Fogbound! Crossing the Channel
The passage began with a beautiful afternoon departure. Passing the castle guarding the entrance to Falmouth harbour we pointed the bows towards France. There was a light southerly breeze and a forecast for a quiet night.
The channel crossing is around 100 miles from Falmouth to the Rade de Brest and we needed to reach the strong tides of the Chenal du Four (at the corner of France near Brest) near dawn when they would be in our favour. This means crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world in the dark. Then the fog rolled in!
I don’t think we have ever seen a thicker fog! We could just see the bow of the boat 40 feet away, but nothing more. Our navigation lights created pools of light in the fog and mist settled on everything. For the next 8 hours we could see nothing past our own decks.
I have written before about AIS and how much we like having it. WELL!! If ever a device paid its keep it was that night. We could see every ship out there and they could see us as well. We did not have to worry about the shipping lanes.
We were crossing before the start of the TSS (Traffic Separation Scheme) which directs shipping around the corner of France so were not obligated to cross at a direct right angle. However our course was at right angles anyway. And when shipping is so nice and organized it is best to cross it quickly and be away from the area as soon as possible.
Of course not all boats have an AIS transponder. So our biggest worry in the thick fog is smaller boats such as fishing boats and other yachts. As we were leaving the coast there was another sailboat in sight and he DID have an AIS. But naturally there might be others. We have used the radar often in broad daylight to check how it works at picking up smaller boats. It is good to practice with the equipment. I find that we usually see a reasonable echo for small sailboats around 3 miles away. Over here in Europe most boats have a radar reflector mounted up on the mast - the most popular by far is the ones that look like a white 6 inch diameter fender. But even when I can’t see a reflector in their rigging, we usually pick up sailboats 3 miles away. Certainly 1-2 miles even small day-boats show up as a nice target. Sheryl is particularly good at reading the radar, noticing a faint target that only appears occasionally will then reappear in the same spot after a couple more rotations of the scanner.
The fog lay like a heavy wool blanket over the sea. There was no moon but during Sheryl’s watch from 2200 to 0100 the fog would occasionally clear above the mast head to reveal a few stars. But still at deck level we were rolling along in a thick air, cut into precise sector slices by our nav lights. We were not yet in the shipping lanes so there were no ships during this watch. Sheryl saw two targets on radar, one crossing our bow at two miles distance. With worrying radar targets, we set a few waypoints on it’s position to mark their track. One of the targets must have been a fishing boat nearly stationary as the waypoints showed it almost still.
There were also a number of larger fishing boats, thankfully all running AIS. In one case, I was just altering course to avoid it when it turned directly towards us just 2 miles away.
"Distant Shores Distant Shores, This is fishing vessel Eruva. We are fishing and are just about to alter course and I will be travelling at 045 degrees. Could you give me four cables searoom astern."
"Eruva, Distant Shores, roger we will alter course to pass your stern by half a mile"
What a great recommendation for the AIS technology. In fog we both could see each other clearly, and he knew our boat name to give us a call.
The fog cleared by dawn and we arrived in France at Camaret!
AIS Transponders by Raymarine