Delving Into the Fog

Sailors, pilots, and farmers don’t like when temperature fluctuations between air and water, or air and land, bring fog into their daily lives. Artists, on the other hand, appreciate its otherworldliness.

At sunrise it’s pearly pink and orange, in the late afternoon blue-gray and foreboding. At times it can seem ponderous, and waterlogged, at others gauzy and evanescent. “Fog is one of the only types of weather for which there isn’t an accurate exposure,” says Island photographer Alison Shaw, who loves working with that most suggestive element.

Alison says fog adds by what it obscures, softening the harsh resolution of daily life, rendering objects timeless, archetypal. And it’s unpredictable, leading her to chase it from the waterworks at the head of the Lagoon in Vineyard Haven to the frost bottoms of the state forest in West Tisbury and Edgartown, where fog settles most readily in the land’s finger-like depressions leading away from the great ponds – the legacy of roaring meltwater rivers from glaciers.

In an information-rich age, fog reminds us that there are challenges to our perception, that mystery is ineradicable. “As a photographer, if I had my way, we’d have much more fog,” says Alison.

At sea

As he plies Nantucket Sound from the bridge of the M/V Martha’s Vineyard, when the sea and air begin to mingle, Steamship Authority Captain David Dandridge’s world closes in, as it has for generations of captains before him.

“It makes all the difference in the world,” he says with a laugh. “It’s really a different job, and it certainly raises the level of anxiety.”

When the fog comes in, as it does, on little cat feet, Captain Dandridge’s reality is circumscribed by a murky sphere, beyond which lies an imagined playground of pleasure boaters and navigational hazards.

“If it’s quarter-mile visibility, that’s just incredibly better than tenth-of-a-mile visibility or twentieth-of-a-mile visibility,” he says. Captain Dandridge describes the subtle geometry of fog and how changes extend 360 degrees. “It’s not like you can see twice as much when the visibility is doubled. Really, if you think about it in all directions, you’re seeing way more than that. My hat is off whenever I think of the captains and pilots in the age before radar. Their skills were just remarkable.”

Captain Dandridge is a student of that antique navigation, and of the Islanders – such as the late Edwin Athearn, who died in 2006 at the age of ninety-two – for whom a compass, lead line, and a knowledge of local waters kept them alive in the haze.

In his memoir, Chronicle of an Islander, Athearn describes harrowing “dungeons” of fog he routinely encountered on swordfishing trips south of Noman’s Land in the late 1920s and early 1930s before the “miracle of radar.” There he would find shipwrecked rumrunners and disoriented Coast Guard crews adrift for days in the deathly stillness. He describes the altogether separate sensory world of fog and its challenges to navigation.

“During periods of thick fog, especially at night, the foghorns of approaching ships would be answered by our old-style Lothrop portable horn,” he writes. “Those of us in our bunks below could hear the steady swish-swish-swish of a slow turning propeller as the ship drew closer. The interval of horn blasts became more frequent, collision seemed imminent. By this time our anxiety was great until the horn and propeller sounds began to diminish while we felt the effect of the passing ship’s wake. We seldom saw a ship in clear weather.”

In August of 1943, as captain of the Woods Hole Oceanographic research vessel the Anton Dohrn, Athearn discovered the benthic remains of the Nantucket Lightship LV-117, which had been torn in two, a spectacular victim of fog in the area southeast of Nantucket known as the graveyard of the Atlantic. In 1934, in zero visibility, the floating lighthouse had been annihilated by the Titanic’s sister ship, the RMS Olympic, killing seven of the lightship’s Coast Guard crew. The collision had been barely perceptible to passengers aboard the gargantuan White Star ocean liner.

On land

Whether exhaling from West Tisbury’s Mill Pond at sunrise or cloaking the ghosts of whaling captains on North Water Street in Edgartown, fog poses an altogether less menacing presence on dry land. Indeed, one can become a connoisseur of sorts. Like a good scotch, Island fog is suffused with the essence of the terrain.

“Along many of the beaches it carried the fresh tang of seaweed just left by the tide,” reads a 1966 Vineyard Gazette editorial. “At some places inland it had the scent of pine or cedar, and almost everywhere is suggested salt marsh, tide, wet meadow, soaking wood or sod, and general saturation.”

Still other subtleties exist. Its color has been variously described as “Quaker gray” and “opalescent,” while another 1969 Gazette editorial distinguishes between “the frail, tentative fog that hangs over Chilmark when Edgartown is sunny; and the pea- soup fogs of Katama that prevail when all up-Island basks under the blue skies.”

Morning Glory Farm owner Jim Athearn says he dreads the soggy, billowing intruder that takes up residence on his fields in late spring and early summer.

“Fog or anything else that puts moisture on the leaves of things promotes the development of powdery mildew in the case of the squash, or early blight in the case of tomatoes,” he says. “Louie Green was a farmer in North Tisbury for many years. His statement was: A dry summer will scare you most to death, but a wet summer will starve you to death.”

Before going any further, a primer on fog is in order. Very simply, fog happens when the dew point and the temperature converge. Dew point is one of those phrases, like relative humidity, that weather forecasters routinely use to glaze over the eyes of their viewers, but it is a fairly simple concept. As air molecules move faster and the temperature goes up, air expands and there is more room between the molecules to hold water vapor; then when the temperature drops to a certain point (the dew point), the air molecules get closer together and the water vapor condenses out as fog (unsurprisingly, this process may also give rise to dew). When warm air interacts with cooler water, the hidden water vapor in the air is, in effect, squeezed out – ostracized by the cliquish air molecules. This is what is known as advection fog.

