Navigation in Fog, Part 2—Preparation

Phyllis gets "Morgan's Cloud" ready to get underway. There's a bit of visibility in the snug cove, but outside it will be pea-soup.
Phyllis gets "Morgan's Cloud" ready to get underway. There was some visibility in this snug cove, but outside it was pea-soup.

While it’s easy to accept that sailing in fog is not high on anybody’s list of pleasures, it’s a fact of life in many of the world’s most admired cruising destinations such as Alaska, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Greenland.

So if you want to cruise those regions, you have already accepted that you’ll face poor visibility on a regular basis. Therefore the only option is to make sure you, your boat and your crew are as well prepared as possible.

Meteorologists today are highly effective at predicting fog, which can at least allow you some ability to pick your moment to depart if you’re sailing coastally. If you are really nervous about sailing in fog (and some people understandably are) then careful attention to the forecast may spare you the worst of it.

But in places such as Maine or Nova Scotia, where dense fog can appear without any warning, you may only have momentary notice of its arrival. The fact is, try and avoid it though you might, sooner or later you’re bound to end up in thick fog, so maybe it’s better to not get too aerated about avoiding it at all costs and just treat it as yet another hazard to deal with objectively, and prepare for accordingly. You cannot gain experience without being out in it and experience will hone your skills for the future.

Let's take a look at the gear and skills we need when the fog rolls in, starting with proper preparation before we even get under way:

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

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Marc Dacey

An excellent summation. I’ve done a graphic showing the location of every piece of safety gear aboard “posted” in my log book. The RYA method is to run over this sort of information at the start of the course, and that’s where I got the idea.

I also give a wide offing to waypoints such as nav aids for the same reason. I look forward to AIS-equipped buoyage (virtual or actual buoys with transmitters on them) for similar reasons. I don’t actually need to see a buoy that hasn’t drifted off station if I’ve been fastidious about my NOTMARs and charting.

The “how to use the radar” is good, too, for the simple reason that should I be in the off-watch, I don’t want the set to have had random guesswork pushing the buttons should I have to arrive in a hurry. If radar’s needed, people should know how to use it, and the plotter, and the horn (signals) and the AIS and sounder. These instruments lessen the guesswork of fog, and I find the few times I’ve bothered to travel in it that the instruments help to focus one’s attention, because you’ll glean very little from staring into the stuff, save that if something’s quite close, you might hear an engine or even voices. But that’s probably too close. I might add that it’s prudent to reduce speed in fog to something that gives you more precious seconds should you encounter something unexpected. I generally reduce under motor to four knots, which I might accomplish under sail by reducing it. Sometimes there’s wind in fog, enough to sail with, but motoring or motorsailing in it is more prudent in terms of sudden turns, backing down or just the way the motor itself can be generally heard for some distance by others. I’ve heard in fog more than once a motor cut out and have suspected the other boat’s crew was listening for us to figure out our course. That’s when I give one long blast if under power.

Dick Stevenson

Hi Colin,
Nice addition, thanks.
You can (and I think should) get low visibility practice in good visibility conditions if you have a below decks radar/instrument read out and/or some other way to make your partner blind.
Have the “blind” conn the boat by calling out course and speed while the crew at the helm (not blind to the situation) follows directions with the caveat of keeping the boat safe when mistakes are made. We used this method coming into the current-y, twisty, busy and rocky entrance to Fisher’s Island Sound/Stonington from Block Island (Rhode Island, USA) on a number of occasions. We learned a great deal and made numerous of errors with no down side.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi All,
I had a bit of an adverse reaction when I read the word “should” in re-reading my previous comment. Let me explain.
I dislike suggesting/telling others what they should or should not do almost as much as being on the receiving end of “should” instructions. That said, I think others “should” be well prepared to be at sea. This is not at all suggested for their benefit (although I think they will benefit) , but because I share the waters with them and I very much wish those out there who are near me to know what they are doing. I figure if both of us have a semblance of knowing what we are doing, then we will need less luck to continue on our way.
My best, Dick

Colin Speedie

Hi Marc, Dick
being familiar with the radar set is a must, not an option. Practice is essential, especially if you are to pass on valid information to others aboard – and remain safe. Blind nav used to e part of every Yachtmaster exam in the UK, not with radar, but echo sounder, and DR instead, and it’s a great way to learn how to navigate blind. And I don’t that ‘should’ is out of place here, myself…
Best wishes
Colin

Marc Dacey

As of 2013, ‘blind’ nav with DR still was a part of Day Skipper and Yachtmaster Coastal, as I recall. The English guy running the RYA school in Brittany put a hat on the compass so I would focus on the shore marks!

