A Foggy Recollection

I am honest with myself and crew about long sailing passages (more than two nights). Along with the wonderful moments, I know there are going to be some tough times and some scary times. At the other end of the spectrum “daysails” tend to be easy since we’re picking our weather and the distance sailed is so small we generally know what we’re getting into.

However, I’m beginning to see the trend with the awkward “‘tweener” sails. They’re the immature adolescents of cruising sailing—longer than the “kiddie” daysails but shorter than the “adult” passages. When planning and embarking on a ‘tweener sail the optimist in me says, This is going to be easy. Zip-zip and we’ll be there! I first wrote about this phenomenon over a year ago before (I started to see the trend) in a post entitled A Well-Earned 55 Miles. More recently I wrote about it in my previous post. From my perspective “twice” is a coincidence, “thrice” is a trend.

With that backdrop and foreshadowing, Hazel James, Rhett and I departed Provincetown, Massachusetts bound for Portland, Maine early the morning of Tuesday, July 13. Hazel sails anywhere between 100 and 150 nm (nautical miles) on a good day so our plan was to make landfall near the stunning and iconic Portland Head Light on Wednesday morning. Not only would this give us a beautiful view of the lighthouse, it would also put us in a good position to navigate through the somewhat complex islands off Portland Harbor in the daylight.

While I had toured the Portland Head Light and its adjunct museum and former lighthouse keeper’s house, I had never had the opportunity to see it from the water and was looking forward to it.

At the risk of over-foreshadowing, while Hazel, Rhett and I are now safe and sound, and tucked in to Portland Harbor…I still have never seen the Portland Head Light from the water—go figure.

Our sunrise departure from Provincetown Harbor and around the Race Point lighthouse at the northwestern tip of Cape Cod was under a light breeze from the east and otherwise perfect conditions. Just outside the harbor, we watched the crew of the lobster boat Miss Lilly checking their traps.

Miss Lilly checking traps

Once we cleared the tip of Cape Cod, we set a course for Portland on a starboard tack, beam reach and kept careful watch for both whales and freighters. We were simultaneously over Stellwagen Bank, a prime whale watching location, and in the Port of Boston shipping lanes. In Provincetown we had learned that the Coast Guard working with marine biologists have studied whales’ patterns and shifted the inbound and outbound Boston shipping lanes to route the big and fast freighters and tankers away from the areas of highest whale congregation. Unfortunately for us the whales didn’t cooperate on that day but I’m confident we’ll see more in our Maine voyaging.

Although the sky was cloudy with intermittent, spitting rain and the wind was a bit more “on the nose” and lighter than I would have liked, the sailing the rest of the daylight hours was enjoyable and uneventful. We were bundled in our “foulies” (foul weather gear) and making reasonable progress toward our waypoint off the Portland Head Light (For any “Lat-Lon” junkies: N43° 31.60’ W070° 05.49’).

The sunset was obscured by the low and leaden clouds and that’s when the sailing began to get interesting. We had had our dinner and I had taken my evening rest and was preparing to take the watch. On passage, short-handed sailing crews generally work out a nighttime watch keeping schedule that fits best with the crews’ individual circadian rhythms and sailing skills. Rhett and I have developed a schedule where she takes watch for an hour or so after dinner while I sleep, then I take the watch through the night until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. and then she takes over again through sunrise and early morning. During my long night watch I rely on our “watch timer” to help me take several catnaps. The watch timer is located near Hazel’s companionway (the opening that allows crew to get from the cockpit to the saloon [from above decks to below decks]). It’s a simple and rugged unit with a reset button, an adjusting dial and a horn that will (literally) wake the dead. When energized, it counts down the prescribed amount of time per the dial’s adjustment point and then the horn sounds (waking the dead). At any time, the crew can press the reset button to restart the timer’s countdown (and silence the horn if it is sounding). On nights in the open ocean (say more than 50 miles offshore), I generally set the timer to 20 minutes and do my best to catnap in between. The theory is that any large ship that will be a collision risk or any approaching changes in weather should be detectable 20 minutes before either gets really close. On open-ocean nights that are atmospherically stable and we’ve seen few ships during the day, I’ll bump the timer to 30 minutes but I don’t like going any higher than that.

