How To Sail Through Fog (Don't Forget To Enjoy It)

How To Sail Through Fog | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Capt Chris German

July 26, 2020

Sailing

Sailing is the art of using the wind to move slowly at great expense. That act becomes substantially less satisfying, when hampered with reduced visibility.

Sailing in fog, darkness, or any other reduced visibility can bring a myriad of terrors from navigational hazards, other boats, and even the wind itself.

You rely on your sense of sight so completely with a sailboat, that when that sense is reduced, your ability to purposefully sail in one direction becomes more of a desperate act of mere survival.

Reduced visibility is a hazard aboard any sea going vessel. The International set of rules agreed upon by every maritime-based nation in the history of the world has as it’s cornerstone the imperative that all skippers must maintain 360 degrees of visibility at all times.

If you can’t see on a boat, you are by definition “in danger.” The fact that you are in fog and darkness by its very nature is dangerous and to do so can be incredibly scary. But sailing in fog particularly sucks.

Darkness, precipitation and fog all present a substantial danger to the sailor by the fact that those conditions reduce visibility.

Couple any of those conditions with the intrinsic features of a sailboat (IE. reduced maneuverability of a sailboat, the construction of most sailing craft including integral equipment below the waterline such as the rudder, keel and propeller, and the fact that all of this activity produces the sound of cash being flushed down the toilet) and the act of going to the sea in boats in reduced visibility becomes a very distasteful premise.

So I say again, sailing in fog sucks.

Table of contents for this article

Fog Affects Visibility

Fog is different from mere darkness or precipitation. Darkness can be mitigated with aids to navigation and modern conveniences like gps and radar.

Sailing on a starry night while a bit nerve racking at times, can also be a magical experience for the well prepared skipper. The calming effect of nightfall on the sea can create a glass-like surface on the water and often enough, a sailboat can slide silently beneath the heavens and offer a cathartic escape from the temporal world in the evening hours.

At the very least, nightfall means relief from the heat of a dispassionate sun. But the wind and its indicators, rarely disappear entirely in times of darkness or precipitation. But in fog, the wind becomes an enigma.

The fact that you can’t see the waves, landmarks or flags and many times, can’t even see your windex at the top of your mast, means you are entirely dependent upon apparent wind.

Your sense of the true wind is eradicated in fog.

True wind is the wind as it comes from God’s perspective - the wind just as Mother Nature intended.

Apparent wind is a figment of your imagination. It’s the wind as affected by the movement of your boat and as it appears to you the sailor. So when my sense of true wind is diminished, I get nervous and start making bad decisions.

Many times with fog, the wind drops off entirely and your boat drifts at the mercy of the current.

A Brief Example

I have been floating down Long Island Sound in late spring when fog rolls in, and drifted for 20 miles without an ounce of control.

We were sailing to Block Island from Stamford one weekend in May aboard a 40 foot Tartan named “Green Hornet” some 20 years ago.

We started the race with a warm 10 knots blowing on our nose at 5 pm on Friday and we beat to windward with the following tide.

By midnight we were off New Haven with a cold drizzle falling on our decks leading a pack of a few dozen boats in our wake.

By Saturday morning we could see the cornered cliffs of Block Island and were having a great time, giving us hope that we would take first in the race by late Saturday night.

Screaming around Block and making a steady 8 knots as we passed New London at noon on Saturday, an air of celebration took over the boat as we set a full spinnaker for the downwind run to home.

But by sunset Saturday, the wind dropped off entirely and a thick blanket of fog wrapped our boat tightly, ten miles off New Haven Harbor.

For the next six hours we did all we could to hold position and not be dragged back to Montauk Point on the outgoing tide.

That entire night we sat blind and drifting, hearing the wail of the fog horn at New Haven Harbor, taunting us for our hubris assumption that we would be home on time.

A turn of the tide and a slight shift of the wind reversed our drift towards home and by 5 PM, Sundy the cannon blew and we knew we had made it, taking honors and winning bragging rights.

But just as we crossed the finish line, a US Coast Guard Patrol flashed their lights and chirped for all to hear on the PA system, “Chris German, Call your Mother.”

Apparently no one told my mother that in a sailboat race you can’t turn on your motor, and when we weren’t back Saturday afternoon, she began calling every Coast Guard station from Boston to Cape May looking for me. Sailing in Fog sucks.

Fog Affects Sound

It’s not just the wind that plays tricks in the fog. Sound itself is morphed into strange beasts when your eyes are removed from the sailing equation.

In fog, sound bounces off the water particles in the air and the stillness amplifies those sounds so that the rumble of a boat motor five miles away may sound like five feet to the sight-starved ears of a wayward watch stander.

