The locals in Newport, Rhode Island, were still talking about the fancy trimaran that piled up on the rocks off Mackerel Cove in a fog a few weeks ago.

They said the owner was disoriented and made his error within a mile of the safe main harbor. His bigger mistake was to leave the boat when the fog lifted. He blithely rowed ashore in his dinghy, said the locals, an act some unsavory fellows regarded as legal abandonment.

"They were out there in two hours with chain saws," said the mate on a power boat. "They cut the winches right off the deck. They stripped the boat clean before dark."

We Chesapeake yachties are spoiled. When we run aground we hear a squish rather than a crunch. We wait for the tide and sail off. Occasionally we get a haze that cuts down visibility to half or a quarter of a mile, and then we have to be careful around the clearly marked ship channel.

In New England the fog rolls in like porridge, huge rocks poke out of the water where you don't expect them, and big ships come hooting along anywhere they please, since it's all deep water.

One would assume that paid, professional skippers who work these perilous waters would have a pretty good idea what they're doing. One would not necessarily be correct.

When the fog closed in last week on Rhode Island Sound during the America's Cup trial races, the paid skipper of one fancy powerboat had his paying customers navigate home. The customers confided that in previous fog experiences, the captain had shown a complete inability to read a chart.

"He doesn't even have parallel rules on the boat," said one.

Fancy yachts today have electronic Loran-C, which pinpoints location. All you need to do is dial in your destination and get a readout on course and estimated time of arrival.

But when the Loran breaks down, as all electrical things do on boats, can the captain read a chart and navigate with a compass? Boatman now knows that there are captains who have a ticket to carry people on boats for hire who can't, and if some pros can't navigate, he wonders how many amateurs can.

How many big-water boats are wandering about without parallel rules or charts or even a proper compass, the three tools of basic navigation?

(Parallel rules are straight edges connected so they can be pulled widely apart but remain parallel. On the chart, a nautical map, you determine where you are and where you're going. Lay one parallel rule between the two points, then march its parallel partner over to the compass figure imprinted on every chart. Read the course off the compass figure, point the boat that way by the compass and go.)

His brushes with the New England fog tell boatman that people who go out on boats these days with skippers, hired or otherwise, ought to be wary and make their own assessments of potential dangers.

It also tells him that, in their preoccupation with gadgetry and haste, a lot of boaters, professional and amateur, are missing out on some real pleasures of the sport.

Boating is mental as much as physical exercise -- maybe more mental. In the attentive boater's head is endless detail about weather and tides, the way shoals make up, the way a wind affects the water, the way a harbor appears from miles out to sea. This is healthy knowledge that does no harm.

A good boater knows where he is and where he's going and is constantly assessing the nautical variables for a sense of how the voyage will go, not out of fear but out of interest.

But in the age of radar, Loran, long-range radio communications, stabilizers, supercharged engines and computerized gimmickry, there are ways to spend years on the water without actually paying attention to anything but the boat.

Boatman has seen this phenomenon among some of the skippers following the America's Cup races in powerboats. They worry about the air conditioning, the lunch, the hot and cold running water, and they answer little buzzer-phones on the bridge. When the fog rolls in, they switch on the anti-fog navigating gadgetry.

Boatman has also seen old-fashioned skippers here who know the feel of the boat and the way she ought to rest in a swell, who can sense a change in the weather by the way the wind brushes their cheeks and who will say when the electronics break down, "That figures."

Boatman prefers the latter, particularly when the rocks loom in a fog off Mackerel Cove.