What's Up With That? Sound on the water? Foghorns are shipboard

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Tonight is pea soup fog. It's so foggy that I can't even make out the trees in the yard two houses away from me. I was out on my patio a bit ago, and I swear I could hear a foghorn, which sounded like it was down along the Columbia River. I've only lived here a few years, and I don't remember hearing that before. Do we have foghorns along our part of the Columbia?

— Valerie Wheeler,Roads End neighborhood

Do we have foghorns "along" the river? Not exactly. Those foghorns are actually traveling the river. They're shipboard.

Valerie, you were "probably hearing a ship or boat using its foghorn," said Timothy Westcott. "There are no sound signals on any shoreside structures on the Columbia River, except at the mouth of the river."

Westcott's the one who knows. He is the private aids navigation manager for the 13th Coast Guard District, based in Seattle. The Coast Guard manages and maintains all "marine navigation aids" for all waterways in the United States, he said. Any private party that wants to install a foghorn along the river -- a commercial port, say, or a private marina or dock -- would have to apply to the Coast Guard for a permit, he said. The Coast Guard itself has no foghorns on the river, except in Astoria, Ore., he said.

Astoria is also where Coast Guard foghorns, beacons and other navigation aids are repaired and maintained, according to Petty Officer Shawn Eggert. "Occasionally, people do like to shoot at them," Eggert said.

You'd better believe there are rules and regulations -- officially called the Nautical Rules of the Road -- governing the way those foghorns blow, said Paul Amos, president of the Columbia River Pilots. The duration of signals and pauses between signals broadcast the size, type and speed of the vessel, he said. The basic guideline, he said, is that when visibility is limited to half a mile or less, foghorns must blast.

"Generally, if it's less than half a mile visibility, you wouldn't leave the dock," Amos said. "But if you're already on the river, you can't stop and turn around. You have to keep going."

Take a look at Navigation Center, click on "Nav Rules" and go down to Rule 35, "Sound Signals in Restricted Visibility," for the nitty-gritty, including: "a power-driven vessel making its way through the water shall sound" with "one prolonged blast" at intervals of no longer than two minutes; but if the powered vessel is stopped on the river, it's two prolonged blasts; anchored fishing vessels or vessels constrained in other ways must give one long and two short blasts; and a vessel being towed must give one long and three short blasts -- preferably just after the blast issued by the vessel doing the towing.

That's just a sample. Learn more about Columbia River Pilots; learn more about 13th Coast Guard District's waterway management unit.

— Scott Hewitt

Got a question about your neighborhood? We'll get it answered. Send "What's Up With That?" questions to neighbors@columbian.com.