It’s a beautiful spring day in Seattle…the sun is sparkling on the flat calm water of Puget Sound, it’s just warm enough that you don’t need a jacket and the mountain is out!…how could you ask for anything more??!!  You prepare to leave the dock, disconnect and stow your power cables, secure all gear, turn on your navigation equipment and fire up the engines. It’s going to be a beautiful day!!

Mt Rainier as viewed from Tacoma, WA

As you motor slowly out of the marina, you think about what you want to eat for breakfast and maybe even put on some nice music. The rhythm of life on the boat begins, and the stress and tension from the work-week starts melting away. Running on autopilot, I often like to step out on deck and take a deep breath of fresh air, maybe snap a few pictures of the Seattle skyline (it never gets old!) and I remember to be grateful for being able to live this boating life. Then suddenly, a fog bank that seems to have appeared out of nowhere materializes in the distance. You hear the low moan of a fog horn from a large ship nearby (is it approaching?) and your peaceful and calm morning vibe has suddenly changed.

Will and I prepare for the safety guidelines that are required as we enter the fog bank. We reduce speed, turn on our navigation lights, and we’re sounding our horn (one prolonged blast of 4-6 seconds every two minutes) per USCG regulations.

Vessel Sea Bear approaching other boats in the fog

Fog Fights

We used to hate running in the fog (well, to be honest I still don’t love it). Our first experience operating our boat in limited visibility was in our 30′ boat, 30-Love. She was a fast boat, so when we encountered fog, we were not used to operating at the slow speeds that are necessary to stay safe when navigating in fog. Also, because she had a planing hull, it was difficult to navigate in a straight line (or so it seemed) when we were cruising at slow speeds (6-7 knots compared to our usual 28-30 knots). We would both be at the helm, looking at the instruments (Navigational Charts/Radar) and having vigorous discussions about which direction we were actually going. Once we exited the fog bank and looked at our boat’s track on our display, we realized that the track looked like a tangle of spaghetti. In all fairness, our boat did not track very straight at slow speeds, combined with our navigation equipment that had slow refresh rates meant that by the time our navigation equipment refreshed our position, our heading was incorrect. There are many variables to be aware of when navigating in limited visibility:

  • tracking other boats on radar and AIS (if equipped)
  • listening for fog horns and noting whether they’re getting louder or diminishing
  • visually scanning around your boat in all directions for other vessels
  • watching out for logs (always)
  • staying on course/watching your position
  • sounding your horn (if you don’t have an automatic hailer)
  • paying attention to your stomach because you *still* haven’t had that breakfast!

When we upgraded to a larger vessel with autopilot (Portofino, our Sea Ray 450 Sundancer), staying on course was much easier and virtually eliminated our “fog fights”. Sea Bear is similarly equipped with Radar, AIS (Automatic Identification System) and Autopilot. Now, when we’re operating in limited visibility, whether due to fog or smoke, it’s much easier to be able to maintain our course and watch out for other vessels or hazards such as the large ship that was moored just outside of Elliott Bay Marina last weekend.

Always Be Prepared

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to keep you, your crew, and your boat safe when navigating in challenging conditions. Being prepared, being familiar with your surroundings, your vessel, and knowing how to operate your navigation equipment is the key to staying safe on the water when the visibility is poor or non-existent.

I’ve often heard that the best time to test your equipment, particularly your radar, is when it’s bright and sunny out. Get familiar with what each blip on the radar looks like and compare it to the vessel that you can see on the water and its position relative to your boat. Track that boat as it moves through the water and see how it looks different as it approaches your vessel. Once when we saw a sailboat emerge from the fog, we could barely make it out on radar. Thankfully we had been sounding our horn and I slowed to about 5 knots as soon as we saw the sailboat, but that was still too close for comfort!

Smoke-filled skies at Gig Harbor

I don’t love fog or smoky skies but with time, experience, and preparation, we’ve learned to stay safe by trusting our instruments and more importantly, we’ve learned how to work together as a team.

Sandy Dupleich
Waggoner Field Correspondent