Water lapping at a rock pile takes on the appearance of an impending tsunami when the heightened awareness and nerves of fog set in.

And nothing sets a chill to the spine like the sound of an unexpected gong, horn or worst all, bell in a fog bank.

The Gong oftentimes is a safe water mark or perhaps a huge tanker at anchor. The fact that it is unexpected is bad, but if it is a gong you hear, you know you are at least in deep water.

If it’s a horn you hear, you are nervous because it could be a boat underway or not, fishing or not, sailing or not.

You really should know your fog signals but who really does these days? All you really know is there is another boat or ATON nearby and a risk of collision may exist.

But the worst of all in fog is the bell. Particularly three short, one prolonged ring followed by three more short.

If you hear that in Fog, then it’s time to panic because you are near another boat who has the sense to use fog signals, but has lacked the sense to avoid going aground and you’re next to them.

In truth I have only had to use fog signals once in my career. I was in Bridgeport, CT in my 34 foot Cal that I had just purchased and was teaching a lesson.

I had four adults on board and really had just launched the boat without fully checking all the safety gear. I had to go out, because I had paying passengers, but as it is so often when the water is still cold in Long Island Sound and the warm moist air of Spring sets in, so to came the fog.

We reached the end of the channel and found ourselves in a white haze of late morning fog just off Penfield Reef light in Black Rock Harbor.

We couldn't see much at all but knew that the harbor was quite busy this time of year and the chances of a big old stinkpot running over our little sailboat were quite good.

Looking below, I found the only noisemaker the previous owner had left for me, a horn, much like those that are used at the soccer games of Europe.

Lucky enough for me, one the students on board was the tuba player for the Bridgeport Symphonic Orchestra and he had a unique gift for both keeping time and blowing long blasts on a horn.

For three hours he blew,  “BWAAANNNNNHHHHH, BWAHN BWANH” every two minutes like machine. He impressed the hell out of all of us on the boat and it was entirely to his credit that we avoided a collision from Joey Bagadonuts and his 32 foot gas hog.

Did I mention that sailing in fog sucks?

Fog Is Not Always The Same

Fog is not however the same everywhere, everytime.

In North Carolina, fog is common in the winter months in evenings and early mornings but a rarity for the other 10 months of the year.

While in New England, fog has so many more chances to form given the cold waters and comes in so many different shapes, colors and densities.

Fall River, Mass has some of the best fog I have ever sailed in because it comes like clouds floating in and out from Newport and up from the North Atlantic.

Boston’s fog reminds me of what it must be like in London and would be quite lovely if not for all the rock strewn islands dotting Boston Harbor.

And in Maine’s Fox Thoroughfare, the fog is persistent, moving in like the blob and sitting there for days.

I was a lighthouse keeper at the North Haven light for one summer, where people could rent the lighthouse for a week and live remotely in the middle of the water in a Spark Plug-style lighthouse.

One couple I dropped off experienced this fog just minutes after I dropped them off at the lighthouse.

And five days later when I returned to get them, they were on the verge of madness having listened to the fog horn morning, noon and night for five days straight with nothing to see but a milky fog bank the entire time. Imagine what it was to be a sailing ship in fog 100 years ago?

One of my favorite scenes in the movie “Master and Commander”, Captain Aubrey (played by Russel Crow) and his crew is set upon by the French Navy. The French Ship Acheron blasts away the rudder chains of the HMS Surprize in a close quarters battle and the Captain orders his crew to launch the long boats and row their stricken sailboat to the safety of a fog bank.

The Acheron knowing the dangers of fog doesn’t dare follow the brave, yet foolish Surprize into that fog and it is the French timidity that causes them to lose their pursuit of the Surprize.

The author illustrates perfectly the love-hate relationship a sailor has with fog and while it may be safe for one vessel, it is certain peril for the other.

How to Navigate Through Fog

Thankfully today we have so many more tools at our disposal to navigate in fog. Charts and GPS have diminished the treachery of fog, but in no way eliminated it.

And radar for vessels that might have it, has revolutionized the visible landscape where once we were traveled in complete blindness.

But fog with its trickery can tempt you to trust your senses over instruments. Don’t be tricked into thinking you know more than the Garmin.

GPS

The GPS is linked up with satellites a thousand miles up in space who have ways of seeing through fog where you can’t.

The Military spent billions developing those satellites and those systems and made it so precise that at one time they had to dumb it down so evil doers couldn’t use it for evil purposes.

But it’s spot on accurate if you believe in it, because it works only as well as the person or the boat on which you're using it.

If you start doubting your GPS when coming up a channel you can get yourself turned around and in trouble in a hurry.

