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Lessons Learned From Being Caught In The Fog

The sonar — and then the horns — went on the fritz just when thick fog rolled in, ­making them sitting ducks for ­collision or grinding aground.

Tug and barge underway in the fog

Photo: Mel Neale

Fog. I hate the stuff. It closes your view and muffles sound whether on land or at sea. Especially at sea. What sound you might hear seems omnidirectional — it comes from all points at the same time. Without clear sightlines and directional sound, your senses become confused. If you are close to shore or in the shipping lanes without good electronics, you are in some serious stuff.

The Pacific Northwest has some of the most beautiful cruising grounds in the world. In particular, the San Juan Islands in Washington and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia teem with seals, orcas, bald eagles, and even humpback whales. But the area offers challenges. Tides can vary by up to 12 feet, and the tide rips in channels can run at more than 10 mph, so there is adventure in the beauty.

It was mid-July 2019. My wife, daughter, her two teenage daughters, and I were aboard our Bayliner 5788 pilothouse cruiser. We"d been exploring the Gulf Islands on the southeast corner of Vancouver Island for several days. We"d come south from Nanaimo the day before and spent the night moored in Maple Bay. We were now continuing our voyage to Victoria. It had rained most of the night and the clouds were low, but visibility was good at about 5 miles.

Darrell Puls and family on Bayliner

The ­author (right) and his family (three generations!) aboard the Bayliner. 

We were cruising at 15 knots as we exited Sansum Narrows and entered Satellite Channel north of Sidney. Turning southeast, we saw a pod of Orcas feeding off to starboard, and a B.C. ferry coming out of Sidney through Colburne Passage. The ferry would easily clear the narrow passage before we got there.

Our engines were running smoothly, and the radar, sonar, and chartplotter were all working in sync. The water was like liquid glass as I settled in at the helm for a gray but uneventful run down to Victoria with the welcome perfume of hot coffee coming from the galley.

Suddenly, the cloud layer dropped without warning, and within 2 or 3 minutes, I could not see beyond the Canada courtesy flag on the bow. I slowed to just above idle at 8 knots and opened the pilothouse door so I could hear better. The only sound was the low rumble of the diesels, seawater quietly sluicing along the hull, and our horns sounding every few minutes.

U.S. and Canada map

I had planned on turning south again through Colburne Passage but decided it was too narrow to share with the giant ferry in the fog. We turned east again so we could go down the much wider Shute Passage about 3 miles farther.

You"ve heard of Murphy"s law? That"s the one that says that, if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong — and at the worst possible moment. We"d made the turn to starboard and were southbound in Shute Passage when Mr. Murphy showed up. I had a ferry on the radar about half a mile off the starboard bow and was abeam Stranger Passage Shoal. The chartplotter said we were in about 160 feet of water. I glanced at the sonar only to discover it said we had 7 feet of water under us! The reading returned to 158 feet just as I started the turn to deeper water.

What had just happened? An uncharted pinnacle? Kelp on the transducer? Did we just go over a humpback whale? A submerged deadhead? I saw nothing on the charts, but then the sonar began to unpredictably jump between accurate deep and false shallow readings — and did so for the rest of the trip. My blood pressure must have been climbing into stroke range. (The electrical problem was later traced back to a ground issue.)

9 Tips For Reduced-Visibility Situations

  1. Ensure all navigation lights are on and working properly.
  1. Use the appropriate sound signals. (See "Boat Sound Signals: Time To Sound Off")
  1. Reduce speed as required based on conditions. Your speed should be slow enough to allow you to react accordingly, yet sufficient to maintaining steerage. Learn the characteristics of your boat beforehand. How does it operate at slower speeds? How far does it take to come to a full stop at various speeds?
  1. Know where you are. Keep track of your position using GPS, charts, radar — everything at your disposal.
  1. Keep your VHF radio on and monitor Channel 16.
  1. Stop all secondary activities (such as skiing or fishing) and focus solely on safe operation of your vessel.
  1. Keep a good lookout. Position crewmembers and passengers (all should be wearing flotation devices) forward and aft to assist when possible.
  1. Be prepared. Have all required equipment for your vessel on board (horns, bells, whistles) and ready for instant use.
  1. Avoid restricted-visibility situations altogether when possible. Monitor the weather and adjust your departure plans accordingly. If the forecast calls for a brief period of morning fog, enjoy that second cup of coffee and allow it to burn off before getting underway.

