August or Fogest?

The tropical feel of my playlist, filled with sounds from Cuba, Brazil and Portugal, was in sharp contrast to the loud, foreboding tone of the fog horn every two minutes. I like that playlist, I call it Tapas. I don’t like the fog.

Rather than basking in the August sun of a Pacific Northwest Summer, I strained to see the two other boats in our group about 25 yards away. We had already lost one day of our individual trips, partially due to fog and partially due to too much pirate party the evening before.

17th Annual Pacific Northwest Cruisers Party

17th Annual Pacific Northwest Cruisers Party

This time everyone had turned in early and agreed to be leaving Port Townsend at 8 a.m. to take advantage of the last couple of hours of the ebb tide and a bit of slack before the flood poured in again. Between the three of us, we had one boat with broadcasting AIS, radar, an automatic foghorn that could rival boats 5 times the size, and a bubble maker, one with radar she doesn’t totally know how to use, and one with the largest cooler of Rainier I have ever seen.



The Strait of Juan de Fuca is 102 miles long from the east entrance to where it connects with the Pacific Ocean on the west. It’s about 18-20 miles from Port Townsend to the beginning of the San Juan Islands which is where we were headed. Usually the water is relatively flat in the fog, and it’s nice to not have to battle visibility and large waves simultaneously. Reports from vessel traffic said that the fog was lifting about halfway across, so we were hopeful we would have good visibility in a few hours. I queried if this was normal for August and was asked if I had heard the term Fogust. I hadn’t. I will never forget it.

The fog did indeed lift enough so that the fog horn was silenced, but at the same time the waves started to build. That 102 mile fetch can create some angry waves when the wind is from the west and that is what we were now running into, and what I like to call the Strait of Juan de Puka. We bounced and rolled and were somewhat forced to head more northwest than we wanted to lessen the effect of the waves on the boats. RollyPolly

We had been staying in a relatively close formation when I noticed that Boo’s boat had stopped and he was on deck in the rough waves. I hailed Captain Bubbles about it as I turned back to see what was happening. Their diesel engine was no longer working and he was raising the sails to continue on. Once he was sailing, he was almost as fast as I was motoring, so I pulled out my jib (I was solo and had no desire to go on deck to raise the main in those waves, but I would have been better off with the main up from the start) and Capt. Bubbles came back to us and raised his sails as well. About a mile and a half from Cattle Pass the wind died and Boo could no longer make much progress. I was closer, but Bubbles had the much larger boat (and towing experience) so he dropped sails and came back to set up a tow while I became the escort. That was a rough ride.

Uncomfortable Tow Through Cattle Pass

Uncomfortable Tow Through Cattle Pass

Our untintended timing had landed us in Cattle Pass at max flood, which is not many sailors’ favorite time to cross. The waves are steep and confused, powerful eddies everywhere. Even with a slow tow in progress, the boats were doing 8-9 knots over ground through the pass. Once through, Bubbles found the closest place to anchor and troubleshoot Boo’s engine.

The theory was that it was a clogged fuel filter due to debris getting tossed around from the waves we were in. A new filter was put on and the engine started. Since that was the back-up, Boo made a VERY long dinghy run to Friday Harbor but was unable to find the type that he needed. We had a variety of other friends meeting us in the San Juans, so possible filters would be flowing in the next day.

We settled in for the night at anchor, grilled pork chops, asparagus and apples with cinnamon for dessert, and started looking at the charts and going over our plans for the next few days. I was making a break for Canada in 2 days time to pick up crew while the others were going to stay in the San Juan Islands a bit longer.

The next morning our bay was crystal clear with flat, reflective water, but I could see the fog in the pass and beyond, with some of it creeping into San Juan Channel. I only recall this much fog one other August in the 9 years that I’ve been here, so perhaps I’ve been lucky with Fogust. The good news was that Boo’s engine purred to life the next morning as if nothing had happened, and I got a mini-lesson on some of the features of my radar from Capt. Bubbles. I got lucky again and rafted with Boo on the transient dock in Friday Harbor. They saw me coming and hailed me on the VHF to say there was no other space. We all got showers and ran errands, and we all ended up in Reid Harbor that evening in different spots, but to me, we were all together. Paddle board and dinghy visits…we are a rag tag family.

Life and sailing are always adventures, and I’m glad to have been with a group of boats and friends this time around rather than on my own. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that we’ve paid our fog dues this year and are done with it!



What The Fog?

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

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 Clearing

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.

I saw this big guy on AIS and heard him far before I saw him

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

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 in Fog

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

Boat at 270 Degrees

Same Boat as on Radar - Appears Farther Away Due to Refresh Time Delay

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.

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 to Starboard

Fog Stuart Island From Boundary Pass

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.Fog Stuart Island