A lament for the late, great, fog

Leigh keeps watch as the Leight makes her way north in Eastern Bay off Jonesport, Maine. Photo by David Buckman

A lot of coasters curse the fog. I miss it. Though a lifetime of sailing may be too brief a span to draw any reliable conclusions, it seems that the Gulf of Maine fog stocks are in decline, particularly during the last decade. During one cruise back in the ’80s we experienced 22 days of fog in a row. During three months of cruising last summer we had but four days of the mists, and only one of them thick enough to be described as a proper dungeon of fog. While I’m no climate wonk, the cold-water/warm-air continuum that breeds the vapors appears to be changing.

Fog is dramatic stuff. In a heartbeat it renders the world the most abstract of images. It alters our perceptions of time and space, stimulates the imagination and infuses the sea with a sense of mystery, nebulousness and inscrutability. In the entire spectrum of coasting, which is a dramatic business, what could be more provocative and plaintive than to be anchored in Maine’s Mud Hole, the wooly mists laying thick, and the fog horn on Mistake Island issuing its sorrowful lament?

We will never forget the drama of our approach to this very shore in a smother of fog, on our way back from Nova Scotia. With a sporting southerly sending the Leight dipping and corkscrewing across nervous seas, daylight was still an hour away when I struck the jib. The GPS showed the island less than a mile off, yet nothing was heard of the horn, our memory of the great granite battlements of shore looming large in our thoughts.

At length we caught a mere shard of sound from the signal, but could see nothing as we headed for shore faster than we wanted to. Closing the gap, visibility near zero, the horn sounded again, Leigh looked up and saw the lighthouse looming high above the masthead, the whitewashed shore little more than 100-feet off. Coming into the sudden quiet of Mistake Island Channel, heady with relief, we hugged, praised the sloop, and on making the Mud Hole slept for 12 hours.

The white satin is mystery in the making. In the ’70s, when we discovered the New England and Fundy coast in an 18-foot sloop, navigating by watch and compass was an electric business. Plotting current offsets by guess, and making our way through the white darkness with an eye on her $19 compass, we worried our way along, awareness in high gear as we peered into the void, listening intently for breaking seas, rattled by rogue ledges and imaginary islands that showed for a heartbeat and faded away. Clumsy navigators, we were often surprised by our luck and came to enjoy the intensity of it, never experiencing the vapors thicker than those we encountered in the Grand Manan Channel, Passamaquoddy Bay and the Bay of Fundy, where tides running to 29-feet made it seem all the more intense.

There’s a stirring beauty to the sea when the mists scale up, the sun breaks through the wooly vapors, rendering the seascape in lacy brocades that would do justice to a Fitz Hugh Lane painting, the world seeming scrubbed clean and tiny crystal jewels flashing in the rigging.

Among the finest moments in coasting is coming to anchor in the white darkness and casting off our cares. The world never seems more commodious and poetic than when foggy dew drops plash down on the cabin top and we are snug and warm inside, the flickering kerosene lantern setting an amber mosaic to dancing across the ceiling.

David Buckman sails his Folkboat, Leight, out of Round Pond, Maine.