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Fog! Be afraid; Be very afraid....

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Race in a nutshell: Cancelled due to fog.
Sails: Full Main (Quantum), No. 1 Genoa (Quantum), A2 Spinnaker (North); Code Zero Assymetric (Quantum)
Crew: Trygve Roberts (Helm), Phillip Rentschler (Main), Charles Crosby (Genoa/Spinnaker), Simon Penso (Pit), Craig Preston (Mast), Joshua Banks (Bow), : Total: 505 kg


Above: What you don't want to see bearing down on you in fog.

The fog settled in over Table Bay on Saturday at around noon, reducing visibility down to about 50 meters. The much reduced fleet (there is nothing like a few heavy rain showers on race morning to keep sailors from the race course) wanting to go out for an afternoon race decided to muster at the wall at 14h00 and make a decision from that point whether to race or not. In the harbour things weren't too bad, but beyond the breakwater it was thick. Just two boats decided to go for a sail anyway – ourselves and the Beneteau 7.5 “Always well”. With only about 6 or 7 knots of wind to work with, boat speed was slow enough to be fairly safe, so we decided to go for a sail anyway and practice some fog navigation.

Within a minute we were in a total white-out but we could still hear sounds from the city. We selected a few marks to locate as an exercise, the first being the Milnerton mark. I asked each crew member to point where he thought the Milnerton mark was. No-one was allowed to look at the chart plotter other than the navigator. The rest of us all got it wrong and by as much as 35 degrees (the latter being my personal margin of error). The lesson learnt on Saturday is that it doesn't matter who you are or how much experience you have, you will become disoriented in fog. We had a 100% failure rate. So take that as a given and prepare accordingly.


Above: Cape Town on a foggy day.

Steering is much more difficult without visual references and I found myself naturally sailing too low and having to constantly glance at the compass to bring the boat back onto the original heading. Steering off the wind is particularly tricky. If there is any seaway, the likelihood of seasickness setting in, is greatly increased. These are all dangerous signs of trouble on the way. It is best to be well prepared if you have to sail in fog. I started digging into my memory banks for all the things one has to do to cope with in fog that I learned when I did my skippers ticket.

The plotter told us we were going to run aground on Blouberg beach and yet it felt like we were far away from the beach, but the depth sounder confirmed what the plotter was saying and then a few seconds later we heard the first boom of big surf crashing down on the beach to our right. We got the headsail up and the spinnaker down and tacked back offshore. The advent of GPS's have made navigation relatively simple, (we carry two units on board at all times of which one is a hand held unit), but do take time to think about what you will do if your plotter fails (and they do!)

We had a major discussion on fog sailing, as we sailed Regent Express purposefully towards our first goal which was the Milnerton mark; itself quite difficult to spot in clear weather. The chart plotter took us unerringly to the mark as it popped up out of the fog on our port quarter, bang on target, but I doubt anyone would find the mark without a plotter in heavy fog. Our next mark was the Woodbridge mark, so we switched to a flatter spinnaker and concentrated on locating the mark. Again, I found myself falling persistently off course and having to focus intensely on the compass. All the while we sounded our fog horn (one blast every two minutes followed by two short blasts). It is only when you are in dense fog, that you understand the value of the exercise. We could hear a variety of fog horns around the bay and one quickly learns to determine the likely size and distance of each vessel as sound travels very well in fog. Of course every crew member is gazing keenly into the wall of white just in case a vessel might cross our path without sounding a fog horn. The fog puts one on edge – and quite rightly so. Sailing boats are a problem as they are relatively silent. At one stage we sailed right past a rubber duck pulling kreef. I think they were a lot more suprised than us.

Above: What the captain of a large ship sees and it doesn't include your boat! He can barely see the bow of his ship.

So the primary sense one has to consciously switch to, is hearing. Sound can bring you back to port in one piece. The next time there is thick fog, take your boat out into a safe area and practice a little. It could save your life one day.

Fog ocurs when the air temperature and dew point are within 3 degrees of each other. Here are some golden rules to remember:
1. Put on life jackets and warmer clothing and remove harnesses (If you are going to be run down by a ship you need to have the freedom to jump for your life)
2. Establish your position BEFORE you lose sight of land, by any means at your disposal and note it. Assuming you do not have a GPS on hand, for the most basic navigation in fog, you'll need a detailed chart, a compass, a sound producing device, a VHF radio, and a good set of ears.

3. Get out of shipping lanes as soon as possible. Also consider going to an alternative port. Reduce your speed so that you can stop in half the distance of the available visibility.
4. Notify nearest port of your position, speed and heading (VHF Channel 16). Ask if there is any shipping heading your way.
5. If not already up, put a radar reflector in your rigging. Switch your nav lights on. Post a crewmember forward to listen. Everyone else to be quiet and also listen.
6. Sound your fog horn one long blast followed by two short blasts every 2 minutes. Use any means of creating sound like a bell, a whistle etc. If you hear a sound signal from forward of your beam, reduce speed further and do NOT turn to port.
7. If you are unsure about getting back to port, proceed to a safe area and anchor until visibility improves, but advise port control of what you are doing and give them your position.
8. If you know your sailing area well, you can head towards the shore until you reach a depth which is away from bigger shipping, yet safe enough for your own vessel. (eg 6m of depth for a smaller yacht). You can then follow the depth contour via your depth sounder all the way back to port. Remain in radio contact with port control regularly.

9. Many of the buoys near major ports have sound emitting devices on them. You can identify which buoys to listen out for from information on your chart.
10. Listen for the sound of breakers/surf. Alter course if necessary.


We located the second mark successfully and finally the entrance back into the port. Interestingly, we could hear the sounds of large diesel engines inside the port, a long time before the harbour wall came into view. Go and try it but be careful and always have a Plan B. In short, GPS navigation really makes things simple and easy, but learn to trust your instruments.

Pilots have exactly the same problem of becoming disoriented when they fly into clouds. They are trained to rely solely on their instruments to bring the aircraft out of cloud safely and the right way up! Fortunately things happen a lot more slowly in boats, giving us time to think and react. Being out at sea in fog in a small boat is a little scary, but with the right attitude and training, we can all be better prepared for an emergency.

Fog is an extremely dangerous weather condition to find yourself in at sea, but with good training, reliable instruments and preparation you can deal with it effectively. There is nothing quite like a bit of practice in the real thing. Good sailors never become good by remaining in the harbour.

Get at it.