Operating in fog demands boat smarts
by Tom Rau

queens cup Often, I chat with boaters regarding a wide range of boat-smart topics, fog being one. That topic came to the forefront after a fog bank shrouded the waters off Manistee during the Salmon Splash 333 fishing Tournament. The captains I spoke with emphasized safety and situational awareness when operating in fog: in other words, boat smart.

Manistee’s 2009 Salmon Splash 333 Best of the Best boasted a $10,000 first-place price. Needless to say, fog was not going to deter anglers from pursuing the grand prize, even it meant running in fog, which they did on the second day of the tournament. In all, there were 58 boats in the tournament.

With that many boats picking their way through the fog in close proximity, the chance for collisions seemed imminent, yet none occurred, or at least none that were reported. Several captains I spoke with told me they lost fishing lines, severed when boats crossed their stern. “But that comes with the territory,” said one captain, referring to the fog, especially when fishing lines extend well off the stern.

What impressed me about the anglers I spoke with and the tournament guidelines is that safety ruled. Matthew Salerno and his brother Tony, who won the $10,000 prize aboard their boat Living a Dream, told me they troll at about 2.5 knots with a forward lookout at all times. Safety equipment is readily at hand and the crew is familiar with its use.

Communicating with other tournament boats is prohibited, whether it be a cell phone or marine radio, unless in the event of an emergency. These anglers were literally on their own and alone in the fog. “We kept our eyes on the radar at all times,” said Matt Salerno. Not all the boats, however, carried radar but still kept safe by following a basic navigation rule.

Rule 6 of the Navigation Rules states: “Every vessel shall at all times proceed at a safe speed so that she can take proper and effective action to avoid collision and be stopped within a distance appropriate to the prevailing circumstances and conditions.”

One of the conditions addressed in the rules is state of visibility. Apparently, these anglers, some of whom were Coast Guard licensed captains, understood the rules and so complied. However, not all the boaters on the lake that day.

were part of the tournament, nor exercising boat smarts: one such boater nearly slammed into one of the tournament boats.

“We were fishing a mile off Big Point Sable in a hundred and thirty feet of water, when out of the fog emerged this 35-foot powerboat heading right at us, pulling a dingy off its stern,” said the captain of the tournament boat Katch-Me. “We waved our arms and hollered as he bore down on us.” The captain figures the boat was traveling about 15 knots.

One of the crewman aboard believes the boat operator was not expecting to encounter in fog a fleet of boats on Lake Michigan on a Thursday morning. Thursday morning or Saturday afternoon has little to do with maintaining a proper lookout and using all available means to avoid a collision in fog. Also, towing a dinghy behind a boat in fog is not too bright. Another boat could run over the tow line and foul its prop(s) , or the boater pulling it might snag the towing line while backing down to avoid a collision.

What I find disturbing about this incident is that the tournament boaters were using all means available to assure not only their own safety, but that of their fellow anglers. Then, along comes a boater who seems oblivious to the safety of others. or worse yet, was just boat stupid.

I suspect it is the latter; until boaters are required to boat smart, those that do must keep a very sharp lookout fog or not.

Tom Rau is a retired 27-year Coast Guard veteran, boating safety columnist, and author of Boat Smart Chronicles, Lake Michigan Devours Its Wounded. His book is a 20-year journal of recreational boating mishaps with valuable lessons learned. It, along with recent rescue stories, can be viewed at: www.boatsmart.net