After crossing QC Sound, we have placed the Wild Blue in a good position to easily reach Pat's airport destination in three days. We're only four short hours from Port McNeil and her flight. So now we can relax, spend a day in the Broughton Islands and visit one of our favorites.... Sullivan Bay. Sullivan is a small town on floats that's popular and busy so we want to leave Blunden early to insure we get dock space. We exited Blunden before 9AM, turning into a thick wall of fog.
Our route to Sullivan is a short 3-hour tour southeast along the BC coastline then a left turn into Wells Passage following the Passage to the Bay. Normally the route offers coastal mountain and valley views, but today we can only see about 200 feet around the boat.
Running in fog makes everyone tense. We are forced to focus on the radar instead of looking out the window. We use the chart-plotter determine our location as well as follow our pre-plotted route. We planned the route in advance so we know exactly what course to steer. However, each approaching boat has to be managed carefully to avoid collision.
In fog on Wild Blue, the radar is set on the 3-mile range. This means we will see a radar target (another boat, buoy, or object) on the display 3 miles around us. Today we are moving southeast about 1 ½ miles off the BC western shore, so that pretty much eliminates boats coming from the left. Boats coming from behind need to be going greater than our 8-knot speed to catch us, so we're not too worried about them. It's boats coming from directly ahead and to our right that are the problem. Luckily fog keeps most skippers from leaving the dock, but when you're already consumed by the thick stuff, it's as difficult to go back as continue. The crew just needs to adjust and cope with it.
At about 9:20AM a moving target from directly ahead enters the radar display. Most radars have a tracking feature called ARPA which displays the direction and speed of the approaching target. So within a minute, we already know the target is coming at us at 7 knots and his direction looks to be clearing us via a standard “port-to-port” pass, from the left side, just like two cars on the street. This is good since we are approaching each other at 15 knots per hour, 1 mile in 4 minutes, and with the target now at 2 ¾ miles in front of our bow, we know it is 11 minutes away. We turn Wild Blue about 10 degrees to the right increasing the passing cushion distance to about about ¼ mile when we pass. All is going per plan for a standard port-to-port pass: target is holding his course, and we are holding our course. Suddenly at 1 mile distane, all Hell breaks loose!
At this point the target starts rapidly blowing his fog horn, then turns directly towards us. We have less than 4 minutes to react. We need to avoid a collision while not violating the port-to-port crossing rule. Our only choice is to turn right, perpendicular to our course, directly out to sea. He can't possibly reach us so we execute the 90 degree right turn. Over the next three minutes, the target eventually falls behind and resumes his original course, and we resume ours.
What just happened? What happened was that the target boat likely didn't see us on radar until 1-mile away. He was not looking ahead far enough. He wasn't tracking us and couldn't immediately determine our speed and direction, so his instinct was to turn out to sea, directly in our path.
What could we have done differently? Like most human problems, communication is the key. When the boat first appeared on the radar at 3 miles, we should have hailed him, alerting him of our position, and announcing our intention for a safe, port-to-port pass. We didn't hail him simply because we saw him following the correct course for the pass. We assumed he had seen us and was tracking us on his radar. Then when he turned towards us we should have immediately hailed him on the VHF to maintain his original course, or stop his boat. Although we heard his loud fog horn at 1/8 mile distance, we never could see his boat.
Why didn't our AIS system help? Obviously the target boat wasn't broadcasting or receiving AIS or he would have been immediately alerted to our position and could have easily managed a port-to-port pass.
Learning is part of all things and, boy, we did go to school on this incident! Later as we turned into Wells Passage, we had three boats on the display converging upon us. We immediately hailed our position and intent, slowed down, and the others slowed. All boats managed to pass safely, and just after, the fog lifted! We unwound for the next hour on our way to Sullivan Bay, and were quite relieved to be tied to the docks in Sullivan's residential neighborhood.
Later Z-Worthy arrived and the Long Ranger had as well. We planned dinner with these boat crews at the restaurant in Sullivan's downtown district. We're happy to spend the reat of the day recovering from our fog adventures.