to stern, but those waves were almost hitting us broadside, making life very wet and miserable.
We altered our heading more westwards, which pushed us further north than we’d intended and brough us right into the funnel, the little corner of the Pacific, really the Coral Sea, where all the weather seems to stack up the weight of the world’s largest ocean. Very rough and very steep seas. Again, the waves weren’t huge, but the steepness of the waves, bunched up the way they were, made it seem a lot rougher than it probably was. We threaded through the protective wall of the Great Barrier Reef after about ten days all up and conditions calmed down considerably, making it a pleasant cruise to the Australian mainland. My father felt that we’d sustained some damage to the rudder, the moveable board that helps you steer a boat, and we decided to put in at the mission port of Portland Roads. This tiny hamlet has a solid wharf, built and used by American troops during the Second World War, and is a very beautiful part of the world.
I’m not sure exactly what was wrong with the rudder, but some parts needed to be shipped up from Cairns and the supply ship only made the 500 mile trip north to this part of the world once a fortnight. Thankfully, we were towards the end of the fortnight and my brother and I took advantage of the time to do what all young boys do and that was to explore the shore. By day, we would walk for miles around Portland Roads and the surrounding bays and headlands, alert for crocodiles, stonefish and other assorted nasties (I’m exaggerating, we didn’t end up seeing anything other than hollows where a crocodile had one time or another been resting). At night, after stuffing our faces or all manner of freshly caught seafood, my brother and I would sleep on deck under the stars.
About three o’clock on the second morning of our stay, I woke to this loud whooshing noise. My brother was also awake and we were stunned to see this egg shaped object hovering over the water to our left. It would have been less than a hundred yards away, dark apart from a light underneath where it appeared a column of water was being illuminated and sucked into the belly of the thing. We were stunned and just sat there and watched the thing. Eventually, and I have no idea how long afterward, the whooshing stopped, the thing grew dark and moved off. It circled the yacht once, glowed briefly then shot up into the sky so quickly that I couldn’t follow it with my eyes, I just felt that was where it had gone. My brother and I looked at each other, mumbled a question something like, “Did you see that?” or “Was that what I thought it was?” and then did something astounding. That was going back to sleep. The next morning, I had a vague recollection of something happening during the night, but couldn’t recall any details. If my brother did, he didn’t say anything and it was promptly forgotten.
Some twenty years later, one of the Australian TV stations ran a program called “The Unexplained”. It was a TV show hosted by the gravelly voiced Warwick Moss and featured stories of the weird and unusual, everything from hauntings to alien abductions and strange coincidences. One night, they started talking about a UFO sighting at the remote Queensland town of Portland Roads and I felt my skin crawl. As I watched, everything came back to me and I realised that I had seen something that was both real and that scared the bejesus out of me. Even now, I wake between 3 and 4am and often feel strange sensations, like being watched by someone unpleasant, in these wee hours of the morning. It’s all I can do not to run around the house and turn on all the lights. I’ve since spoken to my brother, however he is blessedly oblivious to anything. I haven’t mentioned anything to my father as he is one to scoff at anything that you can’t put a finger on, the weird and unusual becomes the absurd and ridiculous in his book, and besides, he was below decks and wouldn’t have seen it.
Whether or not I did see anything that night, who knows. I do have a very vivid imagination and part of me wants to put it down to a dream, or a nightmare given the feeling of foreboding I get whenever I think about it. I does seem that there was something there and it’s not something I can readily explain (but wish I could!) and I wasn’t the only one who saw it.