Ernest

We’ve been training “blind radar” when we had a display at the helm so the helmsman put an oversized towel over his head and the helm station thus just seeing the compass and the radar screen. After some practice we managed to get into a narrow harbour and out again only by looking at the display without any outside information.

Jeff Totman

I agree that practicing with radar during nice weather is a great idea. One thing I like to look at and take note of is what do various size boats at close (1/8, 1/16 miles) distances look like. So when I’m in the fog and am straining my eyes to see a return that’s showing that it’s 1/16 miles away on radar, I have a good idea what I’m looking for in regards to how large the boat will appear to be so won’t be surprised by what it looks like when I do manage to pick it out of the soup. I’ve found that it takes practice to be able to accurately estimate distance to another boat over water and find it’s useful to be able to do that. Sometimes on nice days we make it into a sort of game where one person watches the radar and others aboard compete at trying to judge when another boat or ledge or buoy is at certain distances from us.

Great series and discussion!

Ernest

One might need to take into account that active radar beacons create a much stronger echo than the actual target would so one might overestimate its size. However it is always better to have a stronger blip for your boat than almost nothing, being a mere fiberglass spot.

Colin Speedie

Hi Ernest
no bad thing in my view! If the guy peering into the radar thinks we’re a cargo vessel, all the better.
Best wishes
Colin

Colin Speedie

Hi Jeff
practice makes perfect – we all know it, so why don’t we do it? If I haven’t used our radar for a while I’ll fir it up and have a play with it. I particularly like reminding myself how difficult it can be to acquire difficult targets like small wooden boats, working the gain and going up and down the ranges until I can spot the first faint echoes that give it away. And, you’ll be gratified to hear, the method of training you describe for judging distance is the same as the one I used to train hundreds of volunteers who joined me on marine life research surveys, to help them learn how to estimate distance!
Best wishes
Colin

Pat Kelly

Great article, Colin; Agree with everything you say. Thank you !

Pat Kelly; CYGNUS; Northeast Harbor, Maine

Colin Speedie

Thanks, Pat – glad you found it useful.
Colin

Pascal Cuttat

Thanks Colin!
agree with every word. You mention the obligation for the crew on watch to clip on at all times: Agreed, and I guess that assumes that they also wear a lifejacket, day and night and whatever sea conditions there are.
If feasible in terms of weather and crew members, I like to have somebody as a lookout at the bow. Particularly at night, in fog, your own lights create enough light pollution for it to become difficult to see position lights of any other vessels, even once they are too close for comfort.
We motored through April fog along the Spanish Med coast for 24 hours, unwilling to enter an unknown harbor in this soup, and mainly worried about small vessels, too small for easy radar protection and of course without AIS. Nobody slept much and certainly not deeply….
Pascal

Colin Speedie

Hi Pascal
yes, lifejackets are obligatory in fog, as I’ll outline in part III.

As far as stationing someone in the bow, with a sizeable crew it’s a good idea, with our normal 2 man configuration it’s simply not practical all the time.

And yes, it can be really tiring – I know I’m usually completely wiped out after a good bout with it!

Best wishes
Colin

Marc Dacey

One good reason why a crew at the bow (with a horn in hand and certainly with a PTT radio clipped on is that they are distant from the sound of the engine; in fact, it can be damn peaceful up there if the water’s otherwise calm as is often the case with fog. Such a person at the bow can hear a great deal more than is generally possible aft unless you are purely sailing, and this person’s ears are an early warning signal should your situational picture be otherwise incomplete.

