I recall vividly my first serious encounter with mist at sea in the place where I would least have expected it, in the Windward Islands of the sunny Caribbean.
In 1987, my wife June and I had come angling up the South Atlantic on a 31-foot sloop called Freelance, with our then-17-year-old son Kevin as crew. We were 16 days out from the tiny island of Fernando de Noronha, 200 miles off Brazil, aiming for our carefully chosen landfall on the island of St. Vincent, whose Richmond Peak, with an elevation of 3,524 feet, is allegedly visible for 30 miles.
A noon sextant sight put us within 12 miles of St. Vincent, but my eyes told me that we patently weren’t. It was a fine, clear day, and there was nothing on the horizon in any direction. We held our course and sailed on, greatly puzzled.
An hour later, with six miles to go, there was still nothing to see. We had a nervous lunch while we decided what to do. Plainly, we were lost at sea. With my stomach in a knot, I checked my calculations. Nothing seemed amiss.
Our minds began to race. We searched for explanations. Could the chart be wrong? Had the volcanic island blown up and disappeared?
We sailed on half-heartedly, worried and perplexed, until just after 2 p.m., when I noticed a bright flash in the sky up on my right. It was a window shining in the sun, a window on a house high up on a mountainside.
The island of St. Vincent suddenly appeared all around us. It enveloped us, and loomed over us, and seemed so frighteningly close, after weeks of open sea with unlimited horizons, that I instinctively jibed the boat all standing to avoid running aground, although we were still three-and-a-half miles away.
It was a heavy salt sea haze that deceived us. It’s the kind of mist that cuts visibility to less than five miles but gives no indication of its presence. When you’re in fog you know it; you can see it and feel it on you. But the salt haze is deceitful. The sky, the sea, and the edges of the earth look perfectly normal, except, perhaps for the faintest suggestion of a missing line where the horizon should be. But that invisible haze can completely hide large mountains and even whole islands.
It’s a subject you don’t read much about in the boating press, but you need experience it only once for it to make a big impression on you.
Fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself, when apparent to the eyes; and we find the burden of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about.— Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Tailpiece“How’d the racing go?”
“My dirty bottom is really slowing me down.”
“Yeah, just imagine what it would do to your boat.”
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