We left Provincetown, MA at 9:30am on a sunny and cool Monday morning planning to hit calm seas, sun and gentle breezes for our ~32 hour sail north to Southwest Harbor, ME. Doug and Erin had the first watch until noon. We motored with little wind for the first few hours, then shifted to an easy downwind sail in light winds. The next few watches (Andy and me from noon – 4pm, Doug and Erin from 4pm – 8pm) were idyllic, the land faded away and the view was just ocean. We saw a few distant whales, the wind came and went, we listened to tunes, and teased Doug as he unsuccessfully tried to fish.
During Andy and my 8pm – 11pm watch, the wind died and it got cold. I looked like the Michelin Man in foul weather bibs, sweatshirt, parka, and rain jacket on top. The ever-warm Andy put socks on under his Tevas and donned his new sailing jacket from Uncle Matt. We noticed that the visibility was low and the stars disappeared, but didn’t notice the fog that in retrospect had deceptively slowly started to descend on the dark, moonless night.
When we climbed back into the cockpit for our 2am watch, we were shocked. We were socked in with a thick eerie fog. Everything on the boat was really wet, water puddled everywhere, Erin and Doug’s hats and hair were soaked. There was a 100 – 150 foot radius around the boat where we could see the water, but nothing beyond but fog. There was little to no wind. It was like being in a hazy, translucent bubble – you know there is more outside the bubble, you feel like you can almost see through the bubble, but you can’t. Just fog, everywhere. We knew we were in for a less than typical watch.
Offshore watches are typically an odd mix of communing with the wind and waves, fighting boredom, and from time to time the fun of spotting, tracking, and avoiding a passing ship. On Boundless, autopilot steers the boat on long passages, so being on watch isn’t like driving a car (except maybe a Tesla on self-driving mode!). Every 5 – 15 minutes depending on how remote we are, one of us visually scans the 360o around the boat looking for anything but ocean, mostly other boats. Then we check the chart plotter to ensure we are on course and again, to look for boats or anything but ocean.
The easiest way to look for boats on the chart plotter is via AIS. Vessels with AIS display their boat information directly on other AIS-equipped vessel’s chart plotters. The AIS system automatically determines when you and the other boat will be closest and how far apart you’ll be. For example, 20 minutes from now, you’ll be a half mile apart. With that information in hand, we decide if any action is needed. Maybe we’ll alter course, maybe we’ll call the other boat on the radio, or maybe we’ll just monitor their location as we pass silently in the night, a far-off light drifting out of sight.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that many boats up north use AIS. Chesapeake to Newport most larger boats and boats out at night had AIS. North of Newport, barely any. So, on this foggy night, we had to rely on our other option – radar.
Prior to offshore sailing, my knowledge of radar was from movies – a greenish screen with a glowing green line moving clockwise around the screen, revealing blips of objects in the distance. That’s pretty much true to form, except the screen isn’t green, the line is an “invisible line” that doesn’t actually display on the screen, and the objects that appear are often elusive.
Marine radar is an imperfect technology that relies on reflections off distant objects as it makes it’s scan of the horizon. Think about a wavy ocean. One horizon scan and Boundless is in the trough of a wave and so is the distant object – no radar target. The next scan both are at the top of waves – a clear target flashes on the screen. The next scan, one is up and one is down – a small blip, that might or might not be a target. Then a large wave breaks in the distance and radar thinks it’s a target and another blip appears, never to appear again. Elusive! Fog added more variability, and identifying boats became very difficult. In theory, the radar system allows you to “mark” a blip and track it as it comes in and out of view. But in these very foggy conditions, all but the largest and closest boats were too intermittent to be tracked.
We were reduced to staring intently at radar in a constant state of hyper-awareness, trying to identify inconsistent blips on the screen. Then trying to figure out if we were on a collision course or not. Our 2am – 5am watch seemed to last forever.
Our scariest moment came around 4:30am when we heard an engine in the distance. It sounded like a working lobster boat – engine running, then idle, repeat. And a few lobster pots had begun to pop in and out of our visual bubble. We checked radar and saw nothing. We stared into the fog and saw nothing. Then the engine revved loudly and sounded right next to us. We stared again into the fog, listening. Nothing. Radar made a few circuits around the horizon. Nothing. The ghost ship faded away.
As Andy and I handed the watch over to Doug and Erin, we were exhausted. Exhausted by the constant vigilance and the odd sensory deprivation of only seeing fog, but always searching to see and hear more. I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow.
8am and we were back on watch. The sun was up, but we couldn’t see it at all. The only difference was that the fog bubble glowed a little brighter. I thought we would be able to see a glow from the direction of the sun. But no, just an all-around lightening of the fog.
We were closer to the shore now and boats and lobster pots were more prevalent. We remained vigilant, but over time the uncertainly became oddly more routine. “Oh yeah, a mystery engine growl off the in the distance coming closer that we can’t see – been there, done that!” We got used to the fact that we can only do what we can, avoid only what we can detect.
At noon, I stayed on watch to help Doug navigate our way along the shoreline. Mostly we navigated between small islands that we could only see on radar. We knew they were close from radar and we could hear the water hitting the shores, but couldn’t see them. The fog would lighten periodically and we’d catch a glimpse of the shoreline before getting socked back into fog the bubble.
The water along the shore was dense with lobster pots. For Chesapeake Bay boaters, it’s like a cluster of crap traps, but everywhere and no “trap free channel”. For those last 3 hours, I sat near Boundless’ bow where I had the clearest view of the front of the fog bubble. I’d call out pot locations as they became visible at the edge of the bubble, helping direct Doug who was at the helm nimbly threading Boundless between the pots, or as nimbly as you can thread a 35 ton boat!
Happily, Neptune and Poseidon were smiling down on us as we neared the entrance to Southwest Harbor. Gusts of a wind came down and the fog opened up for about a half hour as we entered the harbor, navigated the dense web of pots, and met the harbor master at the entrance of the mooring field. He led us to our mooring ball and we celebrated our luck with the lifting fog.
We settled safely on our mooring as the fog bubble once again descended upon us. Then we crawled into our beds and crashed having found our way through 16 hours of fog.