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Cruising in fog: a learning experience

A Maine cruiser picks his way through pots and around ledges, relying on instruments, charts and his senses

A Maine cruiser picks his way through pots and around ledges, relying on instruments, charts and his senses

There are very few events that test a boater’s mettle more severely than the sudden arrival of a wall of fog. The loss of visual references in all directions can be disconcerting at first, even for experienced navigators.

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But like most of life’s little crises, every bout with fog is an opportunity to put your prior knowledge into practice, learn new skills and add to the confidence that will make successive encounters a little less traumatic than the one before. Our annual September cruise last year provided a case in point.

We had spent the first night of the weeklong fall cruise anchored in the serenity of Maple Juice Cove on Maine’s St. George River. Awakened by the sound of lobster boats working the area, we found ourselves surrounded by a wispy fog that seemed to be abating rapidly — an observation that agreed with the NOAA radio forecast, which called for patchy fog in the early morning, followed by 1- to 3-mile visibility later in the day. The anticipated improvement over time meshed nicely with our plans for an unhurried departure, a leisurely cruise around the St. George peninsula, then northeast through the Muscle Ridge Channel and on to our destination for the next night, Camden.

After a light breakfast and a second cup of coffee, we buttoned up the galley, stowed our gear and headed downriver. Our planned route would have taken us through the shallow channel between HupperIsland and the mainland, which eventually deepens into Port Clyde’s harbor, but because it was nearly dead-low tide, we eschewed the scenic route in favor of the deeper water outside. We had no sooner put the island on our port side when a wall of dense fog descended on us like the curtain at the end of a bad play.

After cruising the Northeast for more than a decade and living on an island in Maine for three years, fog had become an integral part of boating for us. Before my wife, Pat, and I moved to Maine, we used to joke about how little of the coast we had actually seen on our many fog-bound cruises Down East. I had installed radar after our first encounter with pea soup. We have a color GPS/chart plotter that’s equipped with a recently updated cartridge and backed up with paper charts on board. And in spite of the fact that Curmudgeon is a powerboat — an Albin 28 Tournament Express — with a fair amount of metal above the waterline, I made a radar reflector that can be erected quickly above the arch when needed, in a belt-and-suspenders effort to ensure our visibility to other boats. So we normally feel fairly experienced and well-equipped to deal with fog. We are far from smug and overconfident, but we don’t usually panic either.

But this time we were on the fringes of the infamous MuscongusBay. It doesn’t take an in-depth study of NOAA chart 13301 to realize that the three most common words on it are “ledge,” “shoal” and “rock.” And although most of the hazards are prominently charted, many are not marked by aids to navigation that would reflect a radar signal. It is not an inviting place to become lost in fog.

We didn’t have far to go before we could opt to follow the shipping channel through the relatively open and unobstructed waters of PenobscotBay to our destination. But to get there we would first have to make several course changes to zigzag our way around HupperIsland, HartIsland, Marshall and Mosquito ledges, Gunning Rocks, The Brothers Islands, Hay Ledge and, finally, MosquitoIsland. At one point the channel between rocky obstructions would be less than a quarter-mile wide. And the entire route was infested with dense “crayola,” as the locals call fields of colorful lobster trap buoys.

Being suddenly engulfed by a blanket of fog is one of those situations where it is tempting to turn around and go back. But after realizing that you have no idea how far behind you the fog and its potential dangers exist, it makes as much sense to go ahead. In situations where I know I am going to encounter fog, I usually plot all of my courses and their bearings on a chart, and record them on an impromptu course list that I can keep at the helm for reference en route. In this case — expecting improving weather — I did not, but I was glad that I had reviewed the chart at length during breakfast, and the mental picture of the route was still vivid in my mind. The majority of my experience navigating through fog had been in relatively open water. This would be my first attempt at finding my way through a winding, close-quarters obstacle course.

As soon as we encountered the fog bank, I stopped to install the reflector, then asked Pat to bring the chart up to the helm so that she could follow our course and know which aids to navigation we would be looking for. I reminded her that I would be splitting my attention between the compass, GPS and radar screens while keeping a lookout for lobster buoys, so her eyes and ears were important adjuncts to the process, especially in watching for buoys.

The first hurdle in fog is to establish your course and maintain it in the absence of any visual orientation. You literally have nothing to steer toward. And the motion of the boat very often delivers unreliable sensations that make you think you are turning when you’re not, so relying on your instruments is a must. That may sound like an unnecessary statement, but there are hundreds of histories of accidents caused by navigators or pilots who ignored or didn’t believe their instruments and steered their way to disaster. The FAA even has a standard term for the phenomenon: “controlled flight into ground.”

