Call For a Tow

The Lions in the Jungle

By Tom Neale, 10/6/2006


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

I hate it when the wind roars. People talk about the wind “screaming” or “howling” or “wailing,” but I hate it when it roars. Three nights ago it roared. We were in a beautiful cove, surrounded by hills and trees. So it was a good place to be. But then, suddenly, the trees went wild. I think of them as something that’s a part of the earth. I think of them as creatures that are in control and that are conservative and reliable and predictable. But when the wind roars the trees go wild. That’s what happened. It was like they were frantically trying to escape. Like they saw something—knew something that we, down on the water, couldn’t see or know. They didn’t want to stay rooted to the ground. They wanted to get far, far away. Very quickly. So much so, that they were panicking. And I knew that they weren’t the ones doing the roaring. It was coming from across the hill, but it was close.

The wind was filling the night with a power I could only begin to imagine. It was also filling the air with debris, flying like bullets. You could hear things hitting the mast and the cockpit enclosure. I was afraid they’d come right through. The boat heeled suddenly, far over. That’s a big deal on a 53 foot motor sailer up in a quiet cove with high hills all around. It was a big deal.

Out in the river 6 other boats had anchored for the night. Four were sail, two were trawlers. The afternoon had been perfect: warm, sunny, a light breeze. And to make it better, the weather had felt stable. There was none of the humidity or glowering high haze to the west that you sometimes see when monster storms are marching across the land to the coast. It was what we who cruise love in an afternoon. It was an ideal time to drop the hook, enjoy the evening, and look forward to tomorrow. Or so it seemed.

Hell happened, as it so often does, in the dark. The roaring was, for all I know, a nearby tornado. We’ve experienced many of these in isolated areas of the coast, of which the pretty TV weather people haven’t a clue. It’s because, I suppose, that there are no “weather watchers” around to call in and report it. I guess they’re looking for radar signatures over more populated areas. If it wasn’t a tornado, it was close enough.

All of the boats out in the river dragged anchor. I don’t know how well they’d anchored or what kind of ground tackle they had. I think that even if they’d done everything right in that regard they’d still have dragged, because the bottom is soft mud there and they were surrounded by a fair amount of fetch. And the wind didn’t just blow; it roared. It happens to us all. And even if we know the bottom is not ideal, sometimes we can’t find better. And we’re sitting ducks, whether we know it or not.

No boat was seriously damaged. No people were hurt. But we’ve seen this happen, on many occasions, with boats damaged, sunk, people severely injured and cruises, lifestyles and dreams ruined.

Poor holding and bad weather aren’t the only things that make you sitting ducks waiting for trouble. When you’re out cruising, whether you’re underway or at anchor, you’re never off watch. It’s like there’s always a lion roaring out in an untamed jungle somewhere. You never know when and if it’ll strike. It’s a concept that’s largely alien to the experience of living in a house. In a house you have the power company to give you electricity and send it back to you if trees blow down. In a house you have the water company to keep good drinking water coming out of the faucet. In a house you have a fire department to come racing down the street to help you if lightning strikes. In a house you have 911 to call if there’s a serious emergency. In a house you know that ambulances can race to you quickly if you get hurt or sick. In a house, when the wind roars, you can duck into an interior closet or head to the basement or some other safe interior area. In a house you very seldom have to worry about a neighboring house dragging down on you and crushing your house, with both mangled homes next dragging down onto a reef or a beach while water is pouring in. And you know that even if something happens to your house, you can just walk away.

Dealing With Trouble

1. Always be in tune to things different. If there’s a different sound, smell or feel, there’s probably a reason.

2. Ask those aboard if they notice anything different. If they do, without describing it to them, ask them if they can describe it to you. If they’re noticing the same thing, it’s less likely to be your imagination.

Click Here for More Tips

In a boat you don’t have these things. You’re pretty much on your own. Sure, there’s usually help in some form. But it often takes the Coasties a lot longer to come by boat than rescuers who come by car or truck. Other cruisers help, but often they’ve got their hands full with their own disasters. And when the wind is roaring and you’re dragging, there’s usually not much anybody can do. I’ve heard people say that as you do it more it gets easier to relax. I’m not sure that’s the way it is.

Sometimes folks who’ve just begun seem to have it easier because they haven’t had the jolts and bolts yet. They’re not yet in tune with what can and often does happen when you’re on your own. Then there are those who’ve just begun who seem to have it rougher because they worry more because of the unfamiliarity of it and because of their uncertainty as to what they’ll do IF……

But for most of us who are out here, new or old timers, there’s a constantly nagging worry when you’re always listening for different sounds, or sensing different feels of the boat, or sniffing questionable smells. And after you notice the whiff of burning insulation, or feel the boat’s beam to the wind at 2:00 a.m. or hear an unfamiliar clank in the engine room, you’ve got to figure out what the problem really is, what to do about it and then do it. This happens even if it’s the end of the evening on Thanksgiving, or your birthday, or when you’re totally exhausted from a long passage, or some other time when, if you were in a house, you’d have every expectation of just coasting without interruption. This thing of always being on watch is why lots of people cruise for a year or so and then decide to move on to something else.

But there are also lots of people who seem to thrive on it. I can’t say whether I’m thriving, but I do know that I love it. When the wind roars I get a horrible feeling of fear in my stomach. But we’ve experienced tornadoes on our boat and come through OK (not that I’d recommend it—I recommend getting ashore to safety if you can). But when the problems happen, large or small, and when they’re all over, it feels good to know that you’re dealing with things yourself rather than always depending on Mother Infrastructure. It feels good that you can at least try to do more things to help yourself than hang out in a basement waiting for the sirens to get closer. And when those good times come, when there is no roar of the wind, and we’re experiencing “just another day in paradise,” it feels even better.

Copyright 2004-2006 Tom Neale