July 19, 2012

Lost in the fog

FOG IS PROBABLY the greatest challenge most coastal cruisers will ever face. The statistics show that the chances of being run down in fog by a larger vessel are quite slim; it doesn’t happen that often. But what the statistics don’t show are the hours of tension, stress, and even stark fear that result from the disorientation of being wrapped in a cloak of mist that robs you of your sense of sight.

      On America’s east and west coasts, particularly, fog may occur almost any time of the year, and it can occur with startling suddenness. Before you know it, you’re in the thick of it, wandering blindly through swirling mist with a rising sense of panic and vulnerability.

      Your thoughts turn immediately to what can happen now:

      Ø  You’re going to get lost.

Ø  You’re going to reach port late and miss your plane.

Ø  You’re to hit the rocks or run aground.

Ø  You’re going to get run down by a large ship.

Ø  You’re going to die.

      If you think this sounds melodramatic, you’ve never been caught in fog. Fog does strange things to you. Even seasoned boaters suffer a nervous reaction when the cotton cloud hugs them to its breast and obscures the outside world, when your ears become your eyes because your eyes become useless.

      I can remember listening in astonishment one evening on my little VHF radio to a Mayday call broadcast by a powerboat on San Diego Bay. The local Coast Guard station asked what the problem was.

“We’re lost in the fog,” a man said anxiously.

      “Can you see anything at all?” asked the Coast Guard.

      “We’re circling a flashing red buoy with a 16 on it, but we don’t know where to go.”

      It was a channel buoy a few hundred yards from their home marina, and in ordinary circumstances it would have been ludicrous to put out a Mayday call. But fog is like that. It’s a panic-maker. In any case, the Coasties were very patient. They didn’t sneer or say anything sarcastic, much as they must have been tempted to do. They gave the lost powerboaters a compass course to steer at dead slow speed — something they wouldn’t normally do for fear of being sued if anything went wrong — and the boat made it home safely, to everyone’s relief.

Today’s Thought
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over the harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then, moves on.
Carl Sandburg, Fog

“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.”
(15)“He’s just looking for a friend, sir. You haven’t swallowed her by mistake, have you?”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

LittleCunningPlan.com said...

So true! It's impossible to sail for very long without acquiring a 'fog' story. Our favorite one is about crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca and being enveloped by thick fog. Water dripped from our folded sails. My husband was terrified and kept ringing our fog bell every few minutes. I was in some kind of Zen state so I wouldn't feel the fear. The cool thing that happened was that a couple of bats came out of nowhere and landed on our boat, then crawled between the folds of the mainsail and hitched a ride over to San Juan Island. Maybe they were lost in the fog, maybe they just wanted a ride. As we approached the island, the fog began to lift as though we were awakening from a deep sleep. We were slowly motoring into big swells and suddenly a huge dorsal fin appeared in the swell just ahead of our boat. The Orcas were there to greet us together with the sunshine! It was fabulous and made so much better because of the fear of the fog.