Onne van der Wal remembers what it was like to navigate through the soup back in the 1970s off the coast of his native South Africa.
“We were using a little book by Mary Blewitt about coastal navigation, and it was all about radio direction finders,” Onne recalls. “You’d leave Cape Town, which was a certain radio frequency, and then go up the coast 60 miles to the next station, Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The next one was Dassen Island. There was a lot of fog there. You tuned in a radio frequency and when it was at its strongest, that was the bearing. You’d triangulate it against another station’s frequency and put it on a chart. Then you’d say to the boat owner, ‘This is where I think we are.’”
There was no Loran in South Africa and this was before GPS, so there was a lot of seat-of-the-pants dead reckoning. “You’d keep track of progress on the chart with a pencil and parallel rule, use the log and depthfinder, and listen for the breakwater and surf,” says Onne.
One experience from those days still stands out clearly. “I was about 19 and we were coming back from Saldanha Bay,” Onne says. “We were sailing in the soup, no engine, and dead reckoning. It was fairly quiet. I believe we were about six miles out of Table Bay in Cape Town when I heard this clanging. The sound kept getting closer and in the next minute we’re sailing up to this massive ship. On the bow, way at the top, is an African man using a pipe to hit the lid of a garbage can to announce the ship’s anchored position. These were my early days of navigation.”
Now, more than 40 years later, Onne doesn’t worry too much when he goes through the fog. His recently refurbished 1986 Grand Banks 32, Snow Goose, has a newly installed Raymarine electronics package that helps him see through the murk. It includes a 12-inch Axiom Pro 12 RVX multifunction display in the wheelhouse and another on the flybridge, an RV320 RealVision 3D transducer set, a Quantum 2 Doppler radar, an AR200/CAM210 Augmented Reality Pack with CAM220IP camera, a FLIR M232 thermal camera system, a Ray90 VHF radio, an AIS700 Class B transceiver, an i70S multifunction instrument display with i70S Wind Bundle Pack, and an EV400 Power Auto Pilot Kit with a p70Rs autopilot controller. Onne installed the equipment himself, although Adam Hobgood, the lead service technician at Cay Electronics in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, showed him where to place it and helped him initialize and calibrate it.
The navigation gear came in handy when Onne and his wife, Tenley, made their first extended overnight trip on Snow Goose.
Onne had delivered a talk at a photo workshop in Nantucket, after which they had a wonderful ride from that island to Lake Tashmoo on Martha’s Vineyard in a 3- to 4-knot breeze, with good visibility. But the next morning it was foggy in Lake Tashmoo. From previous experience, Onne knew the ride home to Jamestown, Rhode Island, would entirely be in the soup. “It’s not quite as thick when you’re anchored,” Onne says, “but you know when you get away from the land it’s just going to be a lot thicker.”
There was no wind, so Onne knew he’d have a nice flat sea with little swell, and he’d just have to deal with the fog. He had previously run the instruments in fog mode during clear weather so he could familiarize himself with the radar and the overlay on the plotter. “I was very confident in my equipment,” Onne says. “I knew how to use it, and the AIS was working perfectly.”
He also knew he’d have a good tide going with him in Vineyard Sound. Snow Goose cruises at about 8 knots, but with more than two knots of current going his way he would be able to do more than 10 knots over the bottom. A nice benefit of the Raymarine plotter was the huge green arrows that told Onne the ebb, flow and speed of the tide. That allowed him to work his way over to the spots with the most current. “That was another revelation with this electronics package, how it was helping me with the tide,” Onne says. He still checked Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book but because he could see a real-time graphical display on the plotter, the ride was much easier. “With your head in the soup, you don’t want to have your head in a book,” he says.
Getting out of Lake Tashmoo wasn’t a big deal even though the inlet is narrow. “I could see the breakwater,” Onne says, “but once I started heading north and west, I went into the soup.”
Onne used the radar to spot the vessels that didn’t have AIS. With the plotter, he knew where he was, and with the overlay, he could confirm that position. “It’s nice when you get an AIS ping and a red blob from the radar and you know where the vessel is,” Onne says. “But every third sweep you might get a little red blip, and you wonder what it is.” When Onne investigated those little red blips, he found that it typically indicated a small center console drift-fishing in the sound. “Those little guys don’t have AIS,” Onne says.
As he was going down Vineyard Sound in a pea-soup fog, the ferry from Quonset to Vineyard Haven called him on the VHF to inquire about his intentions. Onne told the ferry captain to hold his course since Onne was only doing 10 knots and wouldn’t be changing course. “I heard him when he passed, but I didn’t see him,” Onne says. “To know that the ferry was doing about 28 knots and that the captain knew my exact position was comforting. To have him call me was definitely the icing on the cake.”
It was also comforting that the AIS could see the commercial fishing boats coming out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Quicks Hole to get to the open sea. “It was nice to be able to see them and have a confirmation on the radar,” Onne says.” Using AIS, he could also identify larger superyachts passing to the north and hear them talking to the commercial boats. “You know you’re not alone out there in the fog with professionals talking to each other,” Onne says.
Sometimes the visibility was only about 200 feet, and at other times Onne could almost see a half-mile. When he got to the R2 bell south of Brenton Reef he was happy to get a visual on the buoy, but the boats coming out of Narragansett Bay were only visible on radar and AIS. Fortunately, everybody was going slowly because of the fog. The only unidentified speed demon Onne encountered during the trip was near the Sakonnet River. “Some goofball came out running at 20 knots and crossed my bow,” Onne says. “I have no idea where he was going, but I saw him on the radar.”
The two helm stations on Snow Goose have identical equipment, which allowed Onne to make his way down from the flybridge to the galley to make lunch while Tenley was reading. On the Grand Banks 32, the galley is right next to the lower helm. “When I step down below, my eyes don’t leave the course ahead or the chartplotter, so I can make a cup of tea while I’m still looking ahead,” Onne says.
The first time Onne spotted land was at Castle Hill Light while Tenley was sitting on the bow. “I told her to look to the right,” Onne says, “and she said, ‘Oh my God, we’re already here.’ I knew exactly where I was, but she didn’t.”
“It all worked so beautiful together,” Onne says about the electronics package. So far, he’s only used the augmented reality feature a few times; it puts a real-time video image of what’s ahead on his multifunction display. And because he hasn’t done a night passage yet, the FLIR has only been used at anchor. “You can turn it around 360 degrees, look up and down and zoom in and out,” Onne says. “It’s amazing at anchor to see what’s going on around you. The equipment gives you so much confidence in the dark, in the fog, in the rain. It’s a huge aid. It’s something to lean on. I’m just scraping the surface. When I go gunkholing in Maine it’s going to be amazing.”
It’s not lost on Onne how much easier it is to navigate today.
“I remember going around Cape Point in South Africa and basically navigating by braille,” Onne says. “When it was cold and windy, sailing by the seat of your pants and going by smell and sound, it was easy to make a mistake when you were tired and not using the inputs. Today you really don’t have an excuse. It all works together so beautifully, and it’s all tied into that one screen, so all that data comes together for you to use. Yes, you can make a mistake, but the information you’re getting is so loud and clear. The difference between when I was 19 and today is night and day.”
This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue.