When The Fog
Into Thin Air: Washington-based Jayne Hemmerich’s
Jack Russell, riding on the bow of her inflatable
kayak, keeps a close eye on her approach to their boat
during a foggy Alaska paddle. (Finalist, “Lifestyles”)
ne warm summer morning, some friends and I were
readying the boat in Port Austin Harbor for a day of
fishing on Lake Huron. A cool breeze came up with the
morning sun. As my mate removed lines, I saw what
appeared to be a fog bank forming offshore but assumed
the warm sun would burn it off. Easing away from the dock, I
noted the fog bank hadn’t dissipated. After posting lookouts on
both sides of the bow, I slowly motored toward the harbor entry.
A moment later, the harbor was totally engulfed in heavy, blinding
fog and I lost sight of the breakwall. I instructed the lookouts to
keep a sharp watch and one of them immediately shouted, “Stop!”
I reversed the engines and gently nudged the throttles to bring my
35-foot fishing boat to a quick stop.
As I peered into the fog, a couple of small runabouts sped
past, just a few degrees off my bow. I could hear the rigging clanging on a sailboat. Peering ahead I saw a large vessel setting anchor
in mid-fairway, just inside the harbor mouth. I hailed the vessel’s
captain and advised him he was in a dangerous location and suggested a safer mooring area; he disregarded my advice. The marine
radio reported zero visibility, so I elected to head back to my slip.
Just as I was about to shut down my radio, a frantic mayday was
transmitted. I waited a minute or two then relayed the call to the
U.S. Coast Guard. Their attempts to reach the caller were unsuccessful so they requested I try.
I was able to make contact with the distressed vessel, a
36-foot cruiser. It was difficult to determine its position so I told
the captain to stand by and I’d get underway with my commercial
Whaler equipped with a radio direction finder (DF). As I headed
out, I contacted the skipper of the distressed vessel and asked him
to drop anchor. Unable to lock in his position, I asked the captain
if he was still underway; he responded affirmatively. I asked him
to stop his engines so I could get a fix, but a few moments later,
he said he was aground.
The DF showed the vessel in a very rocky area, only two miles
offshore and near the Pointe aux Barques Lighthouse at Huron
City. I was quickly able to reach the boat, hard aground, and
although I could hear people onboard calling out, I couldn’t see
them. The captain said the boat’s props had been badly damaged
and had cut through the hull, and the vessel was sitting on the bottom. He’d missed his intended port by 10 miles. The disabled boat
was re-floated the next day, towed to the lift-out and set on shore
for repairs; the damage was extensive. Other vessels in the yard
that had suffered minor groundings were also undergoing repairs.
Capt. Fred Davis, a writer, is a retired charterboat operator. He owned a
towing and salvage company on the Great Lakes for 30 years.
TIPS FOR FOG
Slow to a safe speed — allowing a distance not greater than
it would take to come to a stop.
Post lookouts — have them look and listen. Periodically shut
your engine down and listen.
If you think you’re near another vessel, sound the
proper signal — or the danger signal (five short blasts).
Watch your depth finder closely or use a lead line.
Expect other boaters to be less cautious or present a hazard.
Anchor and wait until the fog lifts if you can’t navigate safely.
Have a working VHF radio and updated charts.
All boats are required to carry a sound-signaling device, and Rule
35 of the Inland/International Rules of the Road lists specific signaling
requirements for vessels underway, at anchor, or aground during periods
of limited visibility. Boaters need to know the signals and understand
them if they emanate from another vessel (they’re also described in
Chapman Piloting and Seamanship).