Carr: Fog, Fog, Fog…and Fatigue

Portsmouth Harbor Light. Photo: Scott Ray / CC BY 2.0

By Michael Carr – Standing was the only option, but I was now falling asleep standing up. I would drift off, my knees would buckle, and I would suddenly wake up as I collapsed in my sailboat’s cockpit.

Staying awake for more than 20 minutes at a time was becoming more and more difficult. The fog was thick and unrelenting. There was no wind, just fog, which condensed on my sails and rigging and dripped on deck and then onto me. I had been awake for 30 hours, ever since the fog had set in after I had crossed the Gulf Stream. Solid Gulf of Maine summer fog.

Every 15 minutes I gave a security call on VHF channel 13 and 16, “Securite Securite Securite, this is sailing vessel…….10 miles east of Cape Cod buoy…motoring on course…..standing by for any concerned traffic…”

I pulled back my foul weather gear hood and listened. All I could hear was the cooling water exhaust from my boat’s engine. Flat seas, no wind, no other sounds. Deprived of any visual clues I could only gauge my position from the black and white TDs appearing on my Apelco Loran C.

I had to get past Cape Cod and Cape Ann. Too many possible commercial ships and fishing boats. I drank coffee, and water, and juice. I urinated constantly, reluctant to go below deck so I peed into the cockpit’s scuppers, making a game out of the routine.

Make a Securite call, drink coffee, check position, plot a position and DR. Check autopilot. Check engine gauges, check running lights, pee, make a log entry. I just kept myself doing the routine. Making 7 knots over the ground, five more hours I would be past Cape Ann.

My plan was to make it past Cape Ann, to get halfway between Cape Ann and the Isles of Shoals and then stop and sleep. Just stop the boat, shut down the engine, make a security call, and lie down in the cockpit. Just hang on for 5 more hours I told my brain.

I played games to deceive myself. OK, last hour does not count, so really only 4 hours, just like a watch on ship. Anyone can do a four-hour watch. Just do the routine. Finally, we were passing Cape Ann. And then, somehow, we were 5 miles south of Star Island. My mind was fried.

I pulled back the throttle and put my boat in neutral. I made a Securite call. “Securite…adrift in position…standing by for any concerned traffic…” No calls came back. I had no idea what time it was, sometime in the middle of the night. The fog was even thicker than before. I shut down my boat’s Westerbeke engine. So quiet, not a sound. Floating in a big ocean with nothing in sight. I lay down on the cockpit bench, covered in layers of thermal clothing and foul weather gear.

I don’t remember falling asleep. I think as soon as my brain realized it did not need to function anymore it just shut down. Then I woke up. My eyes opened and I detected light. It was no longer night, definitely day, but the fog was still thick. I sat up.

OK, I thought, all seems OK. Still drifting. I sat for a few minutes, waiting for my brain to warm up to operating status. The first mission was to make fresh coffee. Next, check my position. Down the companionway to the galley. Turn on the propane stove, make hot water. With coffee in hand, I eased back to the navigation table.

I looked at Loran and wrote down TDs, then slowly and meticulously plotted TDs on the Loran chart. We were 2 miles from the fix I had plotted before shutting down and drifting. How long had it been? I checked my time, looked at the last fix. I had been soundly asleep for several hours. Wow, I feel good I thought. OK, let’s get going.

I started up the Westerbeke, still no wind. Need to motor the rest of the way. I was 10 miles from Portsmouth NH harbor entrance. A week earlier I had departed Bermuda by myself. I re-engaged the Alpha Marine autopilot, the boat made a big arc getting back on course, and then steadied up. Ok, here we go, I was feeling much better.

Coffee laced with hot chocolate and sweetened condensed milk. Breakfast of champions. I brought the throttle up to 2000 RPMs, we were 6 miles from Portsmouth Harbor Entrance. With no wind, I went on deck, harnessed to webbing jack lines, and doused the mainsail.

And then the fog started to clear. From 50 feet of visibility, it lifted to 100 ft and then I came out of the fog. The heat from land often burns off the fog, and today that happened just as I came upon Portsmouth Harbor’s bell buoy.

We were home, and up the river, we went. Sipping coffee, life was good.