May 8, 2016

What to do about fog

EVERY NOW AND THEN I run into some sailor who has just been scared witless by running into fog in the islands somewhere. We don’t get a lot of fog around here, but when the tidal currents are flowing fast and Washington State ferries are blowing their horns all around you, it can be a very frightening situation. I’m often asked: “What’s the best thing to do about it?”

Well, to tell the truth, there isn’t much advice to give about getting caught in fog that isn’t covered by common sense. If you see a fog bank forming ahead, and you have a chance to turn back to a safe anchorage, do so. It’s the seamanlike action to take.

Fog is treacherous. Go slowly and listen very carefully. If fog catches you out, try to get into shallow water and anchor there. Oftentimes that’s easier said than done, of course.

You should raise a radar reflector as high as you can so other vessels with radar sets will detect you. And you should be meticulous about making the right sound signal every two minutes or less. I have noticed that too many skippers are very lax about this. I have even traveled on a Washington State ferry that made no sound signals in thick fog, presumably relying on radar and clearance from Seattle Traffic Control, which can’t possibly tell the ferry if a small craft, invisible to radar, is in its path.

If you’re sailing, the correct signal is one long blast and two short blasts. That’s also the signal by a vessel not under command, or restricted by her ability to maneuver. The same signal comes from a vessel engaged in fishing, or towing or pushing another vessel.

If you’re under power, the fog signal (and the signal in any kind of restricted visibility, by the way) is one long blast every two minutes or less.

And one last tip – take along a horn that you can blow into. The fog horns that work off cans of compressed air don’t always work. I can vouch for that. I can also tell you that blowing the damn horn as loud as you can every two minutes as you motor along cautiously is a pain in the you-know-what. You can’t go anywhere or do anything that lasts more than one minute and fifty-nine seconds. It puffs your cheeks out and raises your blood pressure. It makes you dizzy and produces black spots before your eyes. But it’s better than being run down at sea. So do it.

Finally, if you’re in an area where authorities such as Seattle Traffic Control are maintaining a radio and radar watch over congested traffic lanes, call them on VHF and ask if there is any ship traffic headed your way. Make sure you know your approximate position first, of course, so they can check to see if they’re picking you up on radar. You’ll find the appropriate VHF channel on the chart or in a cruising guide, but in a pinch you can use Channel 16, either to ask for the correct channel or to broadcast a message to all stations in your area advising them of your name, position, speed and heading.

Finally finally, if you boat is big enough and you are rich enough to afford an AIS transceiver there is very little reason to panic in fog. You will know the position and speed of all nearby vessels over 300 tons, and they will be aware of your position, speed and direction. With any luck, you’ll all miss each other. (Yeah, they said that about radar, of course, until the Andrea Doria and the Stockholm ran into each other, guided by radar. Try Google for the whole story.)   

Today’s Thought
He that bringeth himself into needless dangers dieth the devil’s martyr.
— Thomas Fuller, Holy War

“I’ve found out why production has slowed down since we got that second computer.”
“Good. What’s wrong?”
“The big computer’s shoving all the work on to the little computer.”

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

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