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A sail into the foggy abyss offers one of life's truly genuine experiences

2015 October 15

Had we heeded the forecaster’s gloomy wind warnings, we would not have started the race, but 20 sailboats slipped over the line at 18:30 and inched up the 21-mile course. An hour—and two tedious miles—later, a red sun set leaving a starless sky. Two hours and barely four miles in, the fog came down like a black velour lining a coffin. Wet. Dark. Deadly.

I’ll not become accustomed to thick night fog, no matter how often I sail in it. I recall a windy offshore race years ago, charging along at 9 knots in fog so dense and night so dark that our own masthead was gone. Lacking perspective, the driver was forced to steer by a too small, too low binnacle compass. The crew was supposed to be watching forward and out, but you can only look at blackness and listen to white noise so long. Eyes were drawn to the backlit dome like bugs to a cowboy campfire. With 300 other boats careening up the lake that night, a catastrophic collision seemed inevitable and imminent.

Whereas night fog with wind dulls and blocks the senses, fog without wind confounds them; not because you can’t see and hear, but because of what you think you see and hear. In dark quiet, the gurgle of another boat’s bow-wave is directionally unidentifiable and, somehow, much louder than it is or much softer than it should be. A former competitor’s motoring 30-footer is easily confused, or at least imagined, to be a big tug and barge. A powering trawler can seem like a murmuring ghost, invisible but close enough to flutter the hair on your neck. Lights aloft often appear before lights down low, so distance and headings can’t be judged. One crewmate called it the 50-foot universe, complete with angels and demons.

This forced me to the bow pulpit, where, recalling the cowboy campfire, I felt a fatherly duty to stand a forward watch. Staring into the abyss, I wondered why we had started this race in the first place but was soon comforted by swelling laughter from the cockpit. The kids were reveling in the night. It was wet, yes, but they were dry, warmly dressed and together. It was dark, yes, but they seemed to be creating their own light, working sails, talking about angles and speed and telling stories. It might have seemed deadly to some, but we were doing the right things to manage risk. We had a radar reflector and an eye on the GPS, the compass and the depthsounder. We had spare radios, fog horns, batteries, flashlights, AIS and navigation instruments. We routinely looked and listened outside the boat and when a competitor’s haloed masthead light came into view or we heard voices, there was considerable discussion about courses and giving room and we took fast action.

It was a great time despite the fog, and at the same time, because of the fog.

We’re hard pressed in this modern, shrink-wrapped world to find something not contrived, even when we’re outside, trying to be active. More than not, fishing is about catching something hatched in a pool and stocked for a sportsperson. Camping is done on driveways in mobile mansions sporting satellite television, air-conditioning and gas grills. Hunting has been reduced to whacking a barn-raised pheasant made dizzy by spinning prior to planting so the bird can’t fly far or fast. Parks are planned around themes and sponsored sports, not outdoor spaces or pick-up games. Forests aren’t made of trees planted by nature, but by companies that want pulp for paper. With a nod to friends who golf and ski, you folks are paying to have an environment made for you.

Sailing stands apart as a true natural experience. You enter the elements head first and don’t try to escape them; indeed, often you can’t. Sure, committees, charterers and coaches will watch for bad weather and choose not to sail some days. But if you sail enough, you will inevitably face nature in ways that you can’t control and that you try to embrace but must endure. It may come as an unexpected blast of new wind on what has been a benign and predictable summer day. It may be a brief rain squall, or a front so black and long that it seems as if night has come at noon. You may observe cat’s-paws tiptoeing through an otherwise windless morning and wait hours for the 12-knot sea breeze they foretell. You might luck into a full night of spinnaker reaching by moonlight, or spend whole days hiking and beating to get home against whipped up seas, or blow a weekend bobbing, tanning and swimming while waiting for a wind that never comes. You may find fog thick enough to cause claustrophobia and vertigo, like we did. You’ll deal with it.

It is real. It is authentic. It’s not always great, but it is better than not being there, and it sometime inspires. And it hammers most sailors into resilient and contented folks with true stories of surprise, humility, resourcefulness and grit, because they are among the last few humans to actually be in nature.

And it begins, ironically, in the shadow of a busy city, a short drive or walk from the office or the school. An urban outdoors; ancient, unvarnished, organic and wild, one step off a dock and just outside of a seawall. Sailing’s best-kept secret.

The organizers eventually abandoned the foggy race and radioed competitors to report their whereabouts and plans to make safe harbor. The forecast for windlessness had firmed and no boat would finish within the time limit. Half the fleet turned home and the other half soldiered blindly into the wee morning hours, because there would be another race the next day at the destination port. That event, incidentally, was called off due to fog. Darn.