Bill Attwood

Hi Colin.
Excellent article. In “the old days” sailing in the West Country, we used to get in close to shore and anchor if it was a real pea-souper. The idea being that bigger vessels wouldn’t come in so close.
Yours aye
Bill

Colin Speedie

Hi Bill

good point and something I’ve done a few times in the past, as long as I’ve been sure I’m well off fishing vessel routes in and out of harbour!
Best wishes
Colin

Eric Klem

Hi Colin,

Interestingly, we use some very different tactics. One where it sounds like we differ a lot is on use of buoys. I am a firm believer in trying to go buoy to buoy in the fog for a few reasons probably largely related to using paper charts as our backup rather than electronic. The main reason is that if the electronics quit on me, I can be reasonably assured of where I am without writing down a position every 2 minutes. This has happened to me on a few occasions on various boats that I have been running. In each occasion, I have had the confidence to figure out where I was while proceeding ahead because I know exactly what line I was on and how much time was left to the buoy. Had I simply been following the plotter, I would be forced in many instances to stop and simply anchor as we used to do before electronics when you ran out your time on a course and couldn’t find where you were going. Obviously, bold shores are even better to head at than buoys and we use them where possible. Another reason why I like buoy to buoy navigation is that you know the course that most other people will be on and rather than meeting at strange angles, you usually meet relatively head on and everyone turns to starboard. I do try to avoid shipping lanes and similar but there are usually a line of buoys to run that are outside that route.

One interesting thing to me is how little some people use a compass when underway in the fog. I watch a lot of crew members that I have try to use the chartplotter to get them on course. I always make the turn based on the compass and then figure out set/drift based on the chartplotter. It also means that I steer a very straight course as I am not dealing with the lag of the chartplotter.

A few notes on lookouts in the fog. People really can train themselves to be better lookouts over time. When I worked commercially, I could always see and hear everything before the new deckhands could but as they got more experience and were taught, they would get to the point where they noticed the same subtle cues and could do just as well. Also, a lot of cruising sailors forget how important sound is in the fog. In the cockpit with the engine on, sound doesn’t do you much good but if you have the crew for it, a proper bow watch can not only see a lot better but they can hear well. With a functioning radar, this isn’t a big deal but if your radar dies, sound is one of the best things that you still have.

I agree completely on the fact that you will run into fog in certain places and that it should be something you are prepared to navigate in. On the other hand, I think that you can do trip planning to try to limit it although on long trips, you will still be stuck with it somewhere. For example, if you head to Maine, August and September have only a handful of days of fog usually whereas June typically has a much higher percentage of unpleasant weather.

Eric

Marc Dacey

Eric, very good comments and I work buoy to buoy in fog as well when it makes sense to do so closer to shore. I also use the compass, a Ritchie Globemaster corrected for the steel boat (and verified by me on known bearings for deviation) for the same reasons. We’ve used sound all the time: one example is when we’ve been following a depth contour but the sound of surf heard faintly in the murk confirmed that we were right over a drowned cliff close in.

Charles Starke MD

Hi
A friend, who was a national sailing champion in a one design class, went from buoy to buoy in the fog In a small boat without radar. A much larger boat went buoy to buoy with no radar on, and hit and sank the boat my friend was on. He died.
It’s nice to identify the buoy. Go take a look. But don’t run buoy to buoy.
Best wishes
Charles
Charles L Starke MD FACP
s/v Dawnpiper

Dick Stevenson

Hi Eric,
A also like the assurance of a “fix” by seeing a buoy and noting its number. And agree with traffic likely coming at or going away. Usually I have found little traffic, so I might change my mind in a high traffic area. (I would not anchor near a buoy however , as buoys go attract traffic. As to steering with a compass, I also agree, as I know I have a completely unconscious and uncontrolled tendency to turn to starboard in the fog unless I have strict adherence to the compass doing the thinking for me.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Colin Speedie

