Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

On July 18, 1999 my wife and I were returning to our home in New Bern, North Carolina from a two-month cruise on the Chesapeake in our 1992 Hunter 37.5 sailboat. As we motored up the Alligator River in calm winds and under overcast skies I was napping in the cockpit while Diane was at the helm. As we neared the turn to the west at Newport News, Point Diane suggested that I wake up; a storm was brewing on the western shore with frequent flashes of lightning.

I took the helm and Diane went below to secure hatches and ports and to break out the foul weather gear and life jackets. Shortly after she went below. I called to her to be quick, as I had spotted a wall of rain coming rapidly across the water. I managed to put on my foul weather jacket but not fasten it when the storm hit. Torrents of rain driven by 50-knot winds instantly dropped the visibility to where I could not see the bow rail on our boat from the helm. This storm was so intense that for the first time in 28 years of sailing, I felt the need to don life jackets because of weather.

Fortunately we were still in a wide area of the river with adequate water on both sides. My plan to keep the mark we were approaching in sight disappeared with the mark. I then learned what complete disorientation is. When I checked the GPS for the course to the mark I assumed the lightning had gotten it confused since it indicated that the mark was behind us. When I finally tried looking at the compass I realized that instead of heading south, as we were when the storm hit, we were now heading north-northwest. I had swung the boat around without being aware of it. I have no idea how many swings I had made before realizing that I had to pay attention to the compass. I then managed to keep the boat on the southerly heading while making just enough way for steerage.

The storm passed in 15 minutes and all was well. Another storm seemed to be following on the heels of the first and I decided that staying in the wide part of the river was preferable to being caught in the narrow channel as the river turned west. The second storm struck about 15 minutes after the first one had passed. It also contained torrential rain but the wind didn't get much above 35 knots. The lightning however was terrifying. It was almost constant and so close that we saw it and heard at the same instant. This storm also lasted about 15 minutes and then the weather rapidly cleared.

The major lesson I learned from the experience was to trust my instruments. Had there been any traffic in the area or any nearby shallows while I was wandering aimlessly we could have been in serious trouble. My decision to steer for open water for the second storm was correct in view of the fact that I could not make it to sheltered water in time. I had checked all around and knew there was no other traffic in the vicinity. This was reassuring when I realized the meandering I had been doing.

We escaped with minimal damage: the zipper on the connector between the dodger and the bimini ripped out. The only other casualty was my pride in realizing that I had not handled the zero visibility situations very well at first. Avoiding thunderstorms is always the best course, but when traveling during the summer months on the East Coast this is not always possible. The next best thing is to be prepared and to take action early to secure the boat and passengers for bad weather. It is always better to take action that was not necessary when the storm bypasses you than to wish you had when it hits you.