Navigation History

When I was growing up at the mouth of the Kennebec, I could lie in my bed on still foggy mornings and count five fog signals ... the great diaphone at Seguin, of course, and then the bells at Pond Island Light, and the Fort Popham Light, at Perkins Island and, if there was a touch of north wind, Squirrel Point Light. It is a singularly sweet memory. 


Fiddling in the Fog
Notes on Navigating Fiddler's Reach
 by Fred Kahrl

  • Any commercial vessel transiting the Kennebec River would avail themselves of a river pilot if the ship's captain was not himself a qualified "river" pilot. This is required by both the Coast Guard and the vessel's underwriters. Any such pilot would be so familiar with the "river" that the bell at Fiddler's Reach AND the bell at Doubling Point Light would be of great help in guiding vessels through the fog (daytime) or snowstorm, making the turns through the Reach. i.e. - they could use the vectors of the sounds.

  • Small boats (under 100 feet) have the advantage of going slow, steering from an open cockpit or opening wheelhouse windows, and "feeling" their way through the fog or snow. The Reach looks small on the chart, but actually has lots of room to maneuver for most small to medium size vessels.

  • And, keep in mind that when the "river' was the primary artery of commerce ... up to WW I ... Maine boatowners were generally very knowledgeable about handling their vessels and knowing their waters.

  • Most large vessels chose to transit the "river" against the tide ... allowing them to progress slowly but still have good steerage. Today, few large vessels (think Bath Iron Works) ever transit the river in the fog ... radar, etc. notwithstanding. BIW ships on sea trials ... i.e. - under scheduling pressure ... have been known  to anchor at Bluff Head and in Atkins Bay to wait (usually overnight) for the fog to clear.

  •  So, what's the big deal about fog bells.  Well, they were most valuable for passenger vessels which ran on schedule, rather than having the luxury of waiting for a favorable tide or improved visibility. So, the captain's of these big sidewheelers (and early steam/propellor packets) needed every navigation aid that could be reasonably provided since they often transited the "river"  with the tide behind them, in fog and snow, and even at night in fog and snow. The addition of the Fiddler's Reach bell not only gave a useful sound warning of the shore where it sat, but also of the reef that jutted out from the shore underwater right at that point.

  •  Although the bells all had slightly different tones,  it was the spacing of the rings that actually identified the bells one from another. Of course, today the near universal use of radar, recently augmented with GPS, has greatly reduced the need for fog signals. Those still in operation primarily aid small boats that can actually stop and listen every so often to figure out where they are.

Fred Kahrl is a former Coast Guard lighthouse keeper at Seguin Island Light who lives in Woolwich, Maine