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September 21, 2007

Boat Talk - Running Blind

Don't let fog or nightfall end your fishing day. Use these proven tricks to get back to the dock safely.

I was pursuing redfish recently when blue skies were obscured by impenetrable sea fog in a matter of minutes. Since I knew my exact location and was protected from errant boats by large rock formations in extremely shallow water, I continued to fish quietly, listening closely for any unusual sounds.

After a while, the noise of an idling outboard motor interrupted the tranquility. A small boat with two anglers aboard soon ghosted out of the mist. They didn't have a GPS and were totally lost. I gave them careful directions back to safe water and they slowly puttered off toward the boat ramp.

When I headed in, I motored slowly along the shoreline, using visual references and my GPS plotter to return safely. My familiarity with the area helped me navigate through the adversity.

Few conditions cause boaters more trepidation than running in dense fog or at night. Maybe this unease comes from a sense of losing control or a subconscious fear of disappearing into the Bermuda Triangle. Either way, operation in pea soup or darkness doesn't have to be a dreadful experience.

As captain of the boat, you're responsible for the safety of all aboard, so follow these steps in low-visibility situation:

- When running at night or in the fog, take charge and slow the boat to give yourself more reaction time.

- In the fog, gather the crew at the helm and open the weather curtains.

- Turn off the stereo, lower radio volume, quiet the crew and ask them to listen intently.

- Assign crew watches and focus on the radar and depthsounder.

- Keep one hand on the throttle in case you have to stop or reverse power at the last instant.

Slow down, be aware and use your equipment to reach your destination with minimal stress and to lengthen your time on the water.

Eyes and Ears
Landmarks don't help when you're running offshore and fog sets in, and that's where equipment takes up the slack. A quality GPS unit will pinpoint your position, which can be very helpful.

But a GPS does not tell you what else is nearby. Other boats, floating debris and immovable objects are among the hazards of limited visibility. To avoid a collision, start with the basics. Ideally, the boat will be equipped with a foghorn and radar and, in conditions of reduced visibility, both should be turned on immediately. The horn lets others know your location and the radar shows what else is out there. Boaters with radar should learn to use it and adjust sea clutter and gain for the best view.

Black Night
Nighttime operation can pose a challenge, but it does have its pluses, too. Boat traffic is greatly reduced after dark and the winds typically lay down as well. Many gamefish are nocturnal, so the best bite often occurs after sundown. And if you're cruising to long-distance fishing grounds, you're bound to be underway before or after daylight hours. When you do, many of the same guidelines for running in fog apply.

It's amazing what you can see if you let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Dim or turn off all white lights and switch gauges to night mode - red is the most common color for preserving night vision. Turn off unnecessary electronics and dim the in-use displays as much as possible. Shut off cockpit or salon lights and adjust aft running lights to reduce glare. Keep a spotlight within reach to illuminate nearby objects quickly.

Familiarize yourself with area charts in advance to anticipate course corrections and stay alert.

If you find yourself getting sleepy, wake someone else up to man the wheel and keep watch with them. Most incidents at night happen when the helmsman nods off.

Take it slow, play it safe and get comfortable in low-visibility conditions and your fishing opportunities will multiply.

Screen Savers: The Right Electronics Improve the View
With today's technology, operating a boat in the fog is like playing a video game - only with far more serious consequences. Advanced marine electronics can reduce the stress of fog or nighttime operation. Captain John Bushell runs Sandman, a 60-foot Hatteras convertible out of Freeport, Texas, in these conditions using a Furuno 72-mile open-array radar (www.furuno.com) and Night Vision Technologies infrared system (www.nvti-usa.com). "Our radar easily picks up small boats," Bushell says. "I've been able to paint two pelicans floating on the surface."

"The resolution with night vision lets me see like it is broad daylight," he continues. "Both units really make a difference when we're in an area with ungodly boat traffic. In the winter tuna season, sometimes the fog is so thick you can't see the bow pulpit. If you're not alert, you could end up on the bottom."