One cold February day eons ago I walked into Brion Toss’s rigging shop in Port Townsend. 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 it 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. Brion always knew this.

He was the only person I ever knew 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, still chuckling, here are three traditions for anyone who sails 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 your boat’s 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 into the fog. Turn 45 degrees to port. Slice again, hook it with the tip of the knife, which is designed for that, and lift the wedge of fog out of the way so that you can see a few feet further. Be sure to explain that the holes, in descending size order, are to allow different thicknesses of fog to flow through so as not impede its operation.


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 supply of potatoes. It works best if they have a good throwing arm. Have them 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 shout, “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 66-foot 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. 


  1. To bring a bit of Great Lakes yore: There was a captain / fisherman / sailor of a Mackinaw boat who survived a big blow while a nearby ocean-going-steamer went down with all hands. Of course the insurance guys got into the act and asked the guy how that was possible, and he said something to the effect that the Mackinaw was meant for the lakes and the ocean boat wasn’t. Besides, he could see the surf going up on the beach thru his centerboard slot from time to time as he bailed so he knew how much time he had… 🙂

  2. Thank you, Karen. Always a pleasure.
    Your story reminded me of a “centerboard sounder” story from a friend of mine who was sailing in the Olympia area. It was a beautiful day with just enough breeze to fill the sails and hold a course with a balanced boat, read a book, and glance up from time to time. Note: The lower Sound is noted for extensive mud flats and extend far from tree-lined shorelines. Well… one mud-flat silently reached up to grasp his center board and prevented any further progress for over an hour of reading.
    Also known as too thick to navigate and too thin to cultivate.

    “Gravity Clamp” Low tech, easily repaired.
    Materials: a. Old sock with no holes in the toe. Holes in the heal are usually OK.
    b. short length twine
    c. Sand, gravel, lead shot.???
    Operation: fill “a” with “c” to below hole and tie securely with “b”
    Hang from or place on wayward object. Place in a plastic bag for water resistance. Use two socks for longer life and more durability. Modify as needed.

  3. Good grief, girl! Not only can you spin a yarn, but you had me practically coming out of my chair laughing so loud. I will definitely have to find a fog knife carver to make me one and hang it on the Sea Turtle! Absolutely love these yarns and your great humor.

  4. Thanks for the belly laugh, Karen! I can SO imagine you two swapping tales. Thanks for writing it down and sharing it in a way we can return to it over and over. Sure miss that man! <3

    • It was a hoot, but really, it was always a hoot whenever I walked into that shop. You know you’re on to something when you crack yourself up while writing about it. I miss him, too, he was a real treasure, but his legacy lives on.

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