Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

My experience last summer (l998) was typical. Each year I expect to get whacked at least once, and occasionally, several times during a season. One summer it seemed as if each Saturday night after midnight a boomer would roll in with winds exceeding 60 knots. However, last summer was light, except for this one time.

It was September, late afternoon, about low water, with spring tides. It had been a warm, sunny, muggy day. My family and I were approaching Buoy 1 in Raritan Bay New Jersey, approaching Keyport, our home port, in "PELORUS", our Paceship, a 26 foot sailboat with an 8 HP diesel auxiliary. The wind had gone light and we were under power. At that point the bay becomes shallow, with 9 feet in the channel, and quite a bit less in the flats. We were forewarned by the weather channel on the VHF about an approaching storm, then crossing Central New Jersey and heading east at about 35 MPH - towards us, and we could see the sky darkening in the northwest. I knew that the wind speeds could be extreme during this kind of event and hoped to get secured to my mooring near the outside of the mooring field before the storm hit.

However, as we sneaked inside #1 (in about 7 or 8 feet), heading southwesterly toward the turn at #3 about a mile away, we saw a powerboat signaling for help. They were anchored and waving their arms and calling out. They were also in what I knew to be very shallow water, about 3 feet. We drew 4.5 feet. We got on the VHF and started to call for TOWBOAT/US for them, but about that point, I heard thunder and saw lightening over Perth Amboy, about 5 miles away. That meant in a few minutes we would get hit, and we were. The initial blast from the north blew the bow off down wind toward shallow water. I sent my family below deck and even with full power couldn't get the bow into the wind. So I anchored and rode out the storm uncomfortably but safely in 5 feet of water, though bumping in the seas, which were suddenly impressive.

After anchoring we were almost hit by a 40 foot sailboat carrying what was left of a shredded and unfurled roller furling genoa and full main, torn across from leach to luff, completely out of control with the crew huddled on deck. They waved. I waved back. Conditions were extreme with horizontal rain, hail, lightening, roaring wind - all the stuff you would expect in a howler.

About 20 minutes later, the wind died away to nothing, the skies cleared and it was all over. We got up the anchor, bounced off the shoal into deeper water and got back to the mooring without further incident.

This storm killed 3 people in our area, thrown into the water or trapped below in capsized boats. Small sailboats capsized because they had sails up during the first winds, which exceeded 90 knots and stayed at 60K for 5 or 10 minutes. Powerboats like "TANGLER", featured in the monoxide story in October '99 "Seaworthy" capsized because they had so much top-hamper and so little hull in the water, they went right over or were unmanageable and unable to head into the wind. Some boats were unable to anchor quickly enough because the relied on power windlass's which were too slow to get a hook down. And many anchored boats dragged because of inadequate "lunch hooks." I suspect this is the storm your reader reported enduring last year in Long Island Sound.

So what did I learn? Just what I always knew: take care of the boat and the boat will take care of you. Also, that there is no such thing as "a storm out of nowhere." All storms have warning signs: dark skies, thunder, etc. I always figure on 5 minutes maximum from the time I hear thunder, possibly 15 from the time I see lightening. Sound of thunder only carries 12 or 15 miles. Anyone can figure distance off by counting 5 seconds per miles. Also, by turning on an AM radio, I can listen for increased static, or get a warning from the VHF (which had a warning for at least an hour before the event).

So, what to do? First: get down sails and lash them securely on the boom and deck. Second: anchor. You may not have time to get to a mooring or a marina. Always have a hook ready to let go with plenty of chain. There is no such thing as too big of an anchor. Third: stay out of the way. I was safer bouncing in the shoal than I would have been anchored in a channel full of panicky, scared, boaters heading at full power to their marinas in zero visibility. I almost got hit by one sailboat where I was, but when I got back to my mooring, I found 2 or 3 small open, aluminum or fiberglass power boats ashore, not blown there, but driven there by their owners.

Small boaters are often like cows in a storm. They head straight downwind, the only direction the can see, and crank up the power. The first thing they know, they hit the beach at full throttle and the boat doesn't stop until it's up into the marsh grass! I have seen that. Stay out of their way. And finally, if you have time, get life jackets and foul weather gear onto your crew. However, there may not be time for this while anchoring, furling sails, steering, etc.

When it's over, don't expect the Coast Guard or professional towers to get you out of trouble. They were overwhelmed with calls for help -- actual drownings, scared boaters, and grounded or capsized vessels. "One hand for this ship, one for yourself" was the old time sailors motto. Not much has changed.