Tornado Alert!

By Tom Neale
Illustrations by: Mel Neale

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

Illustration by Mel Neale

The wild weather had come up fast, and slammed Chez Nous all day, the VHF repeatedly blasting urgent tornado warnings all over North Carolina. My wife Mel and I had tried to head out into the Neuse River earlier, but the weather had forced us to turn around and anchor. Suddenly, a large tug, the Beaufort Belle, steamed past us into the sheltered waters of Adams Creek, spray streaming over her high wheelhouse. I hailed her skipper on Channel 13. He said in the many years he'd been running the trip around Maw Point, these were the worst conditions he'd seen. I longed for a marina, but knew that we'd probably damage the boat or ourselves trying to dock in the high winds. I hoped our chances were better at anchor.

For the rest of the afternoon, we listened to horrific reports of tornadoes sweeping across the state from the west, destroying large buildings and killing people. We forced down dinner as darkness swept in, listening to TV reports of hundreds of tornadoes, and stayed glued to the radar trying to decide whether we were going to be lucky or not. We were in a long creek, where friends had successfully ridden out hurricanes, and where we'd ridden out tropical storms over many years, and we'd anchored in the creek's broad mouth. Our large, heavy boat needed plenty of room to swing on the long scope we deployed, and plenty of room to drag, which isn't unusual in tornadoes. We anchored in only eight feet of water, for two reasons.

First, it made our extensive length of all-chain rode much more effective in helping the anchor dig in and stay. For severe storms we deploy considerably more rode than the normal rule of thumb: at least five times the distance from the bow roller to the bottom versus three. We use a carefully rigged nylon snubbing line and other tactics we've learned over the years. So even though in theory we needed only 40 feet of scope because of the eight-foot water depth, we deployed more than 100 feet. We knew that even if we were missed by the advancing tornadoes, we were still in for a hell of a blow. The holding was good, a few inches of soft mud over thicker mud, mixed with gray clay underneath, and we spent an hour carefully working the anchor deeply into the mud.

Second, even if we were to sink, the water was too shallow for us to be completely covered. From past experience we knew that a tornado could do many things, including turning the boat on its side allowing water to pour in. Although we had carefully secured all the hatches and ports, there are always ways for water to enter. If this were to happen, and the boat sank, our hull would be above water. Our beam is 15 feet. Even if the tornado completely flipped us upside down, we knew that if we could swim our way out and up, there would be plenty of exposed hull to sit on.

Our swinging room was taken away from us when two smaller boats came in and anchored nearby. We often anchor in the broad outer areas of harbors, leaving the snugger areas for the smaller boats, which need it more. In this anchorage, there was plenty of room for smaller boats to anchor farther up the creek, in an area where we wouldn't have had sufficient space. I tried to tell them politely that we were only at the open mouth because of our size and need for swinging room, but they stayed.

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." 

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

— Published: June/July 2013

Lessons Learned On Chez Nous

We may have been safer during that tornado in our well-anchored, well-built boat than in a typical house! The boat is aerodynamic and will move and yield while a house is rigidly attached to its foundation. I'm not suggesting leaving a house to go to the boat, only talking about this one case.

  • Secure everything aboard, and on deck, to avoid flying missiles as your boat is catapulted about. Tie the helm in position to avoid damage to the steering system — don't rely on a wheel lock. Coil, secure, and store all lines so that they don't get tangled or trail overboard. If you have roller furling and enough warning, drop the jib and stow it below. Otherwise, wrap the jib sheets around it securely (half a dozen turns at least), and cleat off the furling line.
  • When a storm or severe weather is approaching, don't leave your dinghy tied behind your boat, or it could flip in the wind and sink. Bring it aboard, take the engine off and secure it, flip the dinghy if possible, and lash it down with multiple ties.
  • If you have a smartphone or other mobile device, you can track the movement of thunderstorms and see where they are forecast to go. You'll know when the worst weather is approaching, and you may just be able to pick a more secure hidey-hole before the fact.
  • Prepare anything you might need to abandon ship or signal for help before the fact and position it close to the companionway.
  • Stay near the companionway, so you can make a fast exit. When anything happens aboard that could cause a serious threat to your life or boat, immediately locate your life jackets, and be prepared to abandon ship.
  • We cannot emphasize enough the importance of proper anchoring techniques, the use of a storm anchor, adequate swinging room, and how critical it is to put out a scope of AT LEAST five times the water depth with an all-chain rode; 10 times the water depth for all rope. Take your time digging that anchor in slowly. In a threatening situation such as the one we were in, even more scope is recommended.
  • Typically, waterspouts aren't anywhere near as strong as tornadoes. A tornado can sweep or hop across a short space of water and maintain its characteristics. Both are short-lived, but can do tremendous damage if they score a direct hit.


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