Boating in fog with reduced visibility requires some special attention for boaters and sailors of all skill levels. We all want boating to be safe and fun (visit our Safety Guide to make sure you stay in the safe-zone when you’re out on the water), but sometimes unexpected foggy conditions can arise and make this a bit tougher than it would normally be.
The reduced visibility of fog is the main danger, but along with blocking your vision, fog can cause sounds to bounce around and travel abnormally so it becomes difficult to figure out which direction they’re coming from. Fog can also be very disorienting, and even with modern electronics it’s possible to lose all sense of direction for a moment or two.
So, how will you handle it? These tips are sure to help.
1. Prevention is the Best Medicine
If the weather forecast includes fog or you arrive at the boat to see fog obscuring your views, leave the lines tied up until the danger has passed.
2. Slow Down
Any time visibility is reduced you should likewise reduce your boat’s speed, because you won’t see obstructions, channel markers, or other boats until they’re much closer than usual. You need to make sure you have plenty of time to react, if something suddenly appears out of the mist.
Slowing down in a powerboat also has the advantage of reducing engine and wind noise, which makes it easier to hear other boats that may be growing near.
3. Don't Be Afraid to Stop and Drop Anchor, If Necessary
If you’re in a low-traffic area and you can’t comfortably proceed, stop and drop your anchor. Often, fog will burn off as the day progresses or a breeze picks up. Simply waiting it out may be the best move.
Note, however, that we’ve stipulated that this is only true in areas with little traffic. In a busy channel or inlet, stopping is often the worst thing you can do because other boats are likely to come upon you in short order. Also remember that even when at anchor, it’s incumbent upon you to make the appropriate sound signals (see below).
4. Know and Use Your Sound Signals
Powerboats underway should give a prolonged blast (four to six seconds) of the horn once every two minutes.
- If the boat is drifting, it should be two blasts.
- And when at anchor it’s a short blast (one second), followed by a prolonged one, then one more short sound signal.
- If you happen to have a bell aboard, ringing it for five seconds is also acceptable.
5. Utilize Your Onboard Electronics
Be sure to equip your boat with the appropriate electronics, and know how to use them. A good GPS/Chartpotter will help you tremendously when it comes to keeping your boat on course in the fog. What it won’t do, of course, is help you see through the fog. This is where radar becomes invaluable. If you spend lots of time on the water or make extended voyages and encountering fog is likely, it’s a smart move to equip your boat with radar.
In both cases, however, we need to stress that learning how to use these electronics before you need to depend upon them is critical. It takes some time and practice to get accustomed to using both GPS and radar, and when you’re socked in by thick fog they won’t help you one bit if you aren’t thoroughly familiar with how to operate them and interpret what you see on their screens.
6. Enlist the Help of Your Crew
As the captain, you not only need to look where you’re going but also keep an eye on things like the engine gauges and navigational screens. And while it might not do any harm to glance down at the helm for a second in normal conditions, in a thick fog with reduced visibility you should have at least one pair of eyes—and more is better—looking around at all times.
So, assign crew members different zones to monitor (fore, aft, port and starboard), and have them help you maintain a lookout at all times.
7. Turn On Your Navigational Lights
It’s amazing how many boaters don’t flip the switch when fog sets in, thinking that they’re only to be used in the darkness. But your lights should be turned on any time visibility is reduced, and having your running lights on (or the anchor light, if at anchor) will make it a lot easier for other boaters to spot you in heavy fog.
8. Watch Your Depth Finder or Fish Finder
Keeping tabs on the depth can help you glean a lot of information about exactly where you are and which way you’re traveling, especially when you can compare the depth readings with charts or a chartplotter. It can help you make sure you stay out of busy shipping channels, tell you if you’re heading towards or away from shore in many areas, and of course, offer some warning if you’re headed for a shoal, or shallow waters.
9. Find a Focus Point
Rather than staring into a foggy nothingness, find the point where you see the fog and the water meet and focus your gaze there. Focusing on the fog itself can cause you to lose all point of reference and start driving in circles. But by using the “horizon” as a focal point you can usually go (more or less) in a straight direction.
10. Listen for Echoes
When near land, listen for the echoes of your own sound signals. This can help you determine if you’re getting closer to or farther away from land, and it can also help you find river or creek mouths if you’re paralleling land and that echo suddenly disappears.
Remember, when all is said and done fog can increase the danger factor. So like we said in tip number-one: when it’s at all possible, simply avoid boating in foggy conditions in the first place.
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