When I looked up the definition of fog on the old ‘interwebs’ I found the definition of, “something that obscures and confuses a situation or someone’s thought processes” and I like it. I know that’s how I felt the first time I was caught in very dense fog late at night. Luckily I was on a boat with another skilled sailor and the boat was chock full of reliable and working instruments like RADAR and
GPS. Without the instruments, we may
have had a very hard time making it back to the harbor, safely.
Sometimes you just get caught. When you do, you better hope you’re prepared to make your way back in or wait it out. Either way you should be patient and prepared with the right tools and equipment.
Just the other day I was operating as a paid Captain on a private charter. There was patchy fog to the North and I knew we might get caught in the thick of it as the evening cooled off. Before I left the harbor I had the
GPS/Chartplotter set to guide me back to the opening of
Monroe harbor, the autohelm on, an air horn rather than the typical ginger ale
in the cup holder next to the helm, the appropriate navigation lights on, and a
sail plan should we get smothered in the thick stuff. Needless to say, it
happened. We got caught.
The trip started off beautifully.
I was taking out a group of two adults with three children. As is required, the children being under 16 years old were all donned in the appropriate sized PFDs. The adults were instructed on basic safety.
As I left the harbor, I had a plan to go out on a beam reach and return on a beam reach. This is an easy plan to execute especially with a north breeze. I took a bearing on the autohelm compass as we left the harbor. All I had to do, if the breeze stayed consistent and I didn’t make much leeway, was add 180 degrees and go back the way I came. We enjoyed a very nice sail under jib alone headed almost due east towards the crib. About 40 minutes into the trip, more and more patches of fog began to roll in.
The fog started to roll in.
Usually I can time my tack about perfectly so I enter the harbor mouth with a few minutes to spare to make it to the dock on time (charters start and end on time). This was a two hour charter so we would sail for 50 minutes and then tack back. Once I noticed the fog getting thicker from the North, I made the decision to tack early and keep my distance from shore to a minimum.
A few minutes after we tacked around, the wind shifted 15 degrees and velocity increased 4 knots. We were initially sailing in around 8-10 knots of breeze so this increase represented quite a significant change that needed to be addressed. It was time for instruments and a change in plans.
More fog plus the sun setting made for increased difficulty.
I put on the Autohelm and put us on a heading that the good old
GPS told me to go to. I adjusted the jib to spill off air at
the top and keep speed down while keep us moving through the bit of chop that
had developed over a couple of days. I told the group that it was time for the
Earlier I had allowed my guests to spend some time on the bow as that’s always a great place to hang out. Part of the fog game requires everyone in the cockpit and to start making signals and the kids get to be official mates and the Captain’s lookouts. They ate it up.
Every two minutes we sounded our air horn. One prolonged blast followed by two short blasts as is required for vessels under sail alone. We had been listening to Bob Marley throughout the trip but now we had to listen for other vessels and sounds. All part of the fog game.
Within 10 minutes of the entrance to
we turned on the engine and the
steaming light and furled in the jib. We motored at 1.5 knots. I knew at this
point we would be most likely to be near other vessels and fixed objects. We
also adjusted our sound signal to one prolonged blast as is required for
vessels under power (generically speaking). Monroe Harbor
Wouldn’t you know it, within 4 minutes of our mark we sounded our blast and had one returned. The sound was way, way too close for comfort. The blast came from starboard and we quickly looked over and within seconds we finally make visual contact with a 40 plus foot catamaran motoring around 3 knots heading to the same mark. Within a minute or so we made visual contact with the red flashing light of the harbor entrance. All of the planning and tools worked. Phew.
At this point we were in the harbor slowly cruising and this
part of the fog game included the little ones at the helm to
their great surprise.
Even though I’ve practiced sailing in limited visibility and made it back to the harbor without incident many times, I’m always aware of the immense responsibility and risks associated with sailing in these conditions. This long winded story is really a long introduction and example of what it means to be out on the water in restricted visibility.
I absolutely expect more fog this summer. In fact as I write this article I see dense fog coming over the
and into the yard. The conditions
have just been perfect for it. What can you do the next time you go out to be
prepared? Safety first is my mantra. Calumet River
You will need an air horn. Rule 35 of the Navigation Rules require you to make the appropriate signals. Rule 35 specifically covers sound signals in restricted visibility. Remember, this is day or night.
I cannot cover all the details of this rule in this article as there are many variations. However, you should know a couple of basic signals. Click here for a link if you want to dig deeper.
If you are under sail and sail alone, you will need to make one prolonged blast and two short blasts on your horn every two minutes. If you are a power boat or a sailboat under power alone or power and sail, you will need to make one prolonged blast every two minutes. If you are fairly certain you’re close to other vessels, signals can be made in shorter periods. Otherwise have someone keep track of time and stick to the two minute schedule.
As I mentioned earlier, please have a sail plan. This should be the case even if you’re out for a lunch sail in perfect 80 degree, sunny weather. If your plan changes, come up with a new one on the fly. It’s always better to know “what’s next.”
Check your instruments. Do you have an auto pilot system? Is it reliable? Permanently installed compass?
GPS? Chartplotter? What is the deviation
between your compass, auto pilot compass, and GPS? Which one will you rely on? Do you
know how to operate them responsibly and accurately? If not, practice on a
sunny and calm day. Personally, I have 3 GPS and chartplotter options on my boat
including the Navionics app on my iPhone. It’s really handy and completely
worth the money.
You should also know what navigation lights to have on. When sailing at night or in restricted visibility, put your navigation lights on. If you are under power put on your steaming/masthead light. Speaking of which, let’s clear up a common misuse of the term ‘masthead light.’
A masthead light refers to your steaming light. The light is not necessarily at the masthead or top of the mast. Many times on sailboats this light is ½ - ¼ of the way up the front of the mast. There are a few locations for masthead lights. Ever notice a powerboat with an all around white light that is only a couple of feet above the helm station? That light represents the masthead or steaming light and the stern light all in one. Make sense?
Keep all passengers off the bow if at all possible. I had to have someone on the bow with a 1,000,000 candle powered spot light just to see fixed objects and other boats on moorings when visibility was less than 2 boats lengths or about 90 feet. The cockpit is the safest place for everyone on board. If you do collide with an object there’s less chance of an MOB situation.
Keep your VHF on and handy in case of an emergency. You can also listen to traffic in case there are other vessels attempting to communicate via radio. If you should find yourself in a close quarters situation remember the emergency blast. 5 short blasts is the official “oh crap!” sound signal. I’ve used it twice in unsavory situations. And by unsavory, I mean terrifying. The signal worked and a collision was avoided.
My last piece of advice, go slow. If you’re in the thick of it, objects moving or fixed will come out of nowhere. Just like when I’m docking I follow these rules; never approach anything faster than you want to hit it and if you’re not bored, you’re going to fast.
I hope this article has your juices flowing and thinking about your next voyage, be it power or sail. Get to know your boat and your instruments. Know the rules and check your equipment for optimal functionality. There are numerous resources online that clearly explain the rules of the road for navigation. If you have any questions or would like to add to the discussion, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or chime in on the blog.