In less than a month, our first race of the season will begin. The Annapolis Newport Race is one of the iconic races on the East Coast of the U.S. and we are delighted to have Suntex Marinas as one of our key sponsors this year. They have helped bring a sense of adventure and excitement to our racing season.
With the Annapolis Newport Race coming up, and the Volvo Ocean Race boats at Newport, RI, I thought it would be a great opportunity to take the available crew up to Newport on the ocean side for some pre-race training. It would be the first sail of the season for them. Given that the plan was to leave on Mother’s Day, we decided to leave later in the evening around 9 pm. After all, Moms were the priority that day!
The weather forecast was generally good. Winds were forecasted at 10-15 knots (with gusts to 20 knts) from the south and shifting to the southwest later. That would make for a great broad reach through part of the night, then a fun spinnaker run up to Newport. The less exciting part of the forecast was the dense fog advisory in effect until the following day around noon.
Fortunately, the fog held off as we left Liberty Landing Marina and headed under the Verrazano Bridge out onto the open ocean. It was a beautiful initial three hours of sailing on a warm evening with stars acting as our guide. Alas, it was too short though. By 12:30 the fog began to roll in and ended up staying with us for the remainder of the sail up to Newport.
Some of the crew were initially nervous about sailing in dense fog. After all, how can you sail if you can’t see? Granted, at first it can be quite intimidating, but if properly prepared, it is manageable. Obviously, the biggest concern on the ocean is the potential of a collision with a (usually much bigger) boat. However, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the risk. Namely, understanding how to use radar and knowing how to use AIS (Automatic Identification System).
One of the most important tools for sailing at times of limited visibility is radar. Radar gives us the ability to “see” objects such as land, other ships and navigation markers even when there is dense fog and in the dark of night. However, it does take time to understand radar and to properly interpret what appears on the screen. The crew will have good practice on this sail.
Another tool is AIS which will show nearby boats as triangles on a chart plotter (electronic map). Clicking on the triangle will give you that boat’s navigational details including whether it is on a collision course. The two key terms to know with AIS are CPA (closest point of approach) and TCPA (time of closest point of approach). This data essentially tells you how close the risk of a collision is and when that could occur.
Once the crew settled in to a night of sailing in fog off the coast of Long Island, people relaxed somewhat. However, they soon encountered another challenge. Helming a true course in fog can be quite difficult as there are no visual cues such as the moon or stars to help steer a straight line. Nevertheless, there are still sensory clues that can help. One of the techniques I teach is to feel the direction of wind on your face or head when you are sailing on course and try to constantly be sensitive to that, using it as a guide. Also, the boat will have a certain motion as it sails with the waves on a particular direction. Learning to feel that is important for good helming. Finally, there is the compass that can be used to help steer a straight course. Just remember that you don’t want to simply react to compass changes as the slow swinging of the compass can lead to over steering.
Sailing on a broad reach along the coast there was a time or two when the person at the helm accidentally gybed and began sailing in the opposite direction (oops!). But with time, everyone improved remarkably. For those whom it was a first time sailing in fog at night it was a great learning experience, and they improved considerably by the end of the trip.
Daylight hours did not bring any relief from the fog. It stayed socked in around us with visibility less than ½ mile and at times, less than a hundred yards. It was disappointing for some to pass close to Montauk Point without being able to see it. Later as we rounded Block Island, we passed navigational markers less than a quarter mile away although we could not visually see them. However, they did show up on radar and they could be heard through the dense fog.
It wasn’t until we were close to Newport that we saw our first sight of land. Castle Hill Light slowly appeared out of the fog as we made our approach, and then one by one other landmarks began to appear out of the mist. As we rounded Fort Adams, we could see the Volvo Ocean Race Village and the six boats all tied up at the docks. It was a beautiful and exciting sight!