Your Stories, From The Edge


Tornado Alert!

By Tom Neale
Illustrations by: Mel Neale
Published: June/July 2013

This boating veteran recalls a wicked day he'd rather not repeat.

Illustration by Mel Neale

We had prepared meticulously. We had our offshore, deflated manual life jackets on, with their whistles and strobe lights attached. You can't swim out a hatch from a capsized boat when you're wearing a big life jacket. I'd placed the PLB next to the boat's larger EPIRB, with waterproof flashlights and a handheld VHF all at the base of the companionway, ready with lanyards to tie them to us. We'd placed our computer storage drives, a cellphone, wallets, and other critical things into a yellow waterproof Pelican box. We had done all we could. We huddled in our cocoon waiting to see what would happen.

At approximately 9:00 p.m., we were in trouble. Our cockpit enclosure is tight and supported by multiple connected stainless pipes. It has protected us, like a solid wheelhouse, from more bad weather than we want to remember. But suddenly, lightning was crackling all around, the blackness shattered by flashing white lines. It was as if the entire world were overcharged. It started to rain. Heavily. "Well, at least we can see the lights on the shore!" I yelled at Mel. "It's not a whiteout." I wished I hadn't said it. Almost immediately a roaring white maelstrom engulfed Chez Nous in what seemed like a solid wall of water. Nothing was visible anywhere except within the interior of the boat. Even now I can't describe the sound or the feeling. Our ears started to pop. And then came the train.

"It's a tornado!" Mel yelled, as our 53-foot motor sailer began to lurch, veer, and from what we could feel, spin. The spokes on the wheel blurred as it whipped around. The boat heeled far over to port, as we dove down the companionway and tried to capture the wildly sliding crib boards. As I put them in, hanging on as we went farther and farther over, the snaps holding down parts of the cockpit enclosure started popping open. Suddenly the door flap exploded out.

Chez Nous seemed to right, then swung far over to port. Then she snapped over to starboard, veering, turning, and heaving crazily. Suddenly she righted herself and we could tell that the tornado was gone. We didn't know how long it had lasted, probably no more than a minute or so. The wind continued to howl and the seas were still huge. We pulled open the companionway and climbed back up, expecting the cockpit enclosure to be gone. It was totally intact. In the lightning flashes ahead, I could see the boat that had been closest to us pitching wildly and heaving, waves sweeping its deck. We were so close I briefly considered putting out fenders, but didn't because they'd be worthless. The fellow on the boat came on deck, wanting to help, but was barely able to hang on. Because of our size, we were relatively stable, but the other boats in the harbor were having a terrible time, bows bucking and burying into each wave. Everyone had been showing anchor lights except one single-hander whose boat had disappeared downwind. We, and the boats near us, put on our spreader lights.

Everyone had dragged. We began to check in with each other on the VHF to make sure everyone was safe. One skipper said his GPS told him he'd dragged 158 feet and that his boat had been on its beam with spreaders submerged. He'd been "sitting on the wall" rather than the deck. Mel and I knew that we weren't going to drag anymore, and that we had plenty of water all around us. But there was a sunken wooden derelict sailboat behind us, marked with white PVC pipes. We told the others we were going to move, powered up our 200-horse Yanmar, pulled in more than 100 feet of extremely muddy chain, and re-anchored — even farther out this time. Anchoring in the dark can be difficult. But it's treacherous in weather like this. You can't communicate over the howl of the wind. We used our Cruising Solutions Mariner 500 headsets; that night they were, possibly, a lifesaver. Mel controlled the boat and I worked precariously with the heavy gear up on the bow.

The next morning we turned on the TV. Digital air came in; the satellite dish was a twisted mess. The news showed that much of the surrounding area was rubble, with people still trying to figure what had been where, and who hadn't made it; 24 people were reported killed. A few people have asked, "How did you know it was a tornado in the dark?" All I can say is, "Man, you know." End of story marker

BoatUS's Ask The Experts tech-team leader Tom Neale has lived aboard for more than 25 years with his wife, Mel.
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