I recently came across a lovely, informative and well-written article from the Freeman's Journal 6th December 1924, written by one A.A. Bestic, who should probably get a chapter to himself when the story of Ireland's 20th Century maritime history comes to be written (see bottom of article.) So taken was I with the story, I decided to transcribe all of it, rather than copying and pasting, in the hope that some of the author's writing skills might rub off on myself. (I have added the photographs, which didn't appear in the original article)
The menace of winter fogs at sea
Dublin Bay has more to say for herself during this season than at any other time of the year, for it is usually during this period that fog, baffling and impenetrable, descends on our coasts, and increases the dangers of navigation by about a hundred per cent.
To a landsman dressing on a foggy morning, the medley of mysterious noises which come floating inshore convey very little, but to the ship who is feeling her way into the Bay, every sound is of the deepest significance, for it may mean the difference between safety and destruction.
The boom of the Kish light-vessel is the most easily recognised sentinel of all. Directly the dreaded enemy appears, the light-ship men have to get busy. Every two and a half minutes, the report has to be made, and each charge has to be fixed in position by hand, when it is then fired by pressing an electric button.
An automatic clock rings a bell at the specified time to ensure regularity and to avoid the worker having to keep his eyes continually fixed on the time. Four charges are always in position, so that if one should misfire there are three others to fall back upon. One prefers to imagine rather than realise the difficulties of getting to sleep in a fog lasting two days, to say nothing of the monotony of keeping the signal in action. But thousands of pounds are dependent upon it, leaving invaluable human lives out of the question.
The high and low wail of the Poolbeg lighthouse and the screech of the Bailey are two other fog warnings which are easily distinguished. Sirens, such as are used on these stations, are worked by compressed air which is pumped up by engine power.
In some cases, the mouth-piece, which is shaped something like the horn of a gramophone, has proved an irresistible nesting-place for sea-birds. But this was far from being an ideal site, as the birds eventually found to their cost.
Apart from the visitors being blown into the air to the accompaniment of a deafening wail at the first sign of fog, there was a grave danger of the nester losing his legs. Many a seagull has had his leg amputated by the rotator sitting near the base of the horn, which is revolved rapidly by the compressed air, thus making the sound. At one particular station, the foghorn was found to be out of order, solely through being choked with the legs of birds. Birds with only one leg may often be observed flying round the harbour at Dun Laoghaire, and there is little doubt that the missing leg has been lost in this manner.
Apart from these leading fog devices, there are others which work automatically, yet perform equally good work in a minor way.
The sad hoot of the North Burford buoy may often be picked up on a still morning. The hooter is blown by air, which is pumped through by the rise and fall of the buoy on the ocean swell. The water rising and falling in a funnel underneath the buoy alternately sucks and forces the air through the hooter. Even if the sea is as smooth as glass, a slight bow wave from a passing steamer will at once make the vicinity f the buoy known to those on board.
The South Burford buoy is also worked by the action of the sea, only in this case it is fitted with a bell. Three balls are fitted in such a position that no matter in what direction the buoy swings, a ball will roll down a tube and strike the bell with a warning clang.
The bell situated at the end of the East Pier at Dun Laoghaire, which is worked by machinery, plays an important part for vessels wishing to enter the harbour when the weather is thick. Assuming she has negotiated her way safely inside the Burford Banks, the tides would render it difficult for her to judge her distance by dead reckoning to a position for turning in between the piers, had she not the bell to guide her.
But there are other contributors to all these sea noises. A steamer under way has to blow one long blast every two minutes. If he is stopped, he blows two. Sometimes one may hear three short blasts tooting out of the mist, and this is a significant sign, for it means the vessel is going astern in all probability to prevent collision.
The submarine fog bell is a signal which deserves mention, although it takes no place in the discordant medley of sound which arises from Dublin Bay.
In spite of the revolution which wireless has made in matters appertaining to the sea, this fog signal, now of some years’ standing, still continues to hold its own and the apparatus is fitted to many ships.
The principle of the system is simply a bell which is lowered under a light-ship, the notes of which can be heard at a distance of five to ten miles, or even more, should the receiving vessel be of deep draft, as water is an excellent sound conductor. The sound is received through microphones fitted on each side of the vessel, and the microphone, through which the bell can be heard the louder, indicates on which side of the steamer the light-ship is situated. Should the sound of the bell be of equal strength in both microphones, the light-vessel may safely be assumed to be right ahead. In spite of all these devices for assisting the navigator, the writhing fog is still regarded as the greatest enemy of the sailor at sea.
Every captain makes a rule of always being on the bridge for such time as the fog lasts, whether it be for hours or days. His meals are carried up to him, and sleep he has none. The strain is tremendous, specially for a commander of, say, a 52,000 ton liner with 4,000 odd passengers who sleep through the night with the same feeling of security as though they were in their own homes, having implicit confidence in the man in charge.
Yet for him, every nerve is taut as he stands by the engine telegraphs, listening intently for a reply to the whistle of his own ship which splits the white nothingness with hoarse and scarifying cries. He knows what to do, should an emergency arise, but his one anxiety is, “Does the other fellow know?” That is the problem, and shipowners never give their officers a chance of making a serious mistake a second time. There is no room for imagination on the bridge.
A. A. Bestic