Fog is negotiable, even if the spuds run out

July, 2001

By Dodge Morgan
The feature article in June’s issue of Points East, “Whistling for Bats,” nudged me into a haven of nostalgia. Author Richard Fullerton detailed a Downeast cruise to the St. John River in the especially lovely Rhodes yawl Arion, a cruise that transpired almost completely, as Mainers say with experiential conviction, “in a dungeon of fog.” I enjoyed reports of the daily crew meetings because they were fueled by an urgent curiosity and were closed with decisions like “Cutler or bust.” This was clearly a courageous and pro-active bunch of sailors. And I was overjoyed at reading that a catalyst for the courage was their Whistler radar.

The Whistler was a product of my old company, Controlonics Corporation, a product much more marked with affection for us than of revenue dollars. Whister was (is too, it seems) a hand-held, 2-pound microwave machine that could (can too, I gather) see objects within 2 nautical miles and inform the user of them by whistling, the further in range the higher the pitch. The Whistler appealed to serious sailors well practiced in the art of piloting, such as Nova Scotia sailor and cruising guide author Peter Loveridge, who is quoted in a sidebar article as one of the true believers. The device sold where fog reigned.

One year back in the ’70s, I created a Whistler sales tactic that contained two flaws, one in the concept itself and the other purely factual. My idea was to write letters to New York Yacht Club members because a Maine cruise was on their agenda. My letter explained two methods of dealing with the fog they would surely encounter. There was, I told them, the old dead-reckoning ploy called potato piloting, which calls for a bushel of Aroostook County spuds and a strong arm on the foredeck tossing them ahead and yelling “hard about” to the helm when there is no splash. The other, of course, was a Whistler.

I know not if any radars were bought from this scheme, but my return mail was blistering in the tone of “club rules bar any crass commerical use of our membership list and your tactless and gross appeal to sell some gimmick makes you legally liable.” My factual blunder was to suggest that the only competitive advantage to potato piloting was in stationing the cook aft to pluck up the spuds after splashdown for dinner. Potatoes sink like rocks.

I have affection for the fog for a reason other than as a catalyst for purchase orders. Successfully sailing somewhere without seeing anything imbues one with a special glow of pride and joy. I have been enjoying fog sailing for 45 years. Although I have almost never known where I was, I almost always have been close. There are two general categories of fog – warm surface fogs and cold surface fogs. It is obvious to anyone with skin and nerve endings that Maine manufactures the latter, commonly called advection fog.

The tools for fog-sailing are few and simple: a chart, a compass, a watch, a pencil, a piece of water-resistant paper, a keen sense of boat speed and the only mathematical formula a sailor needs to know – Sixty-D-Street (60 x distance=speed x time.)

• Make marks (now called waypoints) as close together as possible no matter the distance added.

• Avoid plotting a course to a buoy that doesn’t whistle, bell-ring or gong.

• Never lose faith in your dead reckoning, and if you don’t find your mark when you should, take the next heading anyway rather than engage in a circling search.

• In heading for a landfall, choose one that is steep-to and flat-faced.

• Do not head directly for a landfall point; choose a point one side or the other so you know which way to turn when sighting land.

• Make much arrival noise when entering harbor (chosen or not) to announce your feat to the fleet of cowardly boaters.

• If you really get lost, head to blue water, where there is nothing to run into, and stay out there until a west wind blows.

• In the telling at the bar, embellish the fog thickness you have overcome with creative energy: “Could see my hand alright, but couldn’t count the fingers.”

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.