John Beck navigates through fog in the Alderney Race, relying on his depth sounder and a Seafix receiver


Navigating through fog is frightening. At 91 years of age my sailing career is over, but I can’t grumble as I have some wonderful memories. Recently, whilst reading about the latest navigation aids, I was reminded of how it used to be. In particular, I recall a frightening occasion when we encountered thick fog during a passage from St Peter Port to Cherbourg.

My boat at the time was a Colvic 26 Sailer that I had purchased as a bare hull from Cobra Yachts at Chichester in 1974. We named her Soubrette and she proved to be very comfortable to live in, spacious for her size, and an adequate sailer, though she might have performed better had I spent more money on her sails!

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We launched her at Whitsun in 1975 and although she was finished as far as the exterior went, there was a lot of interior work to complete, so we mainly spent the season day sailing. It was a beautiful year for weather, and 1976 was even better. I felt that it was time to stretch our wings, and planned a cross-channel cruise to France in 1977.

We left at midnight on the Friday night. It was clear, with a gentle northerly breeze, so we motor-sailed to keep the speed up to 5 knots. I expected us to arrive on the French coast at around the start of the ebb, so I set course for the Pierre Noir buoy a little to the east of Cherbourg.

Beginner’s luck

It must have been beginner’s luck, for the buoy appeared dead ahead, and with one mile to go, we altered course for Cherbourg and the tide washed us down to the northern entrance, which we entered at 1320 BST.

The French were set to join us in the celebrations of the Silver Jubilee, with a large Union Jack flying over the Capitainerie. However, over the next few days the weather deteriorated, with strong winds and rain.

By Wednesday evening, the weather had taken a turn for the better, so at 0500 the next day we set out to sail to St Peter Port, Guernsey. With a favourable tide, we had a good passage, smoothly through the Alderney Race, headed for the Little Russell Channel, after which the pilotage was easy.

We entered the outer breakwaters of St Peter Port at twelve noon with the log reading 34.3 nautical miles from Fort de l’Ouest, Cherbourg.

Over the next few days the weather gave a repeat performance of that we’d experienced at Cherbourg! We decided it would be wise to return to UK waters as it would be foolish to run out of holiday time and have to leave the boat overseas.

A well equipped boat

For its time Soubrette was well equipped. We had a very clear to read American-made main compass, mounted on the bulkhead (and it had interior illumination), a Walker towed log, an excellent echo sounder, with feet and fathom settings, a Seafix receiver, which was a small cube with radio set which could be tuned to radio beacons, and which incorporated a hand bearing compass so as to be able to determine the bearing of whichever beacon it was tuned to.

Back in the day, ready for launch at Emsworth Yacht Harbour

I also had an excellent hand-bearing compass which could be hung around the neck (I still have it!). The chart table had the current Reed’s Almanac, a Hurst plotter, and Imray and Admiralty charts for the Channel and South Coast. We did not at that time have a VHF radio, few boats of our size did. Decca and Loran receivers were available but were not common.

Near us a Fairey motor-sailer was berthed, Accolade II. Her owner, a dentist from Southsea, older than me, and a very experienced sailor was also planning to return home via Cherbourg and asked me when we proposed to leave. I said the tides were right to leave at 0400 and 1600 and that I favoured leaving in the morning.

He favoured the afternoon as there was less chance of poor visibility in the afternoon and evening. When I said that it meant arriving in Cherbourg after dark, he said that the lights of Cherbourg were ‘magnificent’ and that we should ‘see them from miles away’. I bowed to his greater experience, and we agreed to sail in company.

Alone in a thick ring of fog

We left at 1615 and cleared the harbour at 1630. The wind was north-east Force 2 and we passed TS Captain Scott at anchor. It was obvious that the engine was going to do most of the work. An hour later Grande Amfroque was abeam and we altered course for the Alderney Race 050°M and the log reading 4.5 knots.

Alderney came into sight some two miles to port, and we started to see Alderney going past us at a phenomenally fast rate as the race added some 10 or so knots to our speed over the ground. Accolade II was by now some half a mile ahead of us.

Suddenly she started to disappear! I grabbed the hand-bearing compass and took quick bearings of each end of Alderney, and by the time I had plotted these on the chart, we were alone in a ring of thick fog, with about 200-300 yards’ visibility in any direction.

To say I was terrified is an understatement! We were travelling over the ground at some 15 knots. Turning back was no option, as it would have meant sailing backwards at at least five knots. My daughter, Katherine (8), asked where we were and I showed her the fix on the chart.

“Are you sure?” she asked, and I told her to go below, turn on the echo-sounder, set it to fathoms and that it would read 35. It did, and some confidence in the skipper was restored.

What next?

The next question was what was I proposing to do?

Considering that between us and Cherbourg was a substantial chunk of France (which, by the way we never got a sight of!), this posed quite a problem. At the north end of Alderney is Bray Harbour, but the coast is rocky and there would be a considerable risk in attempting to find Bray in near zero visibility.

