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Fog Tales

Dense fog surrounded us as we pulled out of the Kona Kai Marina on Shelter Island in San Diego, bound for Ensenada New Years’ Day 2012. Visibility was zero, and as soon as we got out there I promised myself I would never get talked into a trip in fog again.

“See, that’s blue sky up there,” said my husband, Dan. “Any moment now this will break, don’t worry.” If there are good lies (and I believe there are), that was a whopper and he knew it. Of course, the fog didn’t break—not as we approached the first set of markers, or the second set, or the third. There was no relief. We spent the first hour of our trip with Dan in the flybridge, cautiously maneuvering our 43-foot Nordhavn trawler through invisible channel markers as I scampered up and down, from the pilothouse, to double-check the large Furuno screens as we only have a small repeater up top.
I have an unnatural fear of fog. Give me anything else short of The Perfect Storm and I can handle it. We have a hearty ocean-crossing trawler made of solid fiberglass that could literally take us from San Diego to Hawaii on one tank. She can climb over 15-foot swells with grace, and a 30-knot blow just makes us a bit uncomfortable. I’ve driven at night in pretty terrible conditions without much anxiety, but as soon as that creepy mist envelops the boat, I lose what I consider to be a healthy level of boating “cool.” While our radar and chart plotter are state-of-the-art equipment—a kayak will be a tiny red blip, and a tanker will be a gigantic red blob—with plenty of time to react to either, logic just gives way to madness for me in fog.
After three hours of gradually diminishing fog, we safely reached our waypoint off Rosarito Beach. The skies had cleared quite a bit; we had a mile of visibility (we had already safely passed by two gigantic red “blobs”), and the seas were a comfortable 2 feet. I calmed down and started appreciating the rewards of owning a boat again. We were steaming along while dolphins leapt around the bow, and a couple of whales surfaced nearby too. I couldn’t imagine another life.
But the sun was short-lived and at about 20 miles outside of Ensenada, the fog started closing in. I watched the skies turn grey, and visibility shrunk to a quarter mile or less. An awful dread swept over me as I realized that these were the conditions for the rest of the trip. I also realized we would not make it into Ensenada Harbor before nightfall, which meant we would be experiencing my worst nightmare: coming into a foreign harbor at night in dense fog. And it was way too late to do anything about it.
My husband and I have a pretty good arrangement: I am the navigator, and Dan does engine checks (we perform hourly checks religiously), and handles mechanical issues/docking. It plays to our strengths since I am the “techy” one. I glued myself to the radar and chart plotter for three hours. The closer we were to Ensenada, the more and more it became like a video game—you just have to forget about the 60,000 pounds of boat under you and drive with the screens. As we approached the jetty, I walked outside onto the Portuguese bow and, as if I needed anything more to frighten me, the VHF antennas were actually casting huge, ominous shadows onto the impenetrable fog via our navigation lights. It was very eerie, and a stark reminder that there would be zero visibility for our harbor entrance.
In preparation to enter the Harbor, my husband went up to the flybridge to take over, and I stayed in the pilothouse to watch the radar/chart plotter closely. Dan also had the flybridge monitor at a .25-mile zoom. This arrangement turned out to be a poor plan as our only form of communication in that scenario was yelling. In our post-scenario analysis, we decided we should have both stayed below. As we made the turn into Ensenada Harbor I went out onto the bow to see if I could see anything, which I could not—not even the water beneath the boat. I could, however, hear the thunderous crashing of ocean against what sounded like very close jetties on either side of us.
We cleared the entrance without seeing either jetty—we could barely see the first set of marker lights. I stayed on the bow as we made our way down the fairway in complete darkness. I felt the boat make several short turns, and soon, we were almost on top of a marker that the fog made nearly impossible to discern between red and green. Unbeknownst to me, my husband had decided to hand steer and not being able to identify the marker was causing him to second guess the plotter. I ran into the pilothouse to see that, while we were still in the middle of the channel, we were all over the place. To make matters worse, a glance at the radar also found us around objects—the status of which I could not determine in my panicky state. Ensenada is hardly a sleepy little harbor, and between fishing boats and massive cruise ships, there is definitely traffic to contend with.
