Sailing in fog is at times a enlivening experience. While all your senses are muted and you can be disoriented to the point of panic, if you can disconnect your rational brain from your body, there’s a good chance you can get through things. In short, your instincts are not to be trusted. Fog requires logic and discipline and reliable electronics. In the absence of some or all of those things you’re better off sitting it out on a well set anchor out of the way of passing traffic.
Misty it was when we decided to push off early from Brunswick and get at least as far as Fernandina Beach. The forecast called for dense fog that would lift by 10AM and remain patchy for the rest of the day. As sunlight peeked in and washed over the river behind us, enough heat was generated in the first 15 minutes of daylight to completely sock in our marina. The small yellow flashing light a mile off at the end of the channel was shrouded quickly and then vanished, as did the fishing boats only 200 yards away. It was a little intimidating, but we figured we’d give it a go. Besides, it was going to take us a couple of hours to get back to the open ocean and by that time, we reasoned, the visibility should be better, right? Carol pointed out that we’d have to learn to sail in this stuff at some point. To which I replied something about it being one thing to get caught in fog, quite another to volunteer to put your head directly into the clouds. It was a day for sailing by our instruments.
Many years ago I sailed in fog with my Uncle Hugh, in the days before he’d equipped his 36’ Vindö, Mashantam, with serious 21st century electronics. Steering by compass across Cape Cod Bay in a true New England pea-souper with one ear listening the radio the other listening to the bay was edifying. When another sailboat appeared 75’ off our starboard side at 40 knots (or so I thought) I learned more in those 30 seconds than in years of studying the rules of navigation in reduced visibility for fun.
Each time we passed the green and red buoys marking either side of the channel the miracle that is modern navigation squeezed out a few more drops of dopamine and urged us forward. It was here our investment in radar and chartplotters started to break even. Yet all along the way, every attempt I made at doing things ‘the old fashioned way’ merely led us off course. Sure we could have sat down and calculated the timing of each turn to determine when each buoy should be in its proper place, compensating for current, wind and drift. But, the new digital tools make it all so much easier. Was I lazy? Perhaps. Would I have had confidence in my calculations such that I wouldn’t second guess myself while sailing around blindly. No.
Brunswick’s impressive Sidney Lanier bridge loomed softly over us as. We slipped by, helped along by a two knot ebb current. Three pelicans flying in formation appeared to starboard through a slow reveal out of the gloom. They dropped, their bellies almost touching the water, heads and wings pulled back like cadets on drill. The water shimmered under them. Then they lifted their beaks, rose and banked away. Cross-fade to mottled grey. It was pretty darn cool.
Heading out along the channel to St. Simon’s sound, we could just heard the clang of the bell buoy over the din of the engine. Then suddenly an almighty horn blast followed by the crack of the VHF. “Aletta (sic) this is the vessel Norfolk ahead of you in the channel, do you copy?” We’d met the Norfolk on our way in. She’s a big dredger festooned with giant vacuum hoses and claims Seattle as her hailing port. We had no interest in getting in her way. Even so, she was already on our chartplotter. Her AIS signal glowed red in warning and a big purple radar blob coincided with her position. Along with that blasted horn (which we replied to in kind), there would have been no excuse for bumping into her. Nevertheless, I reassured Norfolk’s captain that we had identified him and were tracking his position. Then we made a starboard turn out of the channel and harm’s way as quick as we could.
Right whales are out there, somewhere. The Coast Guard broadcasts regular warnings about getting too close to them and being sure to slow down if we did see one. But the clatter of the engine is enemy of being one with your environment. Had there been enough wind to sail, we might have had more luck. Sailing along a couple of days ago a group of dolphins led us a chase for a mile or so. We could only assume they found Aleta a thing of great joy.