One cold February day I walked into Brion Toss’s rigging shop in Port Townsend, Washington. As usual, he was in a jovial mood and busy making something; on this day, it was a gorgeous plaited lanyard for a lead line. It was almost too pretty to think of throwing over the side to bring up blobs of mud. But there is something tactile and direct about lowering a lead line with tallow inside its end, feeling it thump hard or soft on the bottom, reading the depth, retrieving and coiling the wet line, and, finally, rubbing a pinch of the sand, mud, or clay between your fingers and smelling it. You will know what’s down there for your anchor. It’s simple and satisfying. And you can still use your depth sounder!
Brion is the only person I know with a full arsenal of lead line jokes. We began a mutual lamentation on the mariner’s lost arts and the electronic usurpation of cheap, practical, time-tested old methods that used humble materials to make simple, useful and occasionally beautiful things. And did I mention cheap? When I asked Brion if he’d ever used a Fog Knife, he guffawed himself out of his chair. His riposte was to ask, had I ever used Potato Radar? I admitted that I hadn’t. We then launched into the merits of Centerboard Sonar, which we’d both used. So, in the spirit of passing it all on, here are three more traditions for anyone who combines sailing in foggy or shoal waters with a small budget, a sense of adventure, and a fondness for a good yarn.
My first fog knife was given to me in 1982 by a 90 year-old New England shellback who loved to spring it on the gullible. Make one out of a piece of wood, as shown. Do not label it. Simply hang your fog knife in a prominent place in the cabin and wait for someone to ask, “What’s that?” Keeping a straight face, casually give these directions for its use: Stand on the bow and face 45 degrees to starboard. Extend the knife and make a slice in the fog. Turn 45 degrees to port. Slice again, hook it with the end of the knife, and lift the wedge of fog out of the way so that you can see a few feet further. Okay, maybe there’s some slight exaggeration on practicality. But it is cheap.
This is the only organic, biodegradable radar there is, except perhaps for Yam Radar in southern states. Position a crew member on the bow, with a small supply of potatoes. It works best if he/she has a good throwing arm. Have the crew throw a potato as far forward as possible. As long as you hear a splash, everything’s fine. If you don’t hear a splash, it’s time to say “Ready about!” If you’re following a vessel equipped with Potato Radar, be sure to bring a net scoop to recover the pre-washed starch portion of your dinner.
Years ago when I sailed a Chesapeake Bay Bugeye centerboard schooner equipped with a trawl net, there were occasions when I had to venture across shallows. Whenever I did, I would lower the massive centerboard, which gave the boat a 9 foot, retractable draft. A second chance before grounding is always nice. When the cable, which we’d measured and marked for this purpose, would go slack, we’d pull on it to gauge the remaining amount of centerboard down and thus our depth. The nice thing about centerboard sonar is the shallower you get, the slower you go, especially with a heavy board. The trick is not to stop. Centerboard Sonar gives you time to figure all this out.