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Sailing in the fog

July 6, 2014
Posted at 5:15 am

The story continues ...

There was delay in getting Ch. 20-21 posted. My son from Colorado, and his daughter ... my lovely and charming (is there any other kind?) just-turned-14-year-old granddaughter ... arrived for their annual sailing trip into the San Juan Islands. And as was the case last year, our grandson from south of Tacoma who is 16, joined us on Misty Isle, my venerable Tartan 30.

This trip was a bit different in its beginnings. I'd not bore anyone with this tale except for the unusual circumstance of shooting Deception Pass in near-zero visibility fog. Look up Deception Pass, if you're curious. It is narrow, cursed with a shelfed floor that retards a huge impoundment of water in both directions, and on the ebb tide attains swirling currents of nine knots. If a west wind is blowing, a series of haystack waves build up just outside the pass, a real hazard for the unwary boater.

We needed to run through at 0900 slack to make a run north up Rosario Strait to our destination at Sucia Island. Afternoon slack would be too late to complete the trip that day.

As we approached the pass a heavy fog settled all around us. Misty Isle has radar with an LCD grayscale display mounted atop the sliding companionway hatch. It showed the notch of the pass dead ahead. We also use a GPS-tracking digital chart display on a laptop that shows our position relative to our intended route through the pass and beyond.

The old-fashioned steering compass is essential in this case, as the pass is cursed with swirling currents that can turn one's boat 30 or more degrees in a few seconds. This is too fast for GPS tracking to follow, and radar display suffers 'persistence ghosting' on the screen that obscures the display.

The only instrument that helps is the compass ... and a fast hand on the tiller to bring the boat back on course.

We eased through the pass between faint shadows in the fog that were the towering cliff walls on either side. The grandson stood in the bow pulpit, blowing our mouth-trumpet foghorn. My son stood sharp-eyed lookout beside me while I steered by radar, GPS track, and compass. We groped our way out and made a rounding turn to starboard, forging blind in the fog for another treacherous passage, a narrow opening between razor-backed reefs on the port side and a towering cliff on the starboard side into Bowman Bay, a small anchorage and resting place. We waited there for two hours for the tide to reverse in Rosario Strait so we'd not be clawing our way against the currents going north to Sucia.

Our region is cursed with fog during the latter days of summer. Most recreational boats have radar for that reason. It came early this year.

During flight training for my private license I spent some time flying my little Cessna 150 under the hood, relying on panel instruments to maintain level flight and to stay on course. It was tiring and nerve-wracking. But there was always the option of lifting the hood and getting a clear view outside the cockpit.

Not so in the fog. I've had a lot of practice at it while cruising in Misty Isle these last several years. But it's always tiring and nerve-wracking. And there's no hood to lift for a clear view.

Anyway, that's my story. We had lovely days hiking and kayaking around Sucia Island, and a totally different and charming visit at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. If you ever get there, check out the Chinese restaurant two blocks up the main street from the ferry landing. They serve some of the best pizza in the region!