The reverse happens at the end of the season when there is that most romantic of all fog: sea smoke, those wraithlike wisps that haunt Vineyard harbors when arctic air stings the surf.

“You can have the water temperature still in the low forties but the air temperature is in the teens,” says Bill Simpson, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Taunton, “so there is a small microclimate that’s only within a couple of feet of the water where you have a difference of twenty degrees, and there will be some mixing.”

In the air

Advection fog is what’s responsible for the “peasoupers” at the Katama airfield, the bane of flight instructor Paul Santopietro’s existence. Paul estimates that of the 120 days the airfield is open seasonally, thirty of those are visited by what the poet John Milton called the “low’ring element.” As a result, Paul keeps an ever-watchful eye on the spread between the temperature and dew point, appealing to a higher power as the two get closer.

“I’ll say some Hail Marys,” he says, sitting in a lawn chair in the rickety Katama hangar, on a languid, cloudless July day – the dew point and temperature at a safe remove from each other. “When they’re within a couple degrees, you’re screwed. All of a sudden you see that wispy crap floating in. The bottom line is it’s a pain in the butt. You can’t do anything. You can’t do any flight instruction. You can’t do any rides. If the weather’s crappy–”

Paul stops mid-sentence and bounds off his chair as his single-engine Citabria struggles to turn over at the hands of a former student. Private pilot and Edgartown seasonal resident Joseph Passafiume pulls up a lawn chair of his own. On approaches to Katama, he says, conditions can change within minutes, as fog rolls off the ocean in heavy sheets, shrouding the runway and making landing impossible. “Meteorologically it’s a very interesting phenomenon,” he says. “It just gets to be a pain.”

Though it sits further inland, the Martha’s Vineyard Airport is not immune to fog. Airport Manager Sean Flynn says most flights are deliberately scheduled for mid to early afternoon to avoid the banks that arrive in the early evening after wandering in over land from the south shore. Still, he estimates 10 percent of flights are affected. When visibility drops to less than a quarter of a mile, and cloud cover drops below 200 feet, most carriers play it safe.

Sometimes though, the airport experiences an entirely different flavor of fog. Paradoxically, cloudless, pellucid evenings can give way to fog the morning after. When the sun goes down, especially on those nights most prized by stargazers, long-wave thermal radiation, unimpeded by clouds, beams off into space.

“At the Vineyard airport sometimes the earth cools off very fast at night,” says Bill Simpson. “Then when the air warms up and the ground is still cool, you can get what’s called radiational fog in the morning. It’s mostly low-lying fog.”

In a fog

Fog can also warp the senses. For mariners, this can mean Cuttyhunk looms in the haze like some lost continent; for a gardener, the shed in the backyard takes on the proportions of an ancient temple. And it can lead to other sorts of exaggerations. The Gazette has published some of the more outlandish claims.

“The tale has been told with seriousness of a West Tisbury man, who was shingling the roof of a building in a fog, that he reached the ridge of the roof without recognizing the fact, and laid three courses of shingles beyond, nailing them to the fog!” a credulous 1941 article reads, continuing, “One farmer solemnly told his neighbor that a fog bank rolled in with such density and weight that it forced a flock of sheep right through a fence....Fish and eels have been variously reported as having crossed the entire Island in fog, and on one occasion, a householder swore that a swordfish, traveling overland in this manner, lost its bearings and swam into his barn, where it eventually became exhausted and died.”

Then there is the mournful, groping wail of the Coast Guard’s foghorns, issuing from West Chop and Woods Hole, familiar to East and West Choppers alike. Surprisingly, as the moan of West Chop Light’s foghorn is angled toward Nantucket Sound by a concrete and steel baffle wall, Vineyarders most often hear the bleating of Nobska Light in Falmouth, a foghorn whose automatic sensor has been known to malfunction, warning mariners for days at a time, rain or shine. The plaintive call seems almost an auditory approximation of the phenomenon it symbolizes: low, weighty, monotonous, inscrutable.

But as the United States Coast Pilot – a crucial reference guide issued by the Coast Guard – for this area warns: “In addition to affecting visibility, fog also distorts sound, so the direction of warning bells and horns may be difficult to discern accurately.”

Despite that distortion, sound from without was once the only lifeline for vessels trapped within a cloud, as the solemn toll of buoys, like the Noman’s or Vineyard Sound “hooter,” were the only indication of one’s place on planet earth.

“The big steamers from New York to Boston that were running on schedules didn’t even have the luxury of slowing down to cast a lead line, so the engineer, using a compass, was actually able to estimate their distance by counting the number of revolutions of the propellers or the side wheels,” says Captain Dandridge. “Then they would also keep a man on the stern so that if it was calm, as it often is when it’s really, really foggy, the vessel’s wash would be enough to disturb the buoys and ring the bells. They would listen for the buoys even after they had passed.” In such conditions captains would sometimes mistake Gay Head for Block Island and vice versa.

Islander Arnie Carr, who now lives in Bourne and runs an underwater search and survey company out of Cataumet, estimates that fully 60 percent of the more than one hundred shipwrecks that surround the Island can be attributed, at least in part, to fog. For Arnie, who has boated both before and after the age of radar, shipping off into the mists never fails to raise his blood pressure.

“There’s a tremendous amount of trepidation not knowing who else is out there,” he says. “I’ve had my share of close encounters. I kid around and say, ‘Yeah, I have radar on my boat mainly to find out who’s out there trying to hit me.’...I’m not sure who’s worse – the fog or the people.”