August 21, 2011

Fright in the fog

MONDAY BEING THE 22nd day of the month of Foggust, and having read recently a number of stirring tales by sailors caught in fog on the shores of Washington state, I thought it appropriate to relate today one of my own experiences.

My wife June and I were on the last leg of a circumnavigation of Vancouver Island in our 25-foot Cape Dory sloop. We motored out of the tiny fishing port of Sekiu on the Strait of Juan de Fuca at 3 a.m. to catch the flood to Port Angeles. It was a clear, pretty night with brilliant moonlight. The lights of Sekiu and Clallam shone very bright to starboard as we set course to landward of the shipping lanes. June went below to sleep while I took the helm.

And then, after about 20 minutes, without any warning at all, we ran into thick fog. I slowed down to 3 knots. Thick tendrils of mist came swirling aft. I could see nothing ahead, and I could only just make out the dinghy trailing 75 feet astern.

I reduced speed to 2 knots, so as better to be able to hear signals from other vessels, and we idled along with another 2 knots of current pushing us along our course, as if we were shoving our way through a thick wrapping of cotton wool shining white from the light of the moon.

All of a sudden a dual-tone hooter blared out three times. I got the fright of my life. Without thinking, I immediately reversed course in case we were running to a ship coming our way. Then, after a minute of two, when the adrenaline was starting to wear off, I reasoned that it would be cleverer to head straight for the shoreline, into shallower water.

As I changed course, there were three more blares, and my heart started pounding again. I put the engine in neutral and stared ahead, wondering all the while what three blares could mean. It was the signal, of course, for “My engines are going full astern.” But it didn’t add up. Something didn’t seem right. The signal for a fishing boat or tug is one long, two short. Could this be a submarine or some other naval vessel?

After a while, and hearing nothing, I continued in toward the shore for 15 minutes, and then resumed our old course to Port Angeles, hooting dutifully once every two minutes, with no response.

June came on deck, having slept through all the action and we shared the lookout duty, though there wasn’t much point since the fog was as thick as ever and we had no radar or AIS.

“I bet it was a fishing boat,” she said. “He must have seen us approaching at the last minute on his radar and given three equal blasts in his hurry, instead of one long, two short.”

“Well, he left it very late,” I said, adding that judging by the intensity of the noise we couldn’t have been much more than 100 yards apart, even allowing for the strange effects fog has on noise signals. “If he’d been giving the proper signal, I would have heard him in good time and got on the radio,” I added.

Dawn came soon after, and the sun starting burning holes in the fog. Patches came and went. We found our flood tide running out on us, and soon we were making only 1 1/2 knots over the ground as we neared Tongue Point, west of Port Angeles. I calculated we should not make Port Angeles before the tide turned, but it would be favorable for a dash from there across the strait to Deception Pass; so that is what we did.

The wind was light, from aft, so we motored all the way, getting to Bowman Bay about 8 p.m. after 17 hours of non-stop motoring. We anchored in Bowman Bay near the east beach and collapsed in bed about 10:30 p.m. after having celebrated clinching the circumnavigation of Vancouver Island with a hot meal, a beer for me and a sherry for June.

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.

After years of toil and research, Eli Whitney emerged from his workshop one night with great news.
“I’ve just invented a cotton gin,” he declared proudly.
“Big deal,” snorted his wife. “So who needs a fluffy martini?”

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


dylan winter said...


really, really frightening.

I think taking the reciprocal course was sensible - I asusme he could see you on his radar

I would have been tempted to turn the engine off for a while and have a good listen


PS - well done on your circumnavigation

John Vigor said...

Dylan, in this part of the world fishing boats often lie quietly with their engines off at one end of a long straight drift net. If that were the case, I wouldn't have heard anything anyway. But who knows. And I hate turning the engine off because I'm always scared it won't start again.

John V.