Fogged In, Closed Out

By Tom Neale, 5/19/2005


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Steel crashing and grinding into steel shrieked and groaned from all directions out of the impenetrable fog. It seemed a soft, moist, gentle world, swirling around our cockpit. But huge unseen engines roared like beasts from the dinosaur age. Two tugs were shifting gigantic mud barges. They had to disconnect their tow, rush around to the stern of the barges, and grind into them, connecting up to push, rapidly shifting, speeding into forward and then reverse. And nobody could see.

We had left Southport around 6:00 AM, to head up the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. We’d heard that there was patchy fog inland, but the breeze was kicking in and the sun was heating up. We had checked the VHF weather for maritime fog reports, and had listened to other vessel traffic for the same. We heard no mention of any. Until the captain of a large ferry broadcast a Securitee on VHF channels 13 and 16. They were proceeding slowly with “limited visibility”.

You’d think that fog can’t come without warning. But this seemed to. We thought the first traces of it were just that—only dissipating traces. Then we disappeared into it, as had a gigantic dredge nearby, the two large tugs maneuvering with mammoth mud barges, and a crew boat heading for the dredge. We knew where they were before, but we couldn’t be sure where they were going.

We always stand by on VHF channel 13 as well as 16. Thirteen is the working channel for commercial traffic. Just listening helps you to know what’s going on. And sometimes when the captain of a tug or freighter has to tell you something quickly, they’ll do it on 13. They have their hands full and they might not think about going to 16. In the invisible world around us we could hear the commercial captains talking—asking each other where they were, where they were bound, and what they could see. Voices from another world—all tense, tight, and worried. I hailed the crew boat on 13, thinking he was heading in my direction. I told him where I was, near a large red Nun, finishing with “I hope you can see me when you get here.” He laughed nervously. “Well if I do, we’ll sure be close.”

Fogged In! A Few Tips That May Help

1. Fog can occur even where it “never does.” We’ve even experienced it in the Bahamas.

2. You want other boats to know where you are. One method is to use the fog horn, but you can’t rely on that exclusively. Others might not hear if their engines are loud or if they’re within enclosed steering stations. Also many boats may be signaling by horn resulting in confusion compounded by the fact that sounds are difficult to trace as to point of origin in fog.

Click Here for More Tips

The Cape Fear River is deep. It courses from prehistoric swamps, past Wilmington and Southport and Bald Head Island, and then through treacherous shoals out into the graveyard of the Atlantic. Container ships and freighters come there from around the world. But outside the channel, mud flats, many so shallow that they’re bare at low water, lie in wait, in some areas studded with old pilings and other derelict remnants. The tide courses sometimes as much as two or three knots up and down. It’s a strong river.

We knew there was a range tower well out of the channel and we had it on radar. The water was shallow but deep enough for us on the channel side of it. On the other side, it was only a few feet deep and on that side were old pilings and debris. Better to go aground, or even drift into old wood than get caught between gigantic steel hulks gnashing away at each other. The large boats wouldn’t be able to come up in the shallower water on the channel side, we hoped. We found the range tower, got close enough to see it, and began holding. Waiting. Hoping that the stuff would lift. It usually does, it seems, around 9:00 a.m. or so. But nothing ever seems to go as usual in the fog.

We hadn’t been the only cruising boat to head up the Cape Fear. Dozens of others, ranging from 30 footers to an 80 foot yacht were also heading north. In a short space of time, one after another after another plowed into the bank of fog. Some continued on, some stopped, I guess milling about. You could hear them. You couldn’t see them. Radar showed the targets. Some were great blobs. These we knew to be the dredge and the tugs and barges. Some were smaller—the yachts. Some, you just couldn’t tell. Were they buoys? Pilings? Small boats?

Every so often a small open boat would suddenly appear like a missile hurtling out of the fog, only yards away, its outboard roaring, and then disappear. These boats were around 18 to 25 feet long, rods whipping into the fog, happy fisherman looking forward to hooking something up offshore. I don’t know how they got that far and why we never heard any distress calls from them. I guess they knew a lot more than the rest of us, or maybe they just had the luck of the clueless. We kept hoping that whatever it was it would hold. It did.

We had radar and we had a GPS chart plotter. These helped, but there’s nothing like seeing. And hearing. Fog plays tricks with sound. You can’t really tell for sure what direction the clanging and screeching of metal is coming from. You hear the deep throated rumble of the engine of what must be a very large vessel. But you don’t know where it’s prowling. And when your radar is filled with targets and you’re in there with them and every one is close and slowly milling about, it isn’t very helpful.

After around an hour, the fog lifted enough to allow us to head further upriver safely. But then it came time to turn into the narrow channel leading toward Snow’s Cut which in turn opened at Carolina Beach Inlet. We looked ahead and couldn’t see the cut. Nor could we see any navigational aids leading in through the foot deep current cursed mud flats. Only gray. The world up there was gone. We anchored with several other boats, including an 80 foot yacht. Finally, the shores of the river began to emerge. The fog dissolved in the sunlight, leaving only wisps to remind us of what it had been. We were on our way into what remained of a beautiful cruising day.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale