Coastwatch News – November 2013 – Malcolm Craven

FOG – the sailors nightmare. It is eerie, confusing and frightening at sea. I have been on my boat in fog off the Irish coast and heard church bells ringing. I was caught by fog in the inside passage around Lands End when I could hear waves breaking on the shore. Once I was in the Bristol Channel when my crew suddenly said “I can hear cows mooing!” None of this does one’s nerves any good. All of these happenings came before I had the advantage of a GPS chart, that invaluable gismo which has added so much to maritime safety. Before that your world was confined to the length of the boat and the immediate sea on either side. You feel completely lost and start imagining dark shapes in the murk as you peer around with droplets of moisture from the rigging finding their way down your collar.

How must it have been for ships before the last war which saw the invention of Radar – not the same as GPS but, crudely speaking, where you fling out an electronic beam and listen for it to echo of an object. If you heard nothing you were O.K but if you did it meant that, somewhere in the gloom, was another hard object which might be moving or stationary. As you do it electronically, and have a screen to look at, the echoing object is shown as a trace on the screen, giving you some idea as to where and what it was. Before this ships would rely on foghorns and bells, perhaps with some poor unfortunate seaman posted right up at the sharp end charged with ringing the ships bell at set intervals. Then he and everyone else listened for an answering peal, telling them that some other lost soul was blundering about like a blind man on a crowded pavement. It must have been cold, wet, and frightening especially as you were probably going to be the first point of contact. Ships would listen for the foghorns of lighthouses, now largely discontinued, every one with its own distinctive signature and sound, to tell them where they were. The characteristics were listed in maritime almanacs. Some lighthouses grunted, some shrieked, some moaned – one or two Irish ones even banged, and each had a time frequency so that the officer of the watch, having heard one, would listen, stopwatch in hand, for the next sound. Buoys also are often fitted with whistles or bells and there is nothing more spine tingling than the sound of one of these in the white blanket which surrounds you. It may then loom up suddenly in front of you, and egg shaped, skeletal thing, which you frantically try to avoid yet, at the same time, read the name on the side. What was the poem you learned at school about The Inchcape Bell and the Abbot of Aberbrothok?

I was thinking all this the other day doing my watch in the Lookout. I had opened up, there was no wind and the fog hung closely as I walked long the cliff path. I could not see the sea nor hear it, it was so quiet. The Lookout loomed out of the mist when about 50 yards from it and I was quite glad to get inside. At least I could now talk to someone on the phone at MRCC and our buddy station of St. Agnes. ‘What’s it like over there?’ I asked St. Agnes. ‘Oh, quite a decent bit of sunshine.’ Came the cheerful reply. The vagaries of Cornish weather! The lady in MRCC was not so happy. ‘Times like this we don’t miss our lack of windows’ was her comment. As for me – I couldn’t see the sea, nor Portscatho, nor Nare – I could barely see the Coast Path by our door. So I settled in for a quiet, possibly boring, two and a half hours. I would never try and tell any potential recruit that it is all action, that you never get wet walking out to the headland, that you don’t sometimes think you are the last survivor of Mankind as the world appears to have shut up shop and gone home.

Then suddenly I looked at the AIS screen and there was a blob. This is the screen that picks up the signal that all commercial vessels are supposed to transmit to say where they are, who they are and what they are doing. It seemed I had a visitor, somewhere two and a half miles out in the fog, invisible but heading directly towards me at 10 knots. At that speed he was almost certainly a ship, certainly not a yacht, and, generally RHIB’s do not carry AIS. We do not usually bother much with ships but it seemed courteous to plot him on the chart as he was a visitor, so this I began to do. As he got closer his course shown on the instrument changed frequently, too much so for me to plot each change, but his speed remained at 10 knots. I began to get more interested, particularly when a course change put him one and a half miles from the Whelps Rocks and heading directly for them.. Ships have no brakes and ten knots is about twelve miles an hour. Another course change and he was heading in to Gerrans Bay but changed again as if for Falmouth. I was beginning to remember tales of ships with crews asleep running aground and began to get anxious. Off Greeb Point he turned again, directly in to the land. I decided it was time to seek another opinion. Using our ordinary land line I telephoned MRCC and drew the operators attention to the happenings. They had the ship on their plot and were watching but were not yet concerned as he was a mile and a half out and had plenty of water. They thanked me and said someone would keep an eye on things.

As I turned back to check the AIS I saw yet another course change, this time back toward me. He was only a mile or so out and, suddenly, through the fog, a shape materialised. He steamed back towards the centre of the bay and stopped – the AIS showed he was anchored. I could make up the log-book and go back to my coffee – a false alarm. With good intent? – yes. Wasted time? No. Vessels have run amuck before and ploughed into our coast. Last year a German ran aground near Pentire on the north coast with everyone asleep. Before that a luxury yacht crashed into Zone Point in the early morning – just drove straight in. In any case it was good practice for me and helped pass what might have been a boring watch.

As for MRCC? No emergency service takes umbrage at a false alarm with good intent. The operator I spoke to was courteous and understanding. He was not worried but watchful. He has much better plotting facilities than I do. Had there been something wrong, had the ship ploughed ashore, there would have been an official enquiry. My evidence might have been needed. Because I had charted his approach I would have had a fairly detailed plot, all logged for evidence purposes. So nothing happened and it won’t be needed – but, as an old Inspector of mine used to say – ‘It’s better to have it than to want it’.

We still need more helpers so once more Pat Rigley’s number – give him a ring on 01872 – 501838

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