Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

Several years ago during an afternoon sail my wife and I were aboard a 22' Catalina sailboat three miles offshore the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay whem we spotted two thunderstorms coming down the Piankatank and Rappahanock rivers. They met together out on the Bay. We knew we could not outrun the storms as our hull speed was only four knots. We took down all the sails and lashed them to the boat. I started the six hp outboard to maintain steerage and let the swing keel down for stability. I also hooked a copper cable to a stay and put the end overboard, took a position plot, and left the chart on the chart table. We put on foul weather gear and life jackets and buttoned up the cabin.

When the storm hit, it got very dark and the horizon disappeared. The winds gusted to 65 mph. We at first tried to point into the storm so we could minimize the time we'd be in the storm but that was impossible. The rain was horizontal, making it difficult to see, so we turned the boat around and put our backs to the storm. I maintained a compass heading that would keep us in open water. The next 20 minutes were terrifying. We could see lightning strike the tops of waves 35 yards away. The boat handled the waves well, rising up on a wave, surfing on it for a while, then settling back in the trough. The motor was just above idle, giving us only enough speed to maintain steerage. After 20 minutes the storm passed on out over the bay and things quieted down.

We'd weathered the storm, although our foul weather gear pockets were full of water. The boat was fine. A check on our position showed that the storm had pushed us three miles further offshore with nothing but bare poles.

It was a very unsettling experience, what with a 25' lightening rod (mast) attached to the boat, but the grounding cable worked well. We now have a 30' Catalina sailboat and the only thing we now do differently when caught in a storm is to wear our safety harnesses. We didn't have them on the 22. We had taken the Coast Guard and Power Squadron boating classes and have since attended several Safety at Sea seminars and have learned much from all of them. We always keep a weather eye out for thunderheads, and if we are daysailing we go out early and come back early before storms are likely to occur. However, if you sail much on the Chesapeake Bay you eventually will run into a storm. While they are not pleasant they are tolerable if you are prepared.