Because of some windy and nasty weather I got stuck in Potter Cove on Prudence Island in mid-May of this year. The winds were blowing steadily and well over thirty knots for a couple of days from the southeast and southwest; it was an easy sail getting to the island but I knew it would not be at all easy getting back to Newport. A growing weather system had been causing issues south of New England for the past few days and I was aware of the possible worsening conditions of wind direction and speed. (On this trip I knew that I was rolling the dice.) For example, I tried to sail back to Newport after one night in the cove; however, I had thirty knots of southeast wind and a head tide right on the nose. This was too much work so I stayed another night and I planned to leave the cove
early the next morning at 0600. When I awoke and was drinking my coffee and listening to the NOAA forecast, my gut told me to leave an hour before I had planned. This turned out to be a wise move because the extra hour would help me dodge a serious visibility problem later that morning. In sailing, as in life, sometimes a simple decision can actually be profound and make all the difference for us—this was a prime example.
Fog has always bothered me—always. It bothered me whether I was on a boat with or without radar; there is just something unnerving about not having a horizon or a line of sight on something. Fog can play games with our judgment and inner ear. I don’t like these games because of the uncertainty and confusion with decision making. Moreover, regardless of instrumentation on any boat, things can go sideways very quickly, as I’ve witnessed a few times on row boats, ferryboats, and sailboats. Navigating in fog is serious business and can have serious and life threatening consequences. On my thirty-foot Ericson Reverie I only have a marine radio, a compass and a chart; therefore, I need to make very prudent decisions when I take off on a sailing trip. Furthermore, I sail alone most of the time and I need to be on my game. I’ve read of several maritime disasters since I was a teenager, and as a result, I’ve become aware of several types of navigational problems.
I always think of the Titanic in regards to technology gone awry. The ocean liner didn’t have radar; it was invented about twenty years after her demise. The ship however did have a wireless system developed by Guglielmo Marconi, and this technology was cutting-edge stuff at that time. The passengers of the Titanic were so excited to be on this first Atlantic crossing, that they overtaxed the wireless system. Their zealous desire to share their grand moments with their friends via the wireless operators overwhelmed the wireless and operators; sadly, here is where things went wrong. The SS Californian was a ship traveling near the Titanic, and she had wired a message warning the ship of icebergs in their vicinity. The wireless operator was slammed with messages being sent, and he disregarded the message in a brusque manner to the SS Californian’s wireless operator. Subsequently, the Titanic’s operator went to sleep and never passed the crucial information to the ship’s bridge. The endgame of this decision doesn’t need explanation. What I learned here from reading about this decades ago, is that you can have all the technology that’s available, but you also need a human being monitoring the systems in order for them to be effective. Human error sunk the Titanic and not the wireless invention of Marconi. Much was learned from this tragedy.
My sail back to Newport began with more wind than I had bargained for and fortunately there was some outgoing tide to hustle me south. As I sailed across the east passage on my first tack I noted a mass of ugly weather coming from the southeast. The clouds were greenish with black and silver streaks. This mess was moving west. The Pell Bridge was visible. At this speed over ground I figured I’d be in Newport in two hours while entering a slack tide south of the bridge. Things were looking good and the boat was sailing well. I made more coffee as I set up for a long tack toward the north end of Jamestown. I had twenty knots of southeast wind, decent visibility, and no tanker traffic - easy. This however, would change in an hour and a half.
As I was sailing on a port tack while coming under the bridge during the expected slacking tide, I was setting up to sail right into Newport Harbor. I made note of my compass heading. The wind suddenly increased as I passed just a hundred meters south of the bridge. I could see the House on The Rocks off Jamestown, the Rose Island Lighthouse, and a dim outline of Fort Adams. As I sailed close to
the wind I knew my boat’s position and felt confident. This changed as I looked south. Suddenly, the bridge’s booming fog alarm sounded; when I looked aft there was no bridge. This meant that very bad visibility was imminent. First, I lost the House on the Rocks, and then the Rose Island Lighthouse ghosted on me. I kept to my heading and sailed Reverie as fast as she could go. Slowly, the faint
outline of Fort Adams also vanished. There was a car carrier inbound and her pilot was taking her to Quonset.
I felt cautiously unsettled and then something happened.
Just as I lost my last frame of reference, the stern of a 120-foot ocean sailing yacht appeared right off my bow. The crew were lowering the sails of the ketch-rigged yacht and preparing to head into the main harbor. It turned out that this professionally-crewed sailing yacht had left earlier from Newport for a trip across the Atlantic. The boat had lost its weather window off Nantucket and was coming back to Newport and would wait out the weather. I caught these guys just as they heading to the Newport Shipyard. I rolled up my headsail, and loaded my diesel with RPMs. I followed this boat closely through the fairway and quickly made it to my mooring. Just as I tied Reverie to her pennant, the visibility went to zero. Yup, I dodged a bullet. Fog is humbling stuff. ‘Nuff said.