Hi Eric, Dick
buoy hopping has it’s benefits when entering, say, a river or navigational channel, but as I’ve outlined it’s important to be aware that others may also think so, too! As this is where there traffic will also likely be denser it can have its challenges.
But it’s also true that as you’ll likely be entering or leaving a channel you’ll also want extra hands available for those very reasons, which I’ll cover in Part III.
At times we dodge outside the channel markers to avoid traffic (easy with our variable draft), but it does often put you amongst pot markers etc.
Best wishes
Colin

Dick Stevenson

Hi Colin,
A word about autopilots in fog: If possible, we hand steer in the fog. Not only does it get you out from under the dodger and improve situation awareness, but you can change course and speed far more rapidly. This is not always practical, especially if on watch alone, but, even single-handing, I go to the helm when hard “things” are around.
Also a word about waking off watch for help: I try to wait, but that is not always good judgment. It always takes a while to get oriented, and in fog it seems to take 3 times as long as the instruments play such a large part in safe piloting.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Colin Speedie

H Dick
if I’m the one off watch I always ask to be woken well in advance of nails being bitten – that at least gives me time to work out which way is up! The worst scenario is to arrive on deck in a kind of narcoleptic stupor and be expected to take control of the situation, so I totally agree.
Best wishes
Colin

Pat Kelly

I must take a different tack on the preference of autopilot vs hand-steering in fog – something that we get a lot of in Downeast Maine. At the helm of CYGNUS a double screen Electronic chart plotter displays GPS, depth and RADAR (that can be viewed simultaneously, side by side or superimposed). I usually single-hand. It is frightening how disorienting fog can be and I usually depend on the autopilot and instruments as I keep watch from the cockpit looking over the spray-hood. I’ll leave the cockpit when entering a mooring field, going very slowly, since many free moorings are rubberized plastic and do not show up on RADAR (unless there’s a boat tied up to one.)

Colin Speedie

Hi Dick, Pat
I think there’s a place and time for both options, autopilot on or off, depending on position, potential dangers and number of personnel available. But this is true of many areas to do with navigating through fog – I’ve set out my thoughts in part III, which I hope you’ll evaluate and comment on – all ideas are welcome.
Best wishes
Colin

Dick Stevenson

Hi Colin,
I suspect I am being dense, and I am sure you are making a good point, but I am not sure what it is in the following:
If reduced visibility is expected, I suggest that you run a 24-hour watch system, so that all crew are either on or off watch throughout the passage.

Colin Speedie

Hi Dick
I’ve sailed on boats where the general rule was for the skipper to allow people to do as they please during daylight hours. Obviously that’s up the individual skipper and his knowledge of his crew in fair weather, but in my experience this is not good policy when conditions are difficult, not only during rough weather but fog, too. By running a watch system round the clock in such conditions, the skipper can know that the ‘off-watch’ crew are getting rested, ready for their turn on deck. Fog can can be tiring and enervating, so time in the warm and dry, getting some sleep is vital to having fresh arms, eyes and ears on deck when the watch changes.
Best wishes
Colin

Dick Stevenson

Thanks Colin,
I suspected that might be what you meant and agree with you completely. Ginger and I lean towards a bit more formality even in nice weather day passages with regards to “on watch” designation. Shared responsibilities too often lead to dropped balls. One person is always “on watch”. Besides, when “off watch” I really like to not think and not attend and do what I want, ie. really relax.
My best, Dick

Colin Speedie

Hi Dick
I guessed we’d be on the same page with this, very much the way that Lou and I operate. And I agree that it’s so nice to be able to simply put you feet up off watch, read a book, take a nap or whatever, whilst at the same time keeping your internal batteries charged.
Best wishes
Colin

Ronnie Ricca

Collin and others,

Thanks for the great write up! We just got a 4G radar for our boat and while I’m sure we don’t see as much the north Atlantic, we do get a lot of fog during the winter in coastal Louisiana. Even at work, I won’t drive our 300′ OSV in Port when it’s socked in and that’s with two radars(one being a 12′ open array). It’s just not worth the risk in our tight waters of port Fourchon.

