Fog can be a serious issue for boaters, and here in Southwest Florida, the fog season is upon us. Even moderately foggy conditions can transform a trip down the Harbor from a relaxing, enjoyable, easily navigated jaunt into a nerve-wracking, go-slow, sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat task that requires intense and unflagging concentration.
Florida is not the foggiest place in the world. Just ask any boater hailing from California or Maine — they’ll regale you with horror stories about the dense summer fogbanks which boaters in those regions are forced to endure. But we do get our own “pea sousheepsheadp” conditions, most often during the winter months.
Most of the fog we experience occurs early in the day. Our typical pattern is for foggy conditions to develop in the wee hours of the morning while most sensible folks are still in bed. The fog typically reach its thickest shortly after sunrise, and then burns off by mid-morning when the rising sun heats things up. Fog usually begins to form miles inland from the coast and builds out towards the Gulf.
But this pattern doesn’t always hold true. Sometimes fog can form shortly after sunset. I can remember one year when we were trying to watch New Year’s Eve fireworks over the Harbor and were not able to see them at all. An extremely dense fog developed about 10 p.m. around the mouth of the Peace River. And occasionally we get really dense sea fog which forms out over the Gulf. There are days when sea fog lays over offshore waters all day long without ever burning off, even when conditions are sunny and clear just a few miles away over land.
To understand how and why these different fog patterns occur requires learning about the differences between several different types of fog; the relationships between temperature, humidity and dewpoint; the effect of wind and other meteorological stuff that’s boringly technical and not very exciting to study. Most people have no interest in spending the time that would be needed to become fog experts.
If you don’t understand how fog works, don’t feel bad about it. Even meteorologists can’t seem to predict it very well. The first day of a foggy pattern is seldom forecast accurately. But what we all need to understand is how to deal with fog when we are faced with it.
Fog limits visibility. I think everybody understands it’s a hazard when you can’t see who or what lies ahead, and when other boaters can’t see you coming at them. Then again, maybe not everybody — it has always amazed me how some boaters seem to ignore the reduced visibility and zoom around anyway.
I can tell you from my own experience that it’s more than a little unnerving to be anchored and fishing in a heavy fog when you hear a boat that you can’t begin to see approaching at a high rate of speed. You finally unpucker a few minutes after it passes you by.
But there’s more to it. Fog is disorienting, which accounts for the old saying about being “lost in the fog.” The average boater doesn’t spend much (if any) time practicing how to run a compass course or a tight GPS track with no visibility.
When most boaters encounter such dense fog that they cannot see any reference points around them — when nothing but fog is visible in any direction — they tend to unknowingly drift off course. Many will insist that they have not done so, in spite of the fact that their compass or GPS says otherwise. Airline pilots talk about “not wanting to believe your instruments” and this happens with boat skippers too.
And a surprising number of small vessels, especially small fishing boats, don’t have a compass at all. Many people think that a compass isn’t necessary when a fancy chartplotting GPS is mounted on their vessel’s dash. But there are reasons why having a compass is still a very, very good idea.
First of all, everything electrical will fail. Further, Murphy’s Law says that when your GPS does fail, it will fail at a bad time. If you were fishing 20 miles offshore and a fog rolled in, lowering visibility to 100 yards, would you be comfortable getting back to Boca Grande Pass without your GPS?
Besides, most GPS units don’t know which direction your bow is pointed and therefore can’t give you a heading until you are actually underway and moving along. If you’re relying solely on a GPS and have no compass, you might have to travel a ways in the wrong direction to get yourself in trouble before your GPS heading can begin to help you.
When it’s foggy or the visibility is otherwise reduced, boats are required to display running lights and make sound signals. However, I am of the opinion that the running lights and sound signals carried by most small boats are generally not strong enough to be effectively seen or heard in foggy conditions. I almost always spot the looming hull or cabin of a nearby vessel before seeing the running lights when it’s foggy.
And a perfectly legal boat horn will not be likely to be loud enough to be heard by the operator of most area boats that are underway. Cabin-equipped boats tend to muffle outside sounds, including fog signals, and most open boats subject the operator to enough wind and engine noise to overwhelm the sound made by the tooting of nearby horns.
So regardless of your instrumentation, slow down and pay close attention when that visibility drops.
Let’s go fishing!
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Call him at 941-639-2628 or email Captain@KingFishFleet.com.