Hazel’s watch timer circled in red (picture taken from her saloon and looking aft into the cockpit).

However, on this night we were not on the open ocean. We were about 30 miles out and frequently encountering fishing vessels which interfered with my catnaps. Then, as I was about to wake Rhett to spell me and take the watch, the wind “dumped out” (died) so I elected to let her sleep a bit more while I tried my best to keep Hazel moving in the light airs.

With all the above challenges, it was about 6:00 a.m. as Rhett was waking when things really started to get interesting. Although I’ve done a lot of sailing, I had never encountered fog—and that was about to change. I had always imagined that fog would arrive by “rolling in” (as in a “fog bank”). No—on this morning it began as a gentle haze. We were about 10 miles from the aforementioned entrance waypoint to Portland Harbor when the “gentle” haze thickened and we couldn’t see more than a few boat lengths ahead of us. Oh yeah…remember those pesky lobster “pot” (trap) buoys? Yes, they were there as well.

Hazel sailing slowly into the fog
The First Mate doing a darned good job looking cheerful and confident in the fog (her stomach—and the Captain’s—were churning).
A lobster pot buoy in the fog (center of picture)

Thank goodness I had been communicating with Michael, a colleague and seasoned sailor from Maine. I texted him about the situation and asked what I should do. Should I press on? Should I stand-off and wait for conditions to improve? He responded with a calming message that began, “Welcome to Maine! Now you’re getting the full experience….” After reassuring me that I should continue slowly and carefully, he finished his text with, “…and if you have a horn, you should sound it every 3 to 5 minutes.”

Given the wind had almost totally died and we were sailing at less than 2 knots, Rhett and I decided to fire up Ox (Hazel’s diesel engine) and motor the rest of the way—weaving through lobster pot buoys.

After an hour or so of “steaming” (motoring) through the pea soup, our charts indicated that we should be approaching a navigational bell buoy (similar to Rhett’s Buoyfriend from a previous post). Although the seas were flat (and waves actuate the ringing of the bell), as our charts indicated we were within 1/8 nm…we heard it! Then, moments later, it’s hulking presence materialized out of the fog.

Boy, were we happy to see this buoy.

Even better, it was a red buoy and its number was the number we were expecting (as documented in our charts)! Although this was all good news, we were still a ways out from the narrow channel that Portland Head Light presides over. We’d just have to follow our charts, RADAR and the breadcrumb trail of buoys through the channel and into the harbor, we were emotionally committed at this point.

Hazel passing a smaller navigational “nun” buoy.

As we entered the channel, our charts indicated that it narrowed to 0.5 nm overall with only 0.2 nm between the red and green buoys (the safe water). Where we should have had a glorious vista of Cape Elizabeth and surrounding islands punctuated by the Portland Head Light—aside from the lobster pot buoys and occasional navigation buoy—we could see nothing.

At Hazel’s navigation station it was unnerving to see the electronic charts putting us in the channel and RADAR confirming the charts, but visually we saw none of it.

GPS and chartplotter to the left, corresponding RADAR image of the surrounding land to the right.

Because I’m telling you this tale, you can probably guess that we made it to safe harbor. However, that first experience with fog is something that neither of us will forget.

We still haven’t seen Portland Head Light from the water. Several days later we settled for a land-based visit of the lighthouse. When we depart Portland for exploration of Casco Bay tomorrow, we’re hoping for no fog and—if so—planning to backtrack just a bit to see that sight.

Fair winds, following seas and fog free skies!

Portland Head Light via land (the channel we transited in the fog is in the background).

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