October 1, 2015
I may have been a mile out from South Pender when I hit the fog or it hit me. It seemed to go from a mile away to 100 feet away in minutes. I looked behind me at what had been clear, and I couldn’t see any farther. I was surrounded, and it had happened so fast. There was still blue sky overhead. Then I heard a very big horn.
Surrounded by Dense Fog
Sitting in Bedwell Harbour that morning, I was about to cross back from Canada to the U.S. on my first solo trip “abroad.” It had been a great trip — 13 days with nothing to do but find and explore new places. At 8 a.m. I awoke to find the harbor fogged in, so I went back to sleep. There was no big rush; I had left myself six days to get back to Seattle in case of bad weather because fall in the PNW is notoriously unpredictable. Knowing fog was finicky, I also had no desire to push it, but I was anxious to get the leg of the trip with a customs stop on the U.S. side over.
I got back out of bed again around 10 a.m. and looked around — the harbor was almost clear and many boats were leaving. I still couldn’t see Boundary Pass outside so I took my time making breakfast while listening to the weather radio. There wasn’t much on the channel about visibility due to fog. When I finished and stowed everything, the harbor was totally clear and I could see past the markers out into the pass so I decided to leave.
Fog still lingered far in front of me, but it seemed to be burning off nicely and there was a bright blue sky above. There was next to no wind, so I had to motor. Soon thereafter I was enveloped by fog, and then came the horn.
Saw on AIS and heard him far before I saw him
When I heard it my thoughts were flying by — What do I know? What do I remember? Where am I? Where are the other boats? What do I do? Glad I bought extra air horns!
Here’s what I did next and what I would do in the future.
I was grateful for several things:
The navigation classes. I knew how to follow contour lines once I was close to shore, how to do dead reckoning, and what sound signals to listen for and which to use.
The Marine Traffic app on my phone (that’s exactly what it’s called). AIS is an amazing technology and I was lucky to have cell reception for it. This allowed me to see larger vessels that are registered with AIS (all ferries and freighters) and I could see how fast they were going, and in the case of ferries, what their route should be. It also allows me to see photos of some vessels, which is nice when multiple are getting close, and some recreational vessels as well. Although I heard the giant freighter in front of me before I could physically see the upper reaches of its deck as it passed, the ship was on my MT screen so I knew what to expect. Hearing the horn of a vessel that large and not being able to see it is terrifying. Be aware there may be some lag time on updates, so positions are approximate.
Note the AIS had refreshed 1 minute before and ferry speed
The Navionics App, which is also on my phone, and is turning out to be better than my Garmin GPS. During the last month there have been multiple incidences where my chart or my Garmin were not up-to-date on markers, but the Navionics had them correct. It also just seems easier for me to read and navigate with it. I can also quickly measure distances, and though I would never be without a paper chart, it’s a very nice backup to have.
Crossing Boundary Pass-Almost Home!
Getting the Canada plan through my cell provider. I’m not sure how many of my navigational apps would have worked without this, but for $25 extra a month it was a great choice. Planning ahead to get international coverage even a few miles from the border was worth it.
Multiple full air horns. It really sucks having to sound those things off — and I would say this could be in my top two reasons not to go out in fog. I’m grateful to have watched someone do things correctly before it happened to me and I will always have several fresh air cans on board. An earplug for the one ear that I couldn’t plug with my finger would have been nice, too.
My Radar! Granted, I didn’t know how to use it, but I knew how to turn it on, and had other things to start correlating it with. It wasn’t the security it had the potential to be, but it was better than nothing.
Boat at 270 Degrees
Same Boat as on Radar – Appears Farther Away Due to Refresh Time Delay
Shortly after the AIS and radar photos and already crossed my bow
I also wish I had done many things differently:
Not leaving in the fog. I thought it was clearing, but fog obeys no rules. Just because a bay clears, it doesn’t mean the water outside has.
I had no radar experience. I had planned to practice with it in clear conditions to learn to recognize things, but I hadn’t gotten around to it. I will now get around to it! I did start comparing it with my Navionics and Marine Traffic to get an idea of how it worked and I still need more training in other things I could do with it such as using range alarms.
Stuart Island to Starboard
Stuart Island From Boundary Pass
I should have written down my latitude and longitude as soon as I noticed I was surrounded by fog and started dead reckoning in case my electronics failed. I was so good at this on my way north, but I became lackadaisical with it as I got comfortable with my surroundings — bad idea. I had the chart right there, but had too many other things on my mind.
I should have started monitoring the vessel traffic channel sooner, and I will start doing this on a more regular basis rather than just relying on the Marine Traffic app. There is a lot of information that can be gained by listening to that channel (5A or 14) and you can also request to know if any large vessels might be crossing your path.
Overall I re-learned that there are multiple ways to stay safe if something fails. There is so much more I could have used than I did, but I am grateful for what I had. With the amount of ferry and shipping traffic we have in the Puget Sound, San Juan Islands, Gulf Islands and Strait of Juan de Fuca, when it comes to fog, you can’t have too many backup plans.