Cruising

Sailing in fog, inshore piloting, and more

Bookmark and Share

This month: coping with fog, inshore piloting

Seamanship

Sailing in fog

Summer sailing and fog seem to be inextricably linked in some parts of the country, and everyone who races or cruises will run into a bank of the gray stuff at one time or another. When you do, your priorities change from making good time toward your destination to not running into other traffic and not running aground.

Modern electronics have taken some of the angst out of coping with fog. With GPS, at least you'll always know where you are, so grounding's not so much of a worry. Radar is the greatest asset you can have when fog closes in on you; there is no more terrifying sound at sea than the throbbing diesels of an invisible ship, and being able to track its course on a radar screen is far preferable to cowering in the cockpit waiting for a bow wave to loom out of the mist.

But it would be foolish to place all your trust in electronics. The smaller your vessel, the less likely it will produce a radar echo—that a ship will see your tiny echo on its own radar, or even that a watchkeeper is checking the radar, is not guaranteed. Let's hope you have a proper radar reflector, not one of those bird-feeder look-alikes, and that it works well.

If you don't have radar, your ears are your best defense. It's a shame you can’t rely on them. Sound travels a long way over the water, but in fog it's hard to tell which direction it is coming from. Differentials in temperature and wind create skip zones over which sound waves travel in a curve, sometimes returning to sea level several miles away. The upshot is that you may be hearing an engine or foghorn close by on your port side that actually belongs to a ship some way off to starboard, or you may hear nothing at all until the other vessel is very close indeed.

I always try to make the boat as quiet as possible. This can be difficult. If you're under sail the noise of the bow wave is annoyingly intrusive. If the engine is running, only someone on the bow will be able to hear anything else. It's best to have two listeners, each scanning one side of the boat. I was taught to concentrate in fog by cupping my hands over my ears and closing my eyes; this doesn't look very cool, but it works.

Some vessels make the required sound signals, and others do not. Usually the offenders are other sailboats or powerboats whose aerosol foghorns have run out of puff. You should always have a backup noisemaker on board so you can give the required one-prolonged-two-short blasts every two minutes (one prolonged blast if you're under power). Even whacking the boom with a skillet is better than no noise at all. Bone up on the Rules of the Road for a thorough guide to sound signals.

At the first sign of fog we immediately mark our position on the chart and always keep up a running plot if we are within a few miles of the coast.

We've also always insisted the crew put on PFDs and harnesses, too; I would hate to have to try to retrieve a man-overboard in dense fog. If we're in a heavily trafficked coastal area, we'll head toward the coast and shallower water, well away from the big ships. When it comes to fog, discretion is most definitely the better part of valor. P.N.

Techniques

Heads down, but take it easy When gybing shorthanded in any breeze above the lightest, steer 10 degrees or so off dead-downwind, then trim the mainsheet tight and cleat it. Now gybe carefully to a similar angle on the other side of the breeze. As the boom flops across the boat, the sail will tend to luff. The trick to an effortless gybe is to counteract the luffing with a nudge of opposite helm. When things have stabilized, ease the mainsheet to trim for the new course. If it's windy, you’ll have to let out the sheet quickly to keep the boat controlled. T.C.

Pilotage

Keep on track

For close piloting inshore, it is important to steer down a straight track from one navigation mark to the next. Merely aiming the boat will not be enough if there is any crosscurrent. As soon as you round a mark, line up the following one with some convenient object behind it. This will establish a natural range. As long as you stay on the range with the objects in line, you must be on the straightest track. Casual ranges are not always as obvious as the one shown in the photo above, but anything at all will do—even a distant cloud if there isn’t much wind and the leg is a short one. T.C.

Words from the Wise

"Without the proper chart table and working space found on larger craft, the navigator of a small family cruiser spends much of his time doing what is called 'coastal pilotage...' He learns to look at a chart and see it as a three-dimensional shoreline, and to look at the land and visualize it as a flat chart. What he is really doing is nautical map reading. Far be it from me to suggest that it is unnecessary to learn the more formal navigation methods. On the contrary, to cruise safely and successfully a sound knowledge of coastal navigation principles is essential. But it is as well to realize that while you can keep up an accurate plot in fine and settled weather, as soon as bit of a sea gets up, or the weather closes in, in fact just when you need a good plot, you are likely to have your hands full coping with the boat, and all you will be able to do is sail by eye." —Colin Jarman, Coastal Cruising (1975)

This month's contributors: Tom Cunliffe, Peter Nielsen

Click here for the Cruising Tips Archive

  • facebook
  • twitter