Navigation by fathometer in the fog

Published on April 27th, 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 Bruce Matlack:
In 1973, while living in Southern California, I bought a 36 foot steel cutter up north in Benicia, CA. I flew two crew up and scheduled a local compass adjuster to show up and adjust the compass which was known to be useless. But the adjuster failed to show, so we shoved off from deep in San Francisco Bay in clear weather anyway to make it through the Golden Gate Bridge on one tide.

I figured we could swing the compass ourselves (how hard could it be?) on that six hour run across the Bay. Well, compass adjusting never happened, but we did make the tide into the Pacific Ocean and headed left down the coast for San Pedro, CA. But upon our turn south, the fog rolled in and we never saw land or had any position again until Pt Conception when I spied a missile gantry.

It turned out to be Vandenberg AFB materializing out of the mist, where I had been stationed for three years. That was just total luck as I had made the decision to head for the mainland to get a fix with only a Fathometer to navigate by. I figured we’d go until we hit land as the fog lifted to an eighth mile visibility, using the prevailing swell for a rough idea of compass direction.

Rounding Point Conception, we were greeted with warm sunny weather and trekked into fog-less Santa Barbara Harbor with a sick engine and sicker stomachs. Alas, our stress with the fog was over, but only temporarily as we soon learned.

On our final leg south to San Pedro, we were a mile or two outside of the breakwater of busy Los Angeles Harbor when the fog closed in thick again. We were sleepless and beat up and at this point in no shape to be going through it all again with virtually no compass.

The engine had also jumped off its mounts for the second time in the voyage, and this time the return diesel fuel line broke and was pumping fuel into the bilges. The engine sounded like a caged animal trying to escape.

While I was falling asleep at the tiller with a lookout on the bow, the lookout yelled, “Rocks!” I put the tiller over hard and we escaped the jagged jetty with inches to spare. I sailed the breakwater line of rocks until they disappeared completely into the fog and turned to port hoping this meant that we had found the harbor opening.

As luck would have it again, I must have been correct because the swell died and the fathometer started beeping. The sudden near collision with a huge tug boat with the Name “San Pedro” high up on its starboard bow was a confirmation that we had made it into heavy traffic. We barely missed a head-on with her as she nastily blew us off with her loudest horn and seemingly didn’t give our errant ship an inch.

Blindfolded, we inched forward to find shallow enough water to drop the hook. All the time mind you, we have no idea really where we are. After some time, maybe an hour of wandering around in the thickest of fog with unseen horns blaring from all directions, I found just two feet under the keel and we dropped the hook.

However, unbeknownst to me, we had wandered into the most restricted area of a Navy base, and I was soon brought ashore to be more than highly dressed down by a base commander. When my blind fold was lifted, I could not believe where we had miraculously ended up safely with hook down. Without a clue, I still can’t believe I did that!

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