I recently enjoyed Frank Taylor’s excellent article about navigating in the fog (Lakeside, February 2023) and it brought back a lot of memories. Probably the most famous example of a collision in fog was the Italian liner “Andria Doria” and the Swedish liner “Stockholm” in 1956. They were both proceeding too fast in conditions of limited vision and navigating by their radars. Sure enough, they plowed right into one another, sinking the Italian ship with the loss of about 50 passengers. This is called a “Radar Assisted Collision.”
Closer to home, where I used to live in New Jersey, there was a commuter ferry line running back and forth to New York City, 19 miles away. Piloting the ferry was a no-brainer because you could see where you were going the whole time, from the tall buildings in Manhattan to the lighthouse on top of the hill in Highlands. That is unless it was foggy! Then you had to depend on instruments and common sense to safely find your way.
In this instance, two of the ferry boats were running in opposite directions and navigating with radar. They were sailing on the same course they traveled multiple times a day. The two captains were talking to each other on the radio when they collided head on! There were multiple injuries but no loss of life.
My most memorable experience in the fog was the Brooklyn Bridge Centennial celebration in 1983. (The bridge was unique in its time because it was the longest steel cable suspension in the world, and the cables had been spun in place.) The anniversary celebration was to be marked at sunset by a spectacular fireworks display over the bridge in NY Harbor. My brother Haik (who had the marina) and I had planned to take a group of friends to see the show aboard his 38-foot cabin cruiser. Our younger brother Tom was working as a charter captain on a fancy 54-foot yacht, equipped with all the most modern navigational equipment available, including radar and Loran (a sort of radio direction finder). He was taking the owner and his family to see the fireworks as well, and we planned to meet up at the bridge.
On the big day, the fog closed in about noontime cutting visibility to less than 100 yards. Taking the chance that it would clear before sunset we went anyway. Haik and I had a new chart of the area, and we had an accurate compass and a copy of the tide and current tables. We made sure all the running lights as well as our powerful searchlight and foghorn were in working order.
Going down the river was no problem because it was our own “backyard.” However, once we passed Sandy Hook into New York Bay we had all kinds of tides and currents to contend with. Since we regularly raced sailboats in these waters, we were very familiar with the way the currents affected us navigating from buoy to buoy. As we approached Manhattan Island the traffic was increasing, although it was all going in the same direction. All eyes on our boat were on the alert and we used our horn and searchlight to let others know of our presence.
As soon as we got into the East River, the fog magically lifted and we could see stars overhead, the New York skyline, and thousands and thousands of boats! We finally spotted Tom who was anchored under the bridge at our rendezvous point. We pulled up beside him and I asked if we could side-tie instead of anchoring, as the water was 80 feet deep and “what goes down, must come up.” He declined saying that his anchor windlass was five years old, and he didn’t want to wear it out! I replied that we had an anchor windlass “by Armstrong” and it was 42 years old and had worn out a long time ago!
The fireworks were just as spectacular as anticipated and for a lot of our passengers, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Afterward, there was a mad scramble as everyone wanted to get their anchors up and beat the crowd heading home. We stayed put for a while, as did Tom until the crowd thinned out because at events like this, there is usually alcohol involved and judgment is impaired, and it’s best not to put yourself in harm’s way.
We finally hauled anchor and headed down the East River. As soon as we got into New York Harbor, the fog closed in again, thicker than before and now it was dark. This is a mixed blessing because even though visibility is less, you can see the reflections of light better at night. We immediately lost sight of Tom with all his fancy navigational equipment so once again it was back to compass, parallel rule and tide and current chart to find our way home. We were in radio contact with him the whole time, and when we finally got into the mouth of our home river, we asked his position and he replied, “I’ve got you on my radar and I’m about 500 yards ahead of you and a little to starboard.” Haik replied: “Great, get us a table and order us a pitcher of beer, we’ll be there in five minutes.” Tom asked what he was talking about, and Haik explained “That position puts you right in the dining room of the Clam Hut” (our favorite restaurant). Tom replied, “No, I’m just coming around the point of the Hook” (with all his fancy navigational gear, he was about five miles away from the position he thought he was in!)
He finally arrived about an hour and a half later. After helping him tie up to the dock, I went aboard to see if he needed any more assistance. I noticed that the Loran chart on his navstation was opened to the wrong page! No wonder he was lost!
I guess the moral of the story is: if you have high tech equipment, know how to use it, and remember that low tech and common sense gets the job done!