Crossing shipping lanes in the fog

Published on April 11th, 2021

Avoiding collision requires visibility which is hard in the fog, and once was a whole lot harder before pinpoint navigation tools. But what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and provides good stories… here’s one of them:

From Chuck Hawley:
When I was graduated from high school in 1973, my parents allowed me to take the family’s Herreshoff H-30 ketch from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara and back with four of my classmates as a graduation present. Sailing along the California coast in summer is an exercise in avoiding very strong NW winds in the afternoon when northbound, and navigating in dense fog, all while avoiding coastal shipping traffic. A perfect place for teenagers!

We made it down the coast, somehow, to Santa Barbara, and decided to head across to Santa Cruz Island on a particularly foggy day, cutting directly across the busy shipping lanes that connect Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor to the North Pacific.

We were aiming for a small harbor called Fry’s Harbor, and as our Loran-A had given up the ghost (yes, Loran-A, using the 2H2 chain of stations) we had no choice but to dead reckon. Finding the island was not an issue, as it was about 20 miles across and we were 20 miles away, but finding a specific harbor was an issue.

Due to the fog, we wouldn’t know whether to turn to starboard or port when the island came into view. We decided to aim “high” and sail to a point that we felt MUST be west of our actual destination, and then sail along the coast within visual range of shore (200 yards perhaps?) and find our harbor.

So, that’s what we did. Shortly after departing, the Santa Barbara Channel winds came up, and we had a three sail reach in dense fog to the island, which showed up visually, and on the flasher depth sounder, approximately on time. We then cracked off and sailed as far from the coast as we could without losing sight of the shore.

About 15 minutes later, Fry’s Harbor came into view, with its characteristic broken rock shoreline, dating from the construction of the Santa Barbara Harbor breakwater. We anchored and congratulated each other on our wisdom.

The fog lifted before sunset, and we were presented with a view north to the mainland, and the many, many large vessels that followed the shipping lanes, across which we had just sailed. We’ll never know how close we came to any of them, and concluded that we had been lucky to have avoided them.

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