I thought, “OK, that’s it we need some local help to get through this.” I grabbed the mic in the pilothouse to hail the Ensenada port captain on channel 16. However, I failed to research ahead of time how to raise the Ensenada port captain, and wasn’t aware that 14 was the correct channel. A fellow boater monitoring 16 gave me the heads up, and I scrambled over to 14. Fortunately, the Ensenada port captain was quick to respond. He asked for my location and provided me with proper instructions. I gave him what I could (lots of ums and ahs because radio protocol goes out the door in a full-blown panic), and asked if he could find us on his radar and lead us to the Baja Naval Shipyard—our ultimate destination.
At this point, it occurred to me that Dan had no idea where I was or what I was doing because I was on 14 in the pilothouse, and he was monitoring 16 in the flybridge. So I dropped the mic in the pilothouse and ran up there to get on the flybridge VHF, so we could work together. Fortunately, the port captain had spotted us on radar and literally started giving us turn-by-turn course directions. This was a relief, but we still weren’t home free.
Finally, the outline of lighted docks presented themselves through the fog. As we glided closer, our assigned berth appeared just feet in front of us, and to our astonishment, it was occupied!
Dan jammed the gears into reverse, but with little effect. He cursed (I’ll leave it at that) loudly, dropped the throttle all the way down, and thankfully, we inched backward with a big shudder. We spotted an end tie with red netting around it due to previous storm damage, and quickly decided this would be home. Dan forced the boat in reverse a couple more times to get into the slip. We secured the boat with as many lines as we could find and immediately engaged in post-scenario analysis over cocktails. In general, while we had just been through the scariest boating experience of our lives, and were still wide-eyed with disbelief from the entire event, we felt we had handled the situation as a pretty good team.
The next day we awoke to dissipating fog and maneuvered the boat over to the travel lift for haul-out. Our fog worries had, of course, been replaced by a new concern for whatever it was we had on the prop that caused the reverse problem. We watched as the lift easily pulled Island Magic out of the water and inched her into the yard. On the prop, was a huge gnarly mass of nylon lines that even the boatyard guys were amazed to see on a boat that was otherwise unharmed. Amazingly, the Spurs line-cutter had almost finished the job and once we gave the prop a few manual turns the entire 6-foot mess had been freed.
We figured we ran over it coming into the harbor, but were thankfully spared any major prop issues until we reversed at docking. We were grateful that we didn’t run into the issue coming into the harbor (we could’ve lost our prop function altogether). Maybe the gods were smiling on us after all.
Our ultimate post-scenario analysis led to these conclusions:
1. If we can avoid fog, let’s avoid it. Never consciously make the decision again to drive through fog just to keep to a schedule (which is what we had done since we were scheduled for the haul-out).
2. Have a plan, have a plan, have a plan. Know exactly how you will enter the harbor and the path you will take to your slip. Anticipate complete blackout conditions. Set up waypoints all the way to the slip if you have to, and let the autopilot work for you, since the equipment will remain calm. All you need to do is man the radar.
3. Know the harbor you are entering, and who you can call if you need help (I realize this is a no-brainer, but I didn’t do it).
4. Get walkie-talkies and use them. My husband and I should have been talking to each other, as my husband didn’t know where I was scampering around to in the fog.
Looking back on the whole fiasco, Dan and I both agree that from the incredibly dense fog and markers that were impossible to see, to radar harbor clutter, we let our minds get the best of us. We still have a lot to learn about handling unexpected boating challenges. I like to think that even the saltiest sea dog would have a little anxiety in the same situation, so let’s just say we earned the “Crazy Fog Unknown Foreign Harbor” patch, and we’ll put this lesson toward future use. So many lessons, so little time.

Whitney Tipton and her husband have lived aboard their Nordhavn ’43, Island Magic, for the past 4 years. Both long-time veterans of the advertising industry, they now operate a marine supply business. They can regularly be spotted cruising Southern California waters from Ensenada to Catalina]]>