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Experience: Threading the Needle in a Thick Fog

Navigating through the murk took all three crewmembers

Navigating through the murk took all three crewmembers

It was a dark night, utterly black. Any light was blanketed by the fog. My chartplotter was night-blinding me. I looked at the Navionics map on my phone, waited half a second for my eyes to adjust and then looked at the depthsounder. After that, I looked ahead to where Laura was on the bow of Starboard Tack, my Pearson 385, searching for the next day mark with her flashlight, then down at my compass. Again and again, I found myself searching this way every five seconds, inevitably steering off course in the process.

It was a trip that had begun easily enough, but didn’t stay that way for long. Hours earlier, we’d had a nice, light breeze out of the south as we made our way down Florida’s Gulf Coast from Boca Ceiga Bay toward Venice Beach. It was going to be a long trip, about 40 miles, especially with the wind on the nose, but we were ready for it.

By midday, I was frustrated with our lack of progress. The wind had now died away, and we were not yet south of Egmont Key—only a quarter of the way. At this rate, our arrival would be well after dark. Although we’d been to Venice Beach before, I would hardly say we had much in the way of local knowledge. That, in addition to the fact we needed to arrive as close to slack tide as possible because of the currents we would otherwise find at the dock, made me want to change course. The dying wind also meant we would have to motor. I don’t mind motoring, but I also knew of another anchorage that was much closer.

Longboat Key is a nice anchorage, and the pass has a narrow span with a drawbridge that opens on demand, as opposed to on the half-hour. On the downside, doing the same passage a month earlier, I’d found the day marks I’d used to navigate were in direct conflict with my chart. Turns out a number of storms in recent years had caused significant shoaling, forcing the Coast Guard to move its marks, so that my charts were no longer valid.

At around 1530 we decided to change course for Longboat, figuring we could get there in about two hours. We’d carry on the following day with the rest of the 30-mile journey to Venice Beach.

By 1630 we were close enough in to see that fog had apparently settled on shore, blocking any sight of land. The moisture in the air was so thick it started causing my hair to stick to my forehead. We dropped the sails and started to motor in, eyes peeled for uncharted marks. With the visibility dropping to approximately 100ft, we located the first one. Knowing we’d have plenty of daylight for navigating the rest of the way in, I hailed the bridge tender to let him know we were coming. He wouldn’t be able to get a visual on us just yet, but we’d be there soon.

That’s when he told us the bridge was malfunctioning, and we’d have to wait.

Unfortunately, sometime earlier I’d erased all the tracks I’d saved in my chartplotter the previous trip. We, therefore, decided to go find the channel again while there was still daylight and lay down some new ones. That way when the bridge did finally open we could return to it fairly easily. Pacing back and forth a couple of times, we soon found ourselves in complete darkness. The fog was now so thick and disorienting when we saw a set of lights off in the distance, it was difficult to tell if they were from the bridge or some other structure.

In fact, they were neither. It was another sailboat that had anchored on the edge of the channel. Assuming they would be on VHF channel 9 to communicate with the bridge tender, we hailed them. They answered, saying they were the sailboat Better Days. We asked if they had much water where they were and if we could anchor close by for safety and better visibility in the dark. They said they were in about 13ft of water and would be happy to have company as they had already been waiting for two hours. We dropped the hook and turned on every light we had on board so that any other vessels out there would see us.

Over the next half hour, we were approached by a couple of fishermen, but that was it. We were now getting rolled around by waves running along the edge of the channel, and the fog was thicker than ever. All we could see in the darkness were the hazy lights of Better Days anchored in the near distance.

As we sat there waiting, I considered my options in case the bridge didn’t open. One thing I knew for sure was that there was no way we could spend the night where we were. Heading back out onto the gulf, though, didn’t seem much better, since we didn’t know how bad the fog was out there. In hindsight, going offshore would likely have been the safer option.

Thankfully we didn’t have to make a choice, as the bridge tender hailed us soon afterward on the VHF to say the bridge was almost fixed and he’d let us know when to raise anchor. We acknowledged and said there would be another sailboat right behind us. Better Days got on the radio and confirmed. Fifteen minutes later we were underway, Laura up on the bow with a flashlight (which I very much wished could have been a little stronger!) keeping an eye out for marks and other hazards, my other crew, Lyn, by my side, also on the alert.

Following the GPS tracks we had laid down earlier, I heard the drawbridge siren go off, but still couldn’t see anything in the dark. One thing I knew for sure hadn’t been rendered inaccurate on my chart was the location of the drawbridge span, so I aimed for that. It felt like the narrowest bridge I’d ever seen. At one point I hailed the tender to ask if we were on track. He guided me to port a bit. Finally, I saw a red light rising up into the air and realized it was the span lifting up in front of me. At long last, I had an actual visual cue to work with!

Soon afterward, we made it through the bridge with Better Days a safe distance behind us. But our trouble wasn’t over yet. We still had to navigate the narrow channel round an island up ahead, with little room for error to either side. Fortunately, the water inshore of the bridge was flat with no noticeable current.

About 200ft past the bridge opening was another red channel marker. We were headed straight for it. I now had to make another decision: take the marked channel to port around the island, or turn to starboard and take the shortcut. The shortcut was tempting, because it would mean we only had another half mile to go. But I had never taken it before and was unsure of the depth, so we decided to make the much longer two-mile journey the entire way round the island instead.

By now I would have thought my chartplotter would be accurate again. But the Navionics chart continued to disagree with it, and since it had been the more reliable of the two thus far, we decided to keep going with it. At one point, I put my hand over the chartplotter to block it out completely and keep it from blinding me in the dark, relying instead on our Navionics program, the flashlight in the bow and my compass. Even this, though, was too much, and it was all I could do to keep my course steady and prevent the boat from straying.

Fortunately, I had a good crew, a crew I could trust: Laura served as my eyes up on the bow, shouting out an alert whenever she saw another mark; Lyn serving as my navigator and giving me directions based on what she saw on the screen in front of her: “Turn port, turn starboard, more starboard, perfect…hold that course.” All I had to do was steer and look down at my compass. When Lyn told me I had a solid course, I would note the heading and maintain it as best I could.

An hour or so later, we finally saw the ambient light from the anchorage glowing around the edge of the island. We knew there were two restaurants in this tight little spot, and the hazy light was a welcome beacon. As we rounded the island I noticed a number of other boats already at anchor and the docks in front of the restaurants. I finally knew where I was!

Eventually, we found a safe spot toward the back of the anchorage and dropped the hook. After confirming we were set, Laura and I went below to get some rum. She laughed as I poured us a double. A short while later, I looked around to see the fog had lifted. The night sky was now crisp and clear, making it a perfect night for stargazing. But we went right to bed. 

What we did right:

• Communicated early with the bridge tender

• Communicated with the other sailboat

• Used redundant navigation

• Trusted each other to do our jobs

• Avoided the temptation of a shortcut and took the longer but safer path

What we did wrong:

• Took for granted the easy passage at Longboat Key despite knowing it didn’t match the charts

• Relied solely on day marks, which were a challenge to follow in the fog

• Didn’t check the weather forecast!

• Deleted the tracks from our previous trip

• Didn’t have a strong enough flashlight onboard for the conditions

Got a good story to share? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com

Photos by Vanessa Goodrum

April 2020

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