Actions a skipper and crew should take in restricted visibility

Probably the greatest hazard to the seafarer is poor visibility, specifically fog. Sailing at night may seem intimidating to the novice skipper, unless visibility is reduced by fog or rain, night sailing holds no fears to the competent navigator.

Fog is different. Much like skiing in a ‘white out’, fog is surprisingly disorientating and can easily lead a sailor, or even larger shipping, into danger.  So what can we do to mitigate the dangers fog may bring?

Most obvious, never go to sea in fog. It is one thing to have to deal with a problem once it presents itself, but quite another to embrace it knowingly and with abandon! If it is foggy, the sailor should use caution. The best way to mitigate risk is to stay at home!

Assuming then that we are already at sea when fog arrives what can we do to help keep us safe?

Here are a few actions you should take when sailing in fog;

  • Upon approach of fog plot a position on your chart and mark it in the log.
  • Turn on navigation lights
  • Locate the fog horn, pass it to deck and instruct the crew on how to use it properly. Remember, this will vary dependent on your circumstances. For example, are you sailing or motoring?
  • Turn on RADAR and any enhancements with which your vessel may be fitted.
  • Allocate an appropriate crew member to maintain a RADAR, AIS and VHF watch below deck. Make sure you brief them properly.
  • Stay away from deep channels where shipping is likely. Use your depth sounder and good old pilotage to skirt your way safely along a depth contour on the edge of a channel.
  • If they are not already, make sure everyone on deck is wearing lifejackets. Make sure crew below deck know where there jackets are - although this should have been part of your pre-departure brief.
  • Consider making your liferaft ready to launch.  This is a more sensible option when operating inshore near busy channels and shipping lanes. Offshore in quiet waters, especially in bad weather, removing a heavy liferaft from a small yacht’s lazarette brings its own risks.
  • Instruct all crew to concentrate and keep a good watch both buy both looking and listening.

The first time you sail into thick fog, especially near busy shipping lanes, you will be amazed at how vulnerable you feel. Trust your instincts, be cautious and stay calm.  If you don’t have radar, AIS or a GPS with chartplotter then things can be a lot more challenging. In this instance, knowing your starting point, coupled with accurate pilotage techniques and a robust reliance on your depth sounder should see you home safe and with a story to tell.