With the arrival of the Fall fog season a few safety tips for boating in the fog are in order.
Before the fog sets in, make sure you have charts and a compass on board. A GPS is also good to have, a handheld will work fine, make sure there are spare batteries. A compass is very important because a straight line can not be driven in fog without help from a compass, radar (if you have shore features to use for navigation) or GPS. Some people say “just watch the wake” fine and well, but watching the wake is not immune to small changes and variations and only helps to steer in a straight line, if you need to change to a new course watching the wake is not too helpful and you need another reference such as a compass or GPS.
Many small boaters think a mile of visibility is fine. However they might not be thinking of freighters and ferries which can move at high-speed. A vessel coming out of the fog a mile away gives only a few minutes to get out of the way. Yes the larger vessels use radar but many recreational boats don’t show up well on radar.
In Puget Sound and the straits of Juan De Fuca you can listen to or call VTS to find out where large vessels are and their speed (Ch. 5A north of a line from Nodule Point to Bush Point on the west side of Whidbey Island or north of Possession Point for the east side of Whidbey Island and Ch. 14 south of those points). You can also tell VTS who you are, where you are and speed, that also tells the big boats where you are. Listening to the VTS is always prudent when boating in their vicinity, and is a great night time tool also.
What to do in fog
- Know your position, mark it on a chart or chart plotter
- Turn on navigation lights
- Slow down, not only to not hit other boats but watch for junk in the water. Remember the Colregs require”a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.”
- Post extra lookouts, move a lookout to the bow if possible, use every means available, sight, sound (listening), smell and any other means available
- Use the proper sound signals:
Powerboat, underway, making way, Prolonged – blast at not more than 2 minute intervals
Sailboat, underway, making way, Prolonged – Short – Short – blasts, at not more than 2 minute intervals
- Have everyone put on a PFD (Lifejacket) if they don’t already have one on
- If you have radar on board assign a trusted and skilled crew member to monitor the radar continuously.
Fog / Impaired Visibility Tips
Rotate lookouts, having two forward lookouts at the bow is prudent if there is enough crew.
Lookouts should look and listen for ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING, sounds from aids to navigation, breaking waves, floating material in the water, rocks, piles, shore line features, remember Anything and Everything.
Navigate by following a depth contour line. That might be a bit longer than the straight line but by watching the depth sounder and following where you are on the chart has gotten many mariners home. A friend never fails to tell his adventure when fog dropped down on him, he set a compass course toward the shore, turned on a depth contour line and followed the contour line for a couple of hours and got home safely.
One of my instructors, (who has a 100 ton license and many miles in command) when operating around VTS lanes, likes to run down the right edge of the VTS lane and be very very predictable, his theory is the big boys know what they are doing. On the other hand he has almost been ran over several times when going along the shore by crazies, in small boats, on a plane, visibility of a few boat lengths, can’t see where they are going, and probably using GPS for navigation.
Quick question, you hear a single prolonged blast about every 25 seconds, what type of vessel might you expect to find? A question I ask in class quite often. My reply, a small power boat underway, making way with a nervous captain and no watch on board. Remember the “at not more than XX minute intervals”
Idle the engines down to bare steerage or stop the engines so the lookouts can hear better.
The transmission of sounds in fog may be erratic, it can be difficult to determine the direction they are coming from.
If your boat does not have a permanent radar reflector (a sailboat race rules requirement in Puget Sound), get out the portable reflector and raise it as high as possible.
UPDATE 12/30/2013: Received the advice below from a friend that now lives in Florida
Hi Mike! Just read your article about cruising in fog.
Most small boaters do not have their compass adjusted or have a correction table available. Some boats deviation I have observed to be significant.
In lieu of adjustment or a correction table, I was advised by an unlimited ton Master to do the following, and so suggest you could advise others to also.
At least for the routes across or along the sound they use most often, they could log, and/or have a separate list of, the MAGNETIC courses on their boat to and from their destination so if they are on their way and encounter fog, they will have the courses they need for THEIR boat available WHEN they encounter fog underway. I used to log and record these along the way, and then turn around half way there to get the correct magnetic courses for the return also with both deviation for my boat and variation at that point on earth incorporated just by reading the compass courses and writing them down.
Thanks for supporting boating safety
– c/m –