When the fog rolls in

09 March 2021

For those lucky enough to know, sailing offshore can be challenging yet beautiful. The freedom that sailing affords takes you to different places, both geographically and mentally.

There are many things to keep on top of in order to keep a safe and happy ship. The trim of the sails, the helm, the all important boat speed and the weather – both now and likely conditions in the next few hours. There’s also the balance and feel of the boat, batteries, bilges, navigation and the ship's log book, not to mention the welfare and morale of the crew, meal times, and sleep. These are all on top of the constant monitoring of the many systems and moving parts that keep your boat progressing freely along the wide open ocean.

But this is plain sailing. What happens when the fog rolls in? The picture will change dramatically and bring with it a healthy apprehension and heightening of senses for all aboard. Firstly, and very obviously, your visibility is shortened, sometimes drastically, only allowing occasional glimpses forward of the bow or outside the boat. Your world shrinks from being able to see the horizon or distant shores to feeling like you are cocooned inside your own much smaller bubble. The mood takes on an almost eerie feel and you become very aware of the need to concentrate even harder on the smallest details.

The most important concern from a safety perspective, is the ability to look out and keep watch. Keen eyes looking out all around the perimeter and ears now tuned in to every sound becomes an inevitable progression. Talk is very naturally reduced to whispers as every sound or movement counts. A radar watch should be immediately posted down below deck and a position update entered in the ship’s log and plotted onto the appropriate chart more frequently than usual. The correct navigation lights should be switched on to make your vessel as obvious as possible and consideration should be taken to ensure that you are travelling at a safe speed with due regard to the conditions and circumstances at the time.

As so often happens with fog, the wind may decrease, sometimes to almost nothing and this gives challenges to any sailing vessel. If cruising, the answer is a simple one, you can dowse sails and use your engine to slowly motor along, but if racing, then huge attention to sail trim is called for - even more than before, in order to keep your boat moving along its chosen course. If offshore, and with clear sea room, then proceed with caution, with all the extra lookouts sending regular information back to the helm, but if inshore, or in areas of dense traffic, then the positioning of your boat becomes more crucial than ever. Try to stay out of shipping lanes or deep water channels. Keep a close eye on your depth sounder and try to move away from known hazards. Sometimes heading to shallower water will make sure that you won’t come into contact with large commercial shipping or fishing vessels.

Reduce speed, make the correct sound signal (at intervals of not more than two minutes) and listen for others. Sounds can travel in strange ways during fog and therefore do not be fooled into relying on a sound that comes from an apparent angle – in front of you for example - whereas it could in actual fact be coming from a different position altogether. There is nothing more unnerving than hearing the apparently distant grumble of a ship’s engine deep and low off the bow and then watching as the giant behemoth emerges out of the gloom and passes clear astern of you!! Of course, that ship should have much more sophisticated radar technology aboard than a small yacht but we also know that smaller vessels are much less likely to be picked up on radar. In this case, it is important to make sure that if you have a radar transponder or AIS (Automatic Identification System) then it is switched on and transmitting and receiving. If in doubt, and safe to do so – just stop!! Look, listen and proceed with caution once you have evaluated and consolidated any new information.

You will soon get used to the cold, damp and sometimes eerie new world that you may find yourself in. Although it can be quite unsettling at first, with careful planning, communication and reliance on all your senses and your vessels instruments (radar, depth, charts, etc) and by taking the correct precautions, it can become just another thrilling challenge to overcome on the deep dark ocean.

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