GPS was not designed for sailboats, but rather missiles and fighter jets.

Sailboats are not that fast and sometimes even go backwards. This movement can make a gps go wonky and with the light winds of a fog bank, it can be incredibly unnerving and confusing.

If you have any questions about that, look how wacky google acts when you pull into a gas station or mini-mall. While GPS is better than anything else we have ever had in boating, it can go wild at inopportune times.

So for sailing purposes, gps is only one half of the navigational equation.

Paper Charts

Paper charts do what the gps can’t, so don’t be lulled into thinking GPS is the alpha and omega.

A GPS shows you the current picture of where you are. Depending on what your scale and what your settings might be, you can miss all sorts of things that the GPS doesn’t know to show you.

A chart on the other hand, shows you God’s perspective. The whole enchilada so to speak.

Suppose you’re making way to head along the coast of Connecticut to the Connecticut River. You might set a gps course that says go 260 true and never see that that course runs smack dab over Falkner Island on a GPS.

But examine that track on a chart and you will see every hazard along the way whether you are looking for them or not.

In this push to walk away from paper charts, I believe they are an invaluable partner to the gps if you know how to use them. You can plot your position on a chart and make estimates for where your next positions might be. You can get ancillary information about an area on a chart that turns to be mission critical.

Whereas on a GPS if you don’t know look for it, you’ll have a hell of time finding it. And when you begin to doubt yourself, a chart can be a great reality check.

I’m not saying I have (wink wink) but I know many-a-sailor has lost their bearings in a fog bank after a flubbed tack.

The boat spins aimlessly adrift and the gps gets totally turned around. A plotted position on the chart can bring you back to reality when both your head and your gps go haywire in a fog bank.

And it does happen to humans regularly, even if it's uncommon in the GPS.

The Positive Side of Sailing Through Fog

But for all the ire that is sailing in fog: The wacky wind, the sinister sounds and the “find-muck” that is sailing with compromised senses. Fog really is just clouds on the water. A collection of semi-liquid water vapor suspended between layers of the earth's atmosphere.

This one just happens to occur on the surface of the water and not in the upper troposphere. It is one of the coolest weather phenomena on the planet save for maybe roll clouds and thunder snow.

But generally speaking fog does not occur with cloud to ground lightning and you don’t have to shovel your driveway after a fog bank rolls through.

But sailing in fog is one of the few times that you can truly feel what it is like to be a bird. To silently streak along through the clouds using only the wind as your propulsion.

Pilots speak of mystical feelings when their motors stop and their planes turn into gliders. No rumble of the motor, just your wing flaps and the wind currents carrying you aloft or down to your death.

And that is what a sailboat really is, a glider turned sideways with one wing in the air and the other below the sea with virtually no chance that you will crash into the ground at 600 miles an hour.

Sailing is the closest some of us will ever get to the heavens. When the moon is full in Long Island Sound off the coast of my hometown in Stratford, CT and the tide is high, the water takes on a magical feel.

Swollen with salty water pulled by the moon's gravity and cold from the relatively high latitudes and proximity to the North Atlantic currents.

Fog forms readily when combined with the stillness of the slack high water and the warm evening air.

A sailboat will be lucky to find a breath of breeze on evenings like this, but that really doesn’t matter because the fog blows by you at an astounding pace as it races along the temperature gradients that form between the air and the water.

Your skin gets cool and clammy from the condensing water that coats your spars and sails and makes your decks wet and slippery.

It’s almost like taking a shower without water, just super drenched air that soaks your clothes and hair.

It is THIS time that being on a sailboat in fog is most amazing because you are taking part in a weather phenomenon that touches your soul and makes even the most ardent deity denyers question their beliefs in an almighty power.

Wrapping Things Up

Sailing in fog sucks, almost always. I've sailed the entire Eastern Seaboard and had more than a few bad experiences sailing into and out of fog.

The winds can crap out almost entirely in a proper fog bank, the sounds can make your skin crawl and the fog can screw with the mind of the most well grounded of skippers.

Given my choice between sailing in fog and not sailing in fog, I will always choose the latter because reduced visibility is just dangerous in all its many forms.

But only by sailing in fog can you enjoy some of the most amazing things that happen on the water in a boat.

Sailing in Fog is a chance to fly with the Gods and tap into the mystical rhythms of the natural world.

Sure you’ll get there faster in a power boat and you can sneak up on stuff better in a kayak, but only by harnessing the natural forces of wind and waves can you truly become part of the atmosphere when you sail in the fog.

It’s not something I would recommend if you can avoid it, but if you can’t avoid it, you might as well enjoy it.

Be safe out there and sail far.

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