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Foggy Thinking

BY MARGOT ZALKIND
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

In 1916, Carl Sandburg wrote a wonderful poem about fog, describing it as coming “on little cat feet” and “looking over the city and the harbor on silent haunches.” But when you’re out on the water and confronted suddenly by thick fog, there’s nothing benign about it.

The disorientation caused by fog is amazing.  Quickly and completely, a rower, coach or coxswain can lose track of which way to go.  

Fog typically forms over bodies of water when the temperature of the water and ground differ. That’s why when rowers arrive at the boathouse they may be surprised to find the river or lake blanketed in white.

As coaches and rowers, we often think: “Oh, I know where to go. I will stay close to shore. I can see the boathouse. I’ll be careful.” While these thoughts may be well founded, are they the safest approach? Some coaches may see fog on the far end of the lake and say, “Well,  I just won’t go there.” but while they are coaching, the wind may shift and the fog may enshroud their crews, and that’s when things can get messy fast.  Rowers are often surprised (and overcome) by fog, since it can move with the breeze or air currents as the ground cools or warms.  

Since fog is made up of water droplets, sound and vision are both affected in strange ways. Sounds are often muted or seem like they’re not coming from where they should. Visibility can be cut to feet, not yards. Sometimes, the only way to discern direction is to spot the sun above the fog or to sense the current, if there is any.  

Coaches should always carry a compass (and it’s an app on your cell phone), but how many coaches know the direction they travel from the boathouse?  

The best strategy if you do get caught in fog is to pick a single direction with the aim of heading slowly toward shore. The hope is that you’ll soon be able to pick out a familiar landmark and travel toward safety.   

Better yet?  Err on the side of caution and remain land-bound when fog is present or looming. 

 If the weather forecast includes fog or you arrive at the boathouse and see the view obscured by fog, do not launch until the danger passes. On the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., fog can come in thick and fast. Often when we were ready to launch at 5:30 am, we couldn’t see the other side of the river. That was the criteria for a safe launch. If you couldn’t see the other shore across from the boathouse, you couldn’t launch. 

Fog is challenging even on a waterway without much boat traffic. Because sounds are misleading and distant lights can’t be seen, you can get disoriented. Rocks and other hazards are invisible, and so is the shore and other boats. In places such as Norwalk, Conn., and other busy waterways, large motor- and sailboats increase the danger.

Proceeding slowly through thick fog can be perilous unless you’re in open water that you know is free of such submerged hazards as boulders, ledges, and sandbars. Hugging the shore, where such hazards are common, can lead to  disaster. In short, fog can form quickly and throw boaters off guard. Visibility can be reduced to a few feet, which can disorient even the most experienced rowers. So slow down, turn on all lights, listen for other boats, and warn others of your presence. Above all, avoid rowing in foggy conditions in the first place.

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