— Frank Lanier

We could still see no more than 50 yards as we continued south and edged into deeper water just west of the southbound shipping lanes of Haro Strait. I was sounding our triple-trumpet horns every couple of minutes — until the compressor quit and refused to reset. That later turned out to be a loose connection on the switch.

The fog was thinning overhead but still thick at the surface as we slowly cruised south at about 10 knots. We could see a huge ship gaining on us from astern on the radar, so I stayed well off. A giant container ship broke through the fog a mere 150 yards to our port side a few minutes later and was swallowed into silence again in less than a minute. If she was sounding her horn, we never heard it, but we certainly experienced her wake.

How To Use Your VHF Marine Radio to Call for Help in a Boat Emergency

We continued south through the dense fog, scanning for deadheads and anything else that might damage our hull or running gear. After what seemed like an eternity of unrelenting tension, we rounded Discovery Island and Staines Point (without seeing either or hearing their foghorns) and headed west. The fog finally lifted as we were approaching the Victoria Harbour breakwater. Forty minutes later we were safely moored across from the Hotel Fairmont Empress in downtown Victoria. It had taken five hours to travel approximately 40 miles in almost total silence except for some Coast Guard traffic on VHF 16 and 22A.

Learn How To Send A Sécurité On The VHF

When the fog rolls in and eliminates your visibility in a busy shipping lane or boating area, use VHF channel 16, which is used only for hailing, to give a safety message, called sécurité (se-CURE-ih-tay), to other boats within close proximity. Here"s how. Speak clearly into the microphone: "Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité. This is the XX-foot (power, sailing, fishing) vessel (boat name) traveling (direction) at XXX degrees, in (zero, limited) visibility at X knots just off (location). My position is XXX latitude, XXX longitude. Standing by for any concerned vessels on channel 16 and 13."

Then switch to channel 13 and repeat the same message; 13 is the commercial bridge-to-bridge channel. Nearby vessels that follow you to the new channel can answer you. Then you both can determine your courses and headings and discuss how you"ll pass each other safely. You"ll need a chart of the area and GPS to accomplish this. You should repeat this sécurité alert every five minutes and whenever situations change.

When you have a mechanical problem that may affect safety, as soon as possible issue a sécurité as described above and state your problem so that other boaters, and TowBoatUS, will become aware of it and learn your location. If you take care of the problem yourself, great. You should then very briefly cancel the sécurité and say that you no longer have the problem. If the problem worsens, however, or if you lose the ability to communicate, you"ve identified your position — a crucial first step in case help is needed.

— Bernadette Bernon

In hindsight, pride had overridden caution — not a good thing. As soon as the fog enshrouded our boat, I should have started transmitting sécurité(s) on the VHF to alert other boats of our problem and whereabouts. When a supposed electrical situation sent my sonar into erratic readings, I should have assumed the simplest culprit first, corrosion. Perhaps brushing the connections with a wire brush would have quickly remedied things. I should have fitted the boat with a traditional bell with which to ring out sound signals manually if needed, as consistent with the Nav Rules. Most importantly, as soon as the dense fog rolled in, I should have found the closest protected cove, dropped the anchor, and waited it out. Had our remaining electronics gone out, we would have been in real danger. I"d jeopardized my family in my determination to make it to Victoria that afternoon.

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Darrell Puls

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Award-winning BoatUS Magazine is the official publication of Boat Owners Association of The United States. The magazine provides boating skills, DIY maintenance, safety, news and more from top experts.