That being said, I understand the need for a trumpet style horn(electric will be ours when it gets mounted) for making signals in fog and other reduced visibility situations. Have you or others used a weatherproof speakerphone connected to a compatible VHF/horn/hauler to make the continuous automated sound signals for a vessel in fog(be it motor or sail, underway or otherwise)? The reason I’m asking is if one is going to mount their horn and run the wire for that, would it be worthwhile to mount a speakerphone and additional wire as well?

Does anyone use automated signaling devices on their vessels?

Ronnie

Richard Hudson

Ronnie,

>Does anyone use automated signaling devices on their vessels?
Yes, I have a VHF radio hooked up to a loudhailer/speaker mounted under a spreader. I really like just having to push a few buttons and have fog signals just happen automatically.

I have not found any use for the loudhailer/speaker (ie talking loudly) other than fog signals.

When I first hooked the loudhailer/speaker to the VHF (Standard Horizon GX2100), I found that all use of the microphone now went thru the loudhailer–so if I wanted to talk on the VHF to another vessel, everything I said was coming out the loudhailer as well. I couldn’t find a way of setting it so that only when I selected loudhailer would the microphone drive the loudhailer, but my old VHF radio also had fog signal functionality, so I connected the loudhailer/speaker to the old VHF. So, now I have two VHF radios, one for VHF, one for fog signals 🙂 Not an elegant solution, but it works.
I doubt this would be a problem with most VHF units (and maybe mine has a firmware upgrade to fix it, or maybe I did something wrong in the configuration), but just thought I’d mention it.

I sail with crew most of the time, and I find they vary as to how attentive they are to doing manual fog signals. Automated fog signals are reliable, and provide one less chore to do in fog. I really enjoy using the automated fog signals, and definitely feel it was worth the effort to install the loudhailer/speaker and wire it to the VHF.

As far as loudness goes, air horns are louder than loudhailer/speakers. I think my electric horn (not trumpet-style) is about the same loudness as the loudhailer/speaker.

Richard

John Harries

Hi Richard and Eric,

Thanks for the fill on that, I have never used a VHF loud hailer function as a fog horn, or for anything else, so had no insights.

Ronnie Ricca

Richard,
Thanks for the information on your experience using the VHF fog signals. I’ll go ahead and run two wires for the electric trumpet horn and the loudspeaker under the first spreaders. I’ll have to look in our Icom m605 manual to see if it does what yours does when using VHF functions during signaling. I’ll try to report back and let you knowy findings.

Ronnie

Eric Klem

Hi Ronnie,

I have used several and like the concept a lot. However, like Richard I have not found the hardware to be particularly good although my experience was with earlier units so hopefully they have dealt with the issues. Issues that I have noticed have included degraded VHF performance when in fog horn mode and the mike effectively being held open by the unit.

In terms of noise level, they are better than a manual horn but not as good as a dedicated horn. Like a dedicated horn, they are aimed ahead so it is still a good idea to have a handheld horn at the helm which you can point directly at the other vessel. By far the best part is that your fog horn sounds on a regular 2 minute schedule and you don’t have to do anything to make that happen. If they have worked out the issues, this would be my go-to for a medium sized recreational sailboat.

Sadly, it seems that no one sounds fog horns in New England anymore.

Eric

Ronnie Ricca

Eric,
Thanks for your thoughts on your fog signaling via VHF. I’ll have both a dedicated electric trumpet horn and the loudspeaker. As I said in my response to Richard, I’ll have to see how my Icom m605 handles the signaling during VHF use.

Not many people use it in the port I work out of during the foggy months. I think the use of modern technology like solid radar and AIS has helped make horn use less frequent in these situations. When we finally get up to NE well be sure to signal ours if we know your near! (:

Ronnie

Ronnie Ricca

Richard, Eric, all,

I just checked the manual on our Icom m605 VHF and it says this about horn operations:

“NOTE: While in the Horn mode, the transmit and
receive functions are disabled. When the transceiver is
transmitting, the Horn function is disabled.”

I’m not at my boat right now, but I’m assuming that it’s not tx/rx when the horn is actually going off, not the entire time the feature is enabled (as in the 2 min quiet period). I’ll check when I get to the boat with a portable radio.

Ronnie