Ahead of us was clear water, and I said that an option was to make the Channel crossing that night, bearing in mind that it would be light very early in the morning.

Leaving the crew to keep a sharp lookout, I went below to have a good look at the chart, and there I found a quite remarkable feature. At the north end of the Alderney Channel there is a trench labelled as La Fosse de la Hague.

At the northern end there is a 60 fathom patch, with no other similar depth for miles around. What is more, this patch is well clear of Cap de la Hague, with clear water all the way to Cherbourg!

If we could find this patch our main problem would be solved. As it happened, the patch found us. As we motored on, the depth increased in line with the chart, and just before the echo-sounder reached 60, in the gloom ahead I saw a ship that had overtaken us steaming at right angles to our present course. He obviously knew of La Fosse de la Hague as well and, like us, was making use of it.

At 60 fathoms depth we changed course to the east, and I picked up the Seafix turned it on and listened after tuning it to the Cherbourg beacon. The noise of the engine made listening difficult, so I went forward and sat on the forehatch, leaning against the mast. I soon picked up the beacon; CH in morse, repeated a couple of times, followed by a steady tone which enabled one to rotate the unit from side to side, locate the position, and read the bearing on the compass mounted on the top. Very easy with the boat steady 128°M.

Into the gloom

We settled the Autohelm onto that course and continued into the gloom. At one point I glanced up and commented that it seemed to be getting thicker, and dark overhead. “Of course it is,” said my trusty mate. “It’s gone ten o’clock at night!” I’d completely lost track of time.

After some time we began to hear a faint fog horn in the distance. We were now in aural range of Fort de l’Ouest and using the Seafix I found that the electronic signal and the sound signal were getting closer together. Then I remembered reading somewhere (and I have never seen it again) that both signals are synchronised, and that the seconds delay between them, divided by a suitable factor would give you the distance off. It didn’t matter to us as we were going to the source anyway.

Suddenly, when the two signals had merged, and the foghorn was deafening, something swept over our heads. I wondered what on earth it was, and again my quick-witted First Mate realised that we were so close that the beam of the lighthouse was passing over our heads. In no time at all we found ourselves heading straight for the rock wall of the outer harbour of Cherbourg, so quickly changed course to follow it the short distance to the western entrance.

I had a harbour chart of Cherbourg, and as I used the plotter to determine the course to the buoy which marks the channel to the inner harbour, I reflected that I’d been dilatory not to have looked up these details before. The course was 124°M, so off we went regardless of the fact that we should be on the starboard side of the channel. We had already crossed the path of any ship heading for the entrance, but we had not heard any other foghorn. Nor did we. After about 40 minutes, just where it should be, we identified the flashing buoy marking the turn into the inner harbour. Once again I’d failed to plot the course needed. This time for the approach channel to the inner harbour, so had to dive below to check the harbour chart.

New heading in the black dark

That done we proceeded on the new heading into the black dark. With only the bellowing from the fog horn on the Ocean Terminal to give any sense of direction, apart, of course for our trusty compass. After about 10 minutes I spotted a glow to starboard, which quickly resolved into a light, then several lights, and finally a line of lights, which proved to be on the inner harbour wall. As quickly as we’d gone into the fog off Alderney, we came out of it with the harbour and town in plain view. Once past the harbour wall we turned into the marina, went to the (still vacant) berth we had occupied before, made fast, dropped the main, shut down all the systems, and very quickly were in our sleeping bags.

As I lay there I could hear the fog horn which had guided us so well, and I was thankful that we had proved equal to the challenge that we had been set.

Two days later we set off at dawn to return across the Channel. We reached the West Pole at Chichester at 2200, entered the harbour, and at 2300, reached the end of Emsworth Channel, where we picked up one of the three visitor’s buoys and slept like logs.

As a footnote, Katherine asked her Mum if we should “have to go there again?” My feeling was that the Solent area provided a wonderful cruising ground for the “likes of us,” and I have not ventured further in my own boat since.

Lessons learned

1 When something unexpected happens, do not panic, remember that you’re the skipper and it is down to you to think carefully about the situation and devise a plan of action. In this case it was fog and, unlike a sudden storm, at least I could hear myself think!

2 I should have thought to drop the main, and deploy the bright red storm jib to make us more visible.

3 I had not practised using the Seafix, and was fortunate that it worked so well; later I learned of the powerful Alderney and Hurn aero-beacons, which might have proved useful.

4 The factor with which to divide the seconds delay between the electronic radio signal and the fog horn, once it’s in range, in order to give the distance off I’d read about, but had failed to note in the log book.

5 I’d read about the risk of running down a bearing in case you finally hit what you’re heading for, but the speed with which Fort de l’Ouest appeared out of the fog was quite a surprise!

6 The episode made me thankful that I’d regularly checked the accuracy of our main compass. We relied on it absolutely when crossing the Outer Rade at Cherbourg.

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