Figuring out how to get from point A to point B on the water can be hard enough in broad daylight, and when it comes to navigating in heavy fog, pointing your boat in the right direction becomes 10 times harder. It also makes it 10 times more dangerous. Will you make it back to the dock in one piece, when it's foggy? We certainly hope so. To that end, here are five tips that will make your fog-bound boating skills sharper than most.
1. Don’t stare out into the abyss
You can only see so far through the fog, and if you try to see farther by staring into nothingness, you’ll quickly become disoriented. Instead, pick the farthest point at which you can see the intersection between water and fog—the fog horizon. Depending on how pea soup-ish it is, this may be 200 yards off the bow, or it might only be 20 or 30 yards. In either case, if you try to peer through the fog to see farther you’ll lose all point of reference. This is why quite often, people drive in circles in the fog without even realizing the boat isn’t going more or less in a straight line. Using the fog horizon as a point of reference at least allows you to recognize when the boat is changing course.
2. Slow down
Judging safe speed isn’t easy in restricted visibility. Going so slow that you can stop before hitting something isn’t slow enough, because another boat may be closing at a speed that’s absurdly fast for the conditions. So you need to go slower than slow enough. If you feel uncomfortable, you’re probably moving too fast for the conditions.
3. Get out of the traffic lanes and away from markers
Let’s say you’re out on the bay, and a sudden fog drifts in. You head for the barn, and reach the marker at the mouth of the river or the beginning of the channel. But from here, you can’t see any other landmarks. It will feel comforting to stay there next to the marker, so you know exactly where you are. But (unless you do your boating in very low traffic areas) everyone else who came out from that same river mouth or channel—and then got caught in the same fog bank—is going to be heading for that very same marker. And being around a bunch of moving boats in the fog is not a good idea.
The better move is to continue navigating slowly and safely towards home. If this isn’t possible (maybe your electronics went kaput and your compass is spinning in circles), move away from the marker or channel as far as you possibly can, before holding position. And if you’re moving through a high-traffic channel, stay out of the middle. If your draft allows, parallel the channel instead of staying in it.
4. Never ever—ever—stop inside of or at the mouth of an inlet
There are numerous reasons why this can lead to disaster: inlets often have heavy traffic, there can be fog outside of them when it appears clear from inside the bay (or vise-versa), and it’s often necessary to maintain headway when transiting an inlet in order to maintain control. If someone stops in or near the mouth of an inlet it can lead to a traffic jam, with washing-machine seas that have rocks on either side. The word “dangerous” barely even begins to describe the situation.
5. Listen to your sound signal’s echo
Naturally, you’ll be using a sound signal in heavy fog. But what many boaters fail to realize is that your sound signal isn’t just useful for alerting others to your presence, it’s also useful for figuring out where exactly your presence is—thanks to its echo. When there’s little wind you can hear the echo of your fog horn from land that may not be visible, often from hundreds of yards away. This can help you identify the location of an inlet, a creek mouth, or a point. Simply parallel the land at idle speed and as long as you hear the echo, you know land is there. When the echo doesn’t hit your ears, your boat has reached the creek mouth, river entrance, or inlet.
Now, with these five tips in your knowledge-base, are you ready for a day of boating in the fog? Heck no. No recreational boater ever really is. In fact, the very best way to get through a foggy day is sitting at the dock. Boating in restricted visibility is always going to be dangerous, and the very best thing you can do is avoid it in the first place by checking the weather regularly and staying in the slip when heavy fog threatens.
To find more articles and videos that will help you improve your captaining skills, check out our How To's Seamanship section.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in January 2015 and updated in January 2018.