The first time I encountered fog on a boat was in the early days of my teaching career. We were on the school boat Alpha, just having passed Calshot Spit in the Solent. I could see the fog ahead of us and determined that we should continue towards our destination; fully expecting it to be a narrow bank of mist which we would soon pop out of as we approached Cowes. Behind us was brilliant sunshine and in my naivety I wasn’t prepared for just how dense and disorientating it was going to be. We all had life-jackets on, the radar was working and as we entered the fog bank we slowed down to tick-over. Despite following the correct procedures I have to hold my hands up and admit that I found myself in a very uncomfortable position. Everyone on board was relying on my experience and skill to navigate us safely through the fog to Cowes and yet my stomaching was churning – I couldn’t see a blinking thing and all I could hear was the engines of the Red Funnel fast-cat, seemingly headed directly towards us.
My training kicked in and after a sustained squint at the chart plotter it soon became apparent that the fast-cat was actually a mile to the south of us and not on a collision course after all. With no particular reason to go to Cowes that day and glorious sunshine behind us I made the decision to retreat and we were soon out of the fog and heading for Southampton Water to do some Man Over Board practice instead.
No matter where you do your boating, fog or reduced visibility situations will arise at some time or another. Don’t forget, that a heavy rain shower or even snow can make it exceedingly difficult to see and truly disorientating, so it is supremely important that as you approach an area of reduced visibility, you make an accurate note of your position and indicate this on your chart: all your subsequent navigation will be based upon this position fix so get it right.
Big shipping, the kind you really don’t want appearing out of the gloom directly in front of you, will be staying to the main shipping channels, it therefore makes sense for you to run outside these channels but only if it is safe to do so, obviously you must check your position on the chart before moving to the shallows.
A really handy tip is to follow a suitable contour line around the coast until you come to a safe harbour. Once you are within 100 yards of the entrance you can normally make out the entry channel markers; get yourselves safely tied up and wait for the visibility to improve.
For those of you with radar on board, the processes of navigating in reduced visibility and avoiding other vessels are that much easier. However, you are obliged to know how to correctly decipher the information presented to you by your radar screen; if you were to have an accident based on this information and you had misinterpreted what you had seen on the radar screen, you could be found liable for the accident.
Here are some of the procedures you might employ when heading into an area of reduced visibility:
- As soon as you see the weather deteriorating, take a fix
- Make a note in the ‘Deck Log’ and on your chart of your position
- Slow down and move outside the main channel if you can
- Turn on your navigation lights and navigation equipment
- Make sure everyone is wearing a life-jacket and the life-raft is ready to deploy
- Sound the appropriate signal for your vessel every two minutes
- Keep alert for the sound of approaching vessels
Over the years I’ve found myself enveloped in varying degrees of fog, walls of rain and snow storms. I have to tell you it’s not much fun. You have to put a lot of reliance on your equipment and if you’re not that confident with using radar this can leave you very dry mouthed. If you keep your head and follow the procedures listed above you will, most likely, be fine. I would encourage you to attend a radar course when you get a chance as there have been many instances of people misinterpreting their radar and ending up colliding with other vessels. Remember that some of what you learn in the COLREGS is based around vessels being in sight of each other – when you are in reduced visibility you are no longer in sight of other vessels. In situations like this your immediate reaction to avoiding a collision might not be to turn to starboard but to turn to port instead!