Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

My scariest Great Lakes thunderstorm experience happened at the Clayton, New York Municipal Dock, close by the Antique Boat museum. It was Tuesday, August 11, 1998, and I was three days into my first ever visit to the Thousand Islands and the Saint Lawrence River. I had trailered my 24' Four Winns 245 Vista from Lake Champlain's Plattsburgh, New York to Alexandria Bay. We found a wonderful apartment with a dock at the Ledges. Four family groups had gathered and took turns cruising with me in these new waters. Before this day was over, we would see one boat sunk at the dock, another stove in, and two others barely saved.

The 50 minute, afternoon cruise to Clayton from Alexandria Bay was beautiful, even with the slightly overcast sky. There was a moderate breeze and 1' chop. Giant freighters, tour boats and pleasure craft shared the sometimes wide, sometimes narrow, often shallow, rivera new boating experience for me. I was used to a large, deep, roomy lake (even if it's not the sixth Great Lake). I kept an eye out for storms since the WX radio channel did broadcast a chance of Thunderstorms on Lake Ontario and the southern St. Lawrence, near our location. I figured we'd be safe at the dock while touring the famous wooden boat museum in Clayton, which is on the Eastern shore of the St Lawrence River. This was a trip my father-in-law and I had looked forward to all week, and my wife and our seven-year-old son were along for the ride.

I consulted the Lakeland Boating Cruising Guide I'd bought the previous winter and chose Clayton's municipal dock. We tied up for free on the outside, west bulkhead of the well built dock. It looked like the harbor was protected well enough. Even though we were on the outside wall facing the open river, I mistakedly assumed the islands provided some protection. We walked the few hundred yards to the Museum and enjoyed a wonderful tour of boats and engines from the beginning of this century. We noticed it was starting to rain, and then it hit - flashes of lightening and wind whipping the walls and windows. We began speak of our good fortune that we were indoors, and then I thought, "The Boat!"

I looked out the door of the museum and saw waves, people, and commotion at the dock. I handed my son Patrick to my wife and then ran to the boat. Breakers, like the Cape Cod surf I grew up with, were rolling from west to east and crashing right against the dock - and the three boats tied up to it. The 3-4 foot waves were picking up my 24' boat like a dinghy and throwing it against the dock with each swell. I carefully climbed aboard, put on a lifejacket and quickly found extra lines and an extra fender to supplement to the two I had hung. The two 8" X 22" fenders, and the smaller one, were flattened with each crash of the waves. I rigged up extra lines and used one as a tension line. With one wrap around the cleat, I pulled it tight, then let loose with each impact, so that I would soften the blow of the boat against the dock without hanging it up during its 4' rise and fall. I was amazed at the abuse the fenders were taking and wished I had bought more. A cruiser opposite me had the foresight to tie up down wind, on the inside wall of the dock, and the skipper brought over an extra fender and let me use it.

In the midst of this, a sailboat of some 40 feet came motoring in to the "safe haven" of the dock. I joined others who converged to help make it fast, but the 14' aluminum tender it was towing was not faring well. The boat and it's outboard were being tossed against the dock like my boy's plastic bathtub boat. The skiff rolled over and swamped. In the swiftest dewatering I'd ever seen, the whole dock crew pulled in the lines and dragged the boat, upside down, onto the dock.

In the midst of the 35 to 40 knot wind and 3-4' seas, the crew of the Clayton Town fire rescue boat tried to cast off from the same dock. With the wind and waves pushing them against the dock, it was almost impossible to get away. After repeated attempts they somehow got underway, but I was too busy saving my own boat to find out who they were attempting to rescue. One boat down from me, a 20' bayliner was also being smashed against the dock. No one was tending to it. "Probably enjoying the lightning show from their restaurant," guessed my father-in-law later. I left my own vessel for a moment and tried to fix its lines - but there were only two short ones, both badly tied. Two small fenders provided little protection as the boat crashed, wave after wave, against the dock. Part of the rail was pulled off and there was a hole in the gunwale where the mount had been. I started to climb aboard, but the boat was too small and too far down to safely board in the 3-4' swells. No extra fenders or lines were in sight, and I needed all of mine. My own boat was continuing to crash harder without me handling the lines. Reluctantly, I returned to my own boat and continued to keep tension on the lines to soften the impact of each crash. I don't know how long I was there, being too busy to pay much attention to the driving rain and the wet clothes, but suddenly it was over. The wind died down, the rain slowed, then stopped, and the breakers turned to waves. Emerging skippers and crew began to mill about, inspecting the damage. Two older couples wandered down, wide eyed, inspecting the rail dangling on the port side of their smashed Bayliner.

What did I learn? Alot. You can't have too many large fenders. I watched them flatten hundreds of times under the weight of a wave driven, 6,000 lb boat, and they're still working fine today. They saved my boat and are cheap at any price. I bought more of the same large, Taylor Made, 8 x 22 fenders. My boat suffered only a dent on the metal rub rail, still there to remind me of the occasion.

I also learned that the fender line adjusters are useless. The plastic strap broke right off the rail during the storm, and the stainless steel slider bent. Luckily, I didn't lose the fender because I always backed mine up with a hitch over the rail. I do not use them anymore, preferring a secure knot to an expensive contraption. One more lesson: I'm glad I bought four, 30' dock lines as standard equipment on my 24' boat. One boater told me they were too long. Not! When things went bad, long dedicated dock lines, immediately available, helped me save my boat.

Local knowledge would have made me wary about docking on the outside wall of the dock, but after all, that is where the rescue boat was. I was in unfamiliar waters. In my home port on Lake Champlain, I'm used to being safe from the west-to-east thunderstorms since I dock on the Western, lee shore, and during thunderstorm watches I stay close to shore. I didn't' consider that the change of location to a new body of water had me on the exposed Eastern shore. The storm had a straight shot at me, with several miles to build up a good set of breakers. Needless to say, during my return visit to Clayton in 1999 I went right to the lee, inside wall. [That presented another danger. This past Summer, the dock attendant started to put gasoline in my water tank!]

There's another lesson - the help of other boaters, assisting each other, is crucial. One man stayed by me while I climbed aboard my pitching boat in the surf to make sure I made it back to the dock. People helped with each others lines, offered encouragement, and loaned equipment. During the confusion my borrowed fender fell into the water and I never did find the skipper who loaned it to me. If he reads this, I hope he drops me a line so I can find a replacement. In the meantime, my obviously well made vessel Sinai continues to carry my family and I on new boating adventures. Our August, 1998 visit to Clayton, New York is a good story in our ship's log.