As I settled the boat onto a course that would take me to my first turn, around Hupper Island, I began to calculate the bearing of the next course, which I knew to be a bit more than a right-angle turn to port. I subtracted 100 degrees from my present course and made a mental note of the result. That made the turn far more predictable. I had only to keep turning until that number showed on the compass, allowing me to immediately settle in on the approximate direction while checking the other instruments to verify it. I could then use the track marker on the GPS display to fine-tune the bearing to my next turn. The next turn would be less than 90 degrees to starboard, so I added 80 degrees and repeated the process when the time came. The result in each case was a quick, tight-radius change in direction, accomplished without wandering off course, freeing me to concentrate on using the radar to look for other boats or obstacles.

Passing the green can north of Gunning Rocks required another course adjustment that brought us into more-open water, but the crayola and fog were as dense as ever. We limited our speed to about 6 knots and kept up a constant patter of communication between us. At one point we detected a series of low waves that could have been the remnants of a wake, so we stopped, listened and double-checked the radar for signs of company, but found none. (As it turned out, we encountered only one other boat on this leg, a lobsterman heading back into Port Clyde who passed within 50 feet of us at what looked like top speed. The bravado gained from local knowledge is a wonderful thing, I guess.)

After what seemed like a very long time, we finally picked up the “MP” buoy off MosquitoIsland and changed course to follow the shipping lane in open water. The fog persisted, so we couldn’t let our guard down, but we felt comfortable enough to increase our speed to ensure our arrival in Camden in time for a much anticipated cocktail hour.

Our last learning opportunity came just off Rockland, when I spotted a boat heading toward us on the radar screen. Less than a mile away and on a reciprocal bearing to us, it seemed to be moving slowly enough so that I assumed it was a sailboat. And although it appeared that it would pass about an eighth of a mile to our port, I began to steer to starboard to increase the distance between us and — assuming he had radar — show him a definite sign of a change in our course to avoid him. But as his blip on the screen moved to within a quarter-mile of us, it diminished to just a dot and then disappeared. Startled, I cut our speed and warned Pat to look carefully for another boat. I had no sooner said that when a small, white sailboat appeared, motoring on a perpendicular course, and crossed not 20 yards directly ahead of us. We had slowed to a point where we probably wouldn’t have hit him, but I slammed into reverse to stop the boat anyway.

I have no idea what prompted him to alter his course by 90 degrees at the last moment. Perhaps he had no radar or misinterpreted the direction of the sound of our engine and was trying to avoid us. Or maybe he simply didn’t know what he was doing. In any case, I spent much of the remainder of the trip trying to figure out why I had “lost” him on the radar screen.

As is my usual practice in such situations, I had the radar’s range set at 3/4 mile. And the random mounting has been carefully adjusted so that it is level when the boat is under way at its characteristic 3- or 4-degree bow-up running angle, so he shouldn’t have been under the radar signal. Perhaps I could have kept him on screen by dropping the range down to a half- or quarter-mile, but such a maneuver had never been required. I can only assume that the feature of his boat that was reflecting the radar signal became ineffective when he made his turn.

As we motored on, the fog lifted just in time for us to enjoy the sight of the deep green Camden hills on our approach to the harbor, and we went on to enjoy several more days of bright September sunshine as we harbor-hopped around PenobscotBay. After one last bout with a patch of fog on our final leg, from Castine to Boothbay, we had a chance to reflect on what we’d learned during the trip.

Much of what we “learned” was knowledge we already had but hadn’t put to use before. Having the right electronics and the skill to use them as part of a system of navigation is not just a basic necessity, but one that can give you the confidence to remain cool when the curtain descends. And the value of consulting charts and reviewing the planned route at the beginning of each leg became obvious as the day wore on. The close communication between the helmsman and another lookout helped as well.

The other important thing we took away from the experience seems like a dichotomy at first glance, but it is just two aspects of the same lesson: Learn to use and rely on your instruments but be prepared to live without them when one fails you (or appears to). No, there is no need for us to go back to sextants and lead lines, but we need to be able to stay cool, think the situation through, and fall back on our own senses of sight and hearing when the need arises. In the case of that errant sailboat, recognizing that there was a potential problem, reducing our speed, intensifying our visual search, and being ready to take evasive action saved the day. It was just one part of a group of lessons we’ll not soon forget.

Freelance writer David Yetman is a regular contributor to Soundings. He and his wife, Pat, live on Hodgdon Island in Maine and cruise New England on Curmudgeon, their Albin 28 Tournament Express.