It was a dead-still morning and the harbor at Port Angeles was shrouded in a deep fog. The sun was somewhere to the east still climbing the slope of the Cascades, and the morning twilight was too weak to penetrate the mist.
This wasn’t the first time I had navigated in fog. But it was certainly the worst fog I have navigated in. Our plan was to make a more than 50-mile run to Neah Bay and the observations on NOAA weather radio weren’t encouraging — the fog was bad and it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon.
On previous boats, I probably would have poked my head out of the cabin, looked around and then crawled back into my warm bunk and gone back to sleep.
But we were determined to make the next leg of our trip to Barkely Sound. And I had weapons in my navigation arsenal that I’d never had before — a radar and chartplotter.
The strong ebb current that would help whisk us out the Strait of Juan de Fuca wasn’t going to wait for the fog to burn off. So neither were we.
With the engine rumbling in neutral and the reassuring splash of water from our exhaust, I fired up the radar, turned on the chartplotter and laid in a course that would keep us out of the Vessel Traffic Separation zones.
After topping off my coffee mug I freed our mooring lines and gave the boat a push, feeling 22,000 pounds of displacement giving way slowly and reluctantly.
We proceeded slowly down the marina fairway. It was strange how a place that felt so safe the day before now felt like some weird haunted house. The fog seemed to close in tighter. The soft outlines of boats loomed in the darkness, but refused to sharpen. Then they sank without a sound into the murky air like they were lost for all time.
As we cleared the breakwater, I breathed a little easier. Port Angeles is a large harbor and I doubted there would be much traffic out that early on a morning so think with fog.
I gripped the boat’s wheeI tightly and caught myself fixating on the chartplotter and the radar image that I had overlaid on the screen. I reminded myself that in fog I needed to use all of my senses. I needed to keep my eyes moving and my ears open for a sound — any sound — that might suggest danger.
I reached into the line locker next to me and grabbed the air horn. I should have done that before I left the dock. But now at least, I had a signaling device at hand. If I needed it.
Then I told myself to take a slow, 360-degree scan.
I knew that an entire city sat just a half-mile away. But it was an abstraction. All I could see was a thick curtain of indistinguishable gray just beyond the reach of my fingertips. I sipped my coffee and tried to relax a little.
I glanced at the chartplotter. Suddenly there was a radar target directly ahead. I waited for the next radar beam pass to register, hoping it was a mirage.
But there it was.
We were motoring at 4 knots, and I slowed the boat even more. I adjusted our course to starboard to pass what I hoped would be port to port with the object.
We crept closer. I stared ahead. I turned farther to starboard.
Then I caught the first glimpse of something darker gray. My eyes traced the emerging shape from the water upward.
With growing alarm I realized I was looking at the bow of a large ship — the starboard side of a large ship.
I quickly turned the boat hard to port, fearing that any other move would have placed me in even greater danger.
I stared at the bow as it swung to the starboard side of my boat. Was it moving too? Was that a wake? Did I hear an engine?
I couldn’t tell.
For several more seconds, I held my breath. We were way too close for comfort.
As more of the details came into view, I began to grow slightly more confident that this ship wansn’t moving. I still could not see an anchor chain running into the water. But I was taking no chances. We would go around this vessel’s stern.
A few minutes later, we were out of danger, whether real or imagined. I felt a sense of relief as the looming stern faded into the gray wall of fog.
I looked around again before sitting back down on the pilot’s seat and sipping my coffee.
This fog wasn’t going anywhere. But we were. I settled in for a very long day.