Lost in fog – been there

Guest Perspective/Paul Brown

The year was 1987: my first year of sailing. I had a mooring at South Freeport, Maine, on the ocean side of Wolf Neck. Wolf Neck is the land separation between the Harraseeket River and Middle Bay. This was a year before I ever ventured to singlehand Brownscow, my Thunderbird 26, a slab-sided Volkswagen of a sloop.
The trip from South Freeport’s dock to the mooring was about a mile downstream on the river, slipping to the north of a little islet called Pound of Tea, and around the corner northerly to the mooring. After having invested seven thousand dollars for this lovely little vessel, I wanted to spend time on it, setting out one day with provisions (beer), a small container of gasoline for the dinghy motor, and, lastly, my brindle kid, a bulldog named Burbank.

As frequently happens, sunshine in Raymond, N.H., is not necessarily matched at the docks in South Freeport, Maine. I had never navigated in fog before. It seemed simple enough. Motor the dinghy from the dock directly across to Wolf Neck. Then proceed downriver to the end of that peninsula, and then the few yards to the boat. I could see almost to Wolf Neck from the dock, and the bows of all of the boats in the river, pointing downstream.

I loaded provisions, gas can and Burbank into the inflatable, started the motor, and headed across the harbor to the land on the other side. I lost sight of the dock almost instantly, but kept track of my direction by lining up with the bows of the boats I passed.

At this early point in my boating experience, I assumed that fog navigation was similar to woods navigation. I can always maintain a straight course in the woods. But upon approaching the Wolf Neck shore, I began to have second thoughts about actually finding my boat on the other side.

Burbank, usually animated at a new adventure, read my apprehension. His ears drooped. “Well kid, I guess it would be better if we go back instead of getting lost.” I tried to be upbeat and confident. It was simply a change of plan. Who wants to sit in the fog?

So, we turned, perpendicular to the shoreline, and motored away. Where were the boats I had seen on the way over? I was in a gray nothingness.

I have a good friend who is an experienced mariner. He calls it “fog vertigo.” He has watched me make a turn of 180 degrees when I have intended 90, completely outrunning the movement of the compass.
I had probably motored about five minutes and made out the shoreline ahead. No docks, nothing. I must have come out upriver from the docks, I thought. Any boater reading this would ask, “Why the hell didn’t he note which way the current was running?”

Well, I didn’t. None of that was part of my knowledge or instinct or intuition at the time. It’s common sense, isn’t it? The current in a tidal river runs both ways at different times of the day. On the way over, it was upriver. None of that occurred to me, but I was a few yards from the shoreline, and I could see it, and I wasn’t going to leave it. So I am upriver from the dock and I will keep the shore on my right (yes, that’s port…no, no, that’s starboard), and go back to the dock.

As the reader might have guessed, I had not crossed the river to the dock side, but had made a U-turn in the fog and had gone back to the Wolf Neck peninsula. My course now was to motor upriver approximately two miles to a point where I could see the opposite side, cross over, and then begin the journey back downriver to the dock, following all of the minor indentations of the shoreline that lengthened the distance and the time.

During all of this time, dozens of misgivings crowded my thoughts. Had I gone off into some tributary that would lead me…to where? Burbank’s expression mirrored my doubts. Where the hell am I? It took awhile, but eventually we began to see signs of civilization and at last approached the South Freeport docks.

I relate this somewhat embarrassing tale as a farm kid with romantic notions about wind-powered vessels. Many years later, with a bigger boat, and with all kinds of navigation equipment, my first mate and I motored entirely in fog from Booth Bay en route to our mooring at the Dolphin Marina at Potts Harbor. The vessel was a Beneteau ketch with a pilothouse.

Now, for the Old Salts reading this, let’s stipulate that the ideal for fog navigating is a three-person crew – one on the helm, one as lookout with the horn in hand, and one at the charts and instruments. How the lobstermen, singlehanding and dead-reckoning do it is forever beyond my ken.

On this more recent passage, we entered Broad Sound, leaving a nun and Eagle Island on our starboard, heading for a nun at the entrance to Potts Harbor. We were approaching the nun when a motorized skiff appeared out of the fog, hailing us. “Sheila, slow down; what’s he want?”

I stepped out of the pilothouse into the cockpit; the skiff pulled alongside. “Which way to Eagle Island?”
Our visitor was one of the caretakers at Eagle Island, the one-time home of Admiral Peary and now a historic site. The caretaker had gone out for some fishing, the fog had dropped in, and he was disoriented. He had been circling the nun for some time and had motored toward the sound of our approaching boat.

Because of our course, I knew that Eagle Island was off our starboard quarter, but pointing didn’t seem to be very specific. I was prepared to pass him a handheld compass, give him the bearings, and send him on his way. Mostly, I didn’t want to lose my own course toward the next-to-last leg.

While I was thus considering, his request was a plaintive: “Will you take me back?”

Understood.

Been there.

“Wanna come aboard? We can tow your skiff.”

“No, I’ll follow you.”

“Hold on, gotta get my bearings.”

I checked the chart and got the approximate bearing to Eagle Island, instructed Sheila to make the turn, found Eagle on the radar, and we proceeded, with our guest motoring alongside. In a few minutes, Eagle loomed out of the mist.

“I see it,” he exclaimed, obviously quite happy and relieved. He waved his thanks and carried on to his safe haven and destination.

Understood.

Been there.

“Sigh…Real estate appraiser, age 81, no longer sailing: Too expensive. Biggest sailing adventures: Fundy Flotilla to eastern Nova Scotia, offshore Cape May to Block Island, crewed from Key West to Dry Tortugas. Unable to keep pace with the captain through all of the bars in Key West.”