The fog is back. The fog never really leaves. While some parts of the country experience intense fog in particular parts of the year, marine climates have foggy seasons that linger. They may not be as intense, but they are louder. The foghorns are busy again, and they’re not alone.
A mournful foghorn sets the tone in movies, and they’re usually not comedies (the movies, not the foghorns.). Typically, they’re associated with lighthouses casting beams of light that try to reach mariners. The people in those neighborhoods get to known the tone, which always comes from the same direction, and may be so remote that the only neighbors are the local wildlife. The west side of Whidbey Island is a major nautical highway. Just like a highway there are lanes, speed limits, and when it’s foggy horns. Container ship captains and pilots know they are sharing water routes with sailboats, kayakers, tugs, fishing boats, and cruise ships – as well as occasional US Navy vessels. Despite high-tech gadgetry, a low tech horn reaches farther than a spotlight in those conditions, and can be noticed by other ships as well as boaters. West side residents hear a passing parade of lonely horns that are hints of the weather report that don’t require getting out of bed.
Ships blow their own horns for more than just finding a way through the fog. Listen for a while and even on clear days a simple Morse code of dots and dashes, or shorts and longs, begins to play. Turn signals may be handy in a car, but skippers announce their intentions. Depending on whether the vessels are traveling in opposite directions or one is trying to pass the other, a horn blast or two tells their intent. Three means someone is “operating astern”. They will also sound off as they leave a dock, something the ferries do regularly. Five short toots means someone is confused about which way the other is going. Five blasts is a sign that someone’s worried about what the other is doing, and may signal a possible collision. It’s the equivalent of hearing the screech of tires that hopefully doesn’t end with a crunch of metal, wood, or plastic.
Some of the sounds are simply there for navigation. Satellite navigation is handy, but the waters are made safer by more of those low-tech devices. Buoys may have lights, but they also come with horns, whistles, bells, gongs, or sirens. Each buoy in an area should be distinctly different so sailors can easily distinguish one from the other. Don’t blame a lighthouse keeper or a skipper for the noise. Waves can power the noisemakers. For some, it’s the sound of home, a bit of background noise that’s a reminder of life on an island. Buoys have a tough life. They’re beaten by waves, wind, and currents. Occasionally they are like parked cars that end up in collisions. Usually, they’re convenient places for sea lions and gulls to congregate. Why go back to land when there’s a place to rest that’s close to the fish? The Coast Guard tends the buoys with buoy tenders (that’s a straightforward name), a job that’s messy and dangerous – and necessary.
Another more obvious sound source isn’t always as obvious to the person making the noise. Sound carries well and easily over the water. Especially on calm days, mainland sounds reach the island. Trains traveling from Seattle to Canada ride by, sounding like they’re hugging Whidbey’s shores. Between the island and the mainland, boaters can forget that their onboard conversations have audiences on the beach. Hollering from boat to boat is nothing new, and is necessary; but whether someone brought enough beer is a topic the rest of us may not care about.
The irony of the noticeable noises is that the only reason they stand out is from necessity and the fact that the island is otherwise usually very quiet. A buoy bell a mile away draws attention on a windy night, but that same noise in suburbia would have trouble poking through the sounds of traffic, air conditioners, and those very sounds that carry across the water so readily. Our symphony of foghorns, buoy bells, and outdoor voice discussions are a unique soundtrack that helps identify a place. But listen for those five blasts because someone is having a bad day and may need at least a bit of help.