“Don’t worry,” I told my son Sam as we slipped the dock lines and headed out of Greenport Harbor at the eastern end of Long Island, New York. “It’s early, and the fog will have burnt off by the time we get to Orient Point.” I’d done this trip a bunch of times, both alone and with crew. It’s an easy sail from Greenport back to the marina in Clinton, Connecticut. Piece of cake, I told myself. “Should be there in a couple of hours, in time for a late lunch,” I said to Sam.
Rounding the breakwater, the fog was thicker than I thought it would be. Mallard, our 26-foot wooden gaff cutter, was simply rigged, with no GPS or radar, but she did have an accurate depth sounder and log. Taking departure from the end of the breakwater, I carefully plotted our position using dead reckoning, measuring course steered and distance run in addition to taking into account leeway and an allowance for tidal set as best I could. A pencil mark on the chart every 15 minutes showed our progress. The fog was all-enveloping, and the limp sails, saturated with moisture, dripped relentlessly into the cockpit. I could barely make out the end of the bowsprit in the pea soup. Creeping along under power, we closed Orient Point, our jumping-off mark for crossing Long Island Sound. The tide runs strongly around the point, and I knew that, once committed, there would be no turning back.
I was weighing our options and at the same time trying to hide my concerns from Sam. Just then the fog lifted enough for me to get a plain view of the Long Island ferry that runs between Orient Point and New London, Connecticut. She was dead ahead. Just in the nick of time I pushed the tiller hard over, and we swooped to starboard, almost ramming the side of the ferry. A few moments longer, and Mallard’s bowsprit would have been turned to matchwood. The close shave made up my mind for me, and we carefully retraced our steps back to Greenport to await a change in the weather.
That trip happened many years ago, and when I think of it, it still raises the hair on the back of my neck — and reminds me of how disorienting fog can be. I’ve had some sort of sailboat for more than 40 years. Thinking back, it would be fair to say that I’ve been frightened more often by fog than I have of rough weather. Dealing with fog demands respect and the highest levels of seamanship. Mess up, and things can go bad quickly.
Fog is disorienting, and you can find yourself disbelieving the compass. Chart plotters and radar are a comfort and a big help, but they are not a panacea for navigating perfectly in thick weather. There is a tendency to blindly follow a line on the plotter when you can’t see much of what’s in front of you. But there might be a small boat or other object in your path that does not show up on radar. A keen forward watch would catch it.
There is a very good chance you will get caught in fog at some point. Treat it with respect. Good seamanship requires that you be proactive and at the same time react in a calm and efficient manner to changing conditions. Here are some important points that should help you stay out of trouble when the fog closes in.
One of the biggest concerns is running into something — another boat, a floating object, the beach, even a breakwater if your navigation is at all off. Slowing gives you time to think and react. Charging along at 20 knots is never safe in thick weather. If you run up a sandbar at that speed you’ll likely do serious damage to the boat, and you won’t get off without expensive help. Nudge the same bit of sand at 3 knots, and you’ll probably incur superficial damage, with a good chance that you can free the boat yourself.
Use sound signals
Few recreational boaters use the correct sound signals in fog. For a power-driven vessel underway and making way, that means one prolonged blast every minute. A vessel under sail sounds one long blast, followed by two short blasts. (Note that even if you have the sails hoisted, a sailboat is classified as a power vessel when the engine is running.) On a still, foggy day, sound travels a long way over water, so even if you think no one else is around, you should sound your horn. I strongly urge you to get a proper foghorn. Those aerosol types may mean that you comply with the letter of the law, but they soon run out of puff.
Don’t be a slave to the screen
Chart plotters and radar are powerful tools, but you should think of them as aids to navigation. Don’t stay glued to the screen. Electronics can be a great comfort, but trust your instincts and remember that there may be other boats in the vicinity that are using the same buoy you are as a waypoint. Electronically guided collisions are fairly frequent, and keep in mind that not all boats show up on radar.
Get familiar with your electronics
Spend time operating the radar and chart plotter so it becomes second nature. This is especially true of radar. You don’t want to reach for the instruction book when you need your wits about you. Practice in good weather so you can compare what you actually see with what is shown on the screen.
Prepare for the unexpected
I keep collision flares handy and will often stuff one into my oilskin pocket so it can be set off at a moment’s notice. The bright white pyrotechnics are pretty good at burning off the fog around the boat. Don’t think twice about setting one off if you’re concerned that another boat might not have seen you.
Don’t lock yourself in
When it’s damp and cold outside, it’s tempting to stay in the warm pilothouse. Go outside from time to time to look around and listen. Sailors have an edge here, as they likely will already be in the cockpit.
Use your ears
If you’re close inshore and under power, turn off the engine and listen. You might hear other boats or breaking surf that easily could be missed otherwise.
Make sure you can be seen
Many small boats have a poor radar signature and may not be visible to larger vessels. Hoist a radar reflector in the rigging and turn on your navigation lights. The lights obviously won’t make you show up on radar any better, but they are often the first thing you’ll see when you come across another vessel in the fog.
Don’t be afraid to wait or turn back
Listen to the weather forecast. If you are in a harbor, it may pay to stay there until the fog lifts. That’s what I should have done instead of heading out from Greenport. There is no shame in turning back — it’s just prudent seamanship. Be flexible and don’t adhere to a rigid schedule.
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue.