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"Patchief og" - passing the test within yourself.

by Daria Blackwell

Onyx keeping a close watch in pea soup fog. She photographs well on a white background.
Just as we were preparing for our summer cruise in August, a week came by that was so horrible weather wise it almost convinced us to forget about it. It was cold, it was wet - very, very wet - it was blowing stink all week. We kept listening to the forecast and it was not getting better. Then, just as we were thinking about rescheduling, it started to improve. In fact, it got pretty darn exciting. Clearing and warmer, with 10-15 knots out of the West was the new forecast. Yippe ka-yea, we were going sailing!
Coming up on a sailboat in fog.

We had about 12 days and decided to do an island cruise. An island cruise could take us to places like Martha's Vineyard and that's just what we did. But we did not do it the way we normally go, which is the inside passage through Long Island Sound. Nope, we went down and out...down the East River and out past Ambrose Light for an offshore passage instead. With 10-15 knots and a nice reach, a little bit of predicted "patchief og", which is how the mechanical voice annunciates this particular forecast condition. We thought we'd get in a nice long and direct offshore passage without worry about land masses getting in the way. Since the weather window looked like it would be pretty ideal, we took off Friday night to catch the favorable tide on the East River.

Little did we know, that a forecast of "patchy fog" was going to be extended through two days, and that the patches would be rather substantial at times. We had stopped at Sandy Hook for a good night's rest and woke up to the sounds of a foghorn blasting in the near distance, but we certainly couldn't see the lighthouse. In fact, we couldn't see much of anything but we heard lots of engines roaring past to the fishing grounds in the channel early in the morning. We could only hope they'd notice us in our anchorage in time if they were cutting corners.

If you have ever sailed in fog, you know it can be quite disorienting. Without instruments, the likelihood of driving around in circles and running into things along the way is pretty high. So we made an elaborate breakfast and waited until the fog started lifting before we took off. As we crossed Ambrose Channel, the fog closed in around us again. For two days and one night we were entering and exiting fog of every description. From pea soup to wispy etherealness, we were enveloped over and over. Sailing double handed meant we had to alternate watch. We stayed as far off shore as we could to avoid the thickest, but just outside the shipping lanes to avoid the traffic. And we kept a constant vigil by the radar, the radio and the chartplotter. And we searched inside ourselves for everything we knew and all the training we had endured.

Just as we got on our course, the wind shifted and instead of a reach we were now on a beat. The wind was perfect, even through the fog, so we set the sails and the autopilot and kept our eyes peeled for boat traffic and sleeping giants. In sailing off Long Island, there are just a few inlets like Jones Inlet and Moriches. We found that there was virtually no boat traffic anywhere near us until we approached the inlets. At each of these inlets we would encounter an armada of fishing vessels. When the air was clear, it was no problem. When the fog descended, big problem: we had to post a keen watch on radar and sound the horn as prescribed as boats emerged out of oblivion like ghosts. During the day, it wasn't so bad. And then, night approached. I started getting cranky when the fog stayed for miles on end but that didn't stop my vigilance.

Keeping a close watch and using the prescribed audible signals (sounding a horn or bell) can help avoid disaster.

The sunset was spectacular and the moonrise even more so. The sunset was blood red and softened by the haze. The harvest moon was full and crimson orange, creating a fire on the horizon like a burning ship as it rose. In the intervals without fog, you could see the sea glimmering for miles. Yet, when the fog descended, the glow of the moon was all but obliterated in a damp, gloomy darkness. You could just feel the men on their whaling vessels seeing ghost ships in the fog and imagining the horrors of Davy Jones' locker. In fact, it wasn't long before I started thinking the same on my watch. I scanned the radar screen every few minutes, and was worried when I saw something and worried when I didn't. Is it working, are we missing boats that aren't reflecting? Luckily, we had spent the daylight hours correlating what we saw in real life to what we saw on the radar and confirmed that most targets were acquired by our system pretty accurately.

Then out of nowhere came a BIG target on radar. As I watched, I realized it was the dreaded "constant bearing, decreasing range" scenario. We were on a collision course with what appeared to be a tug towing a barge and closing quickly. I tried to hail them on VHF channels 13 and 16 to no avail. I planned a starboard tack and roused Alex in case my maneuver did not work for some reason - like perhaps the tug would take evasive action that conflicted with my plan. We tacked, shone a spot light at where the target was supposed to be, stood by the radio, and watched closely. Like it's supposed to be when things work right, the target was suddenly behind us and moving away. We stayed on this tack for a while until it was clearly safe to proceed back on course. One more tense situation averted with skill and just a little good fortune. What a relief!

As we sailed farther offshore, we suddenly sailed into a crystal clear sky full of stars and clusters I hadn't seen in years. The moon had been left behind in the fog so the stars had no competition. I quickly reached for my star chart and started picking out the constellations. Directly overhead was Pisces, Alex's sign, and it was framed by the main and mizzen. Clearly this was a sign. A sign that this trip would be very special. I pointed out the stars to Alex when his watch came up, and I retreated to our cabin for the first peaceful rest of the night.

When I heard the kettle that signalled the start of my final watch at dawn, I came up on deck to find Alex trying the get the sails set for a broad reach in about 8-10 knots that kept shifting downwind. We were still about 12 hours off from our destination. It was spinnaker time and we hoisted our asymmetrical "white seahorse" with pride. I sailed the next three hours without so much as a change of trim.

So here we were, the trials behind us. As with any offshore passage, this one was all the more perfect for providing us the chance to test ourselves against the elements. A test that this time we passed with flying colors!

In really thick fog especially when approaching a channel, it is best to post a lookout on the bow.


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