Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

This story is about complacency and learning quickly about thunderstorms.

On a weekend in late July '99 we were planning a day trip from the Sassafras River out to the Chesapeake Bay on our 34' aft cabin. After listening to the NOAA weather forecast on the VHF that called for thunderstorms, high winds and hail, we decided not to go. As we waited for this terrible weather to come upon us, nothing happened. The storms passed 30 miles south and it turned out to be a sunny and warmóan uneventful day. Our reaction was that the forecast was overstated and we wasted a good weekend sitting at the marina.

Two weeks later we decided to re-schedule the trip. This time we were going to anchor out for the night. As we geared up for our trip on Saturday, I turned on the VHF and listened to what appeared to be the recording from two weeks before (thunderstorms, high winds, hail . . .) except that it wasn't expected to hit until later that evening. Since it was still early (around noon), we decided to head out.

Once on the bay we decided to go to Havre de Grace and see how far we could navigate up the Susquehanna River. After an easy cruise to Port Deposit, we look for good protected spot to lay anchor but the swift moving water coming down river gave us concern that the anchor may not hold fast overnight and decided not to take a chance.

At about 3:30 PM we changed our plans and decided to cruise back across the bay and anchor at Chesapeake City in the anchorage basin off the C&D Canal. After listening to the weather forecast again (it hadn't changed), and given that the conditions were still nearly perfect with no serious clouds in sight, we set out to our new destination.

After rounding Turkey Point, the first thick clouds started to appear from the northwest. At this point the clouds did not appear to be threatening, but we decided to speed up to about 23 knots and get to the anchorage early, just to be safe.

After almost a half hour, the sky began to darken as we entered the canal. A large gust of wind caught us on our port side and abruptly shifted our course to starboard, closer to the rocky banks that line the canal. At this point I went to full throttle to try to outrun the imminent storm that was approaching fast. As we (and several other boats) ran through the canal at full speed we passed several boats going quickly in the opposite direction as if they too were trying to get somewhere fast to avoid the storm.

As we got closer to the high bridge crossing the canal in Chesapeake City, we heard fire sirens wailing and saw people on boats and on land scrambling to take cover. I steered into the anchorage basin that is lined on three sides by land with banks and large rocks. This area seemed to be well protected, since it included the Chesapeake Inn and Marina as well as a berth for several Army Corp. of Engineer boats. About a dozen other boats were already at anchor and we decided to join them, leaving ample space to keep from swinging into anyone.

Just as our Delta anchor was about to grab, the storm hit! Gusts exceeded 60 MPH and caused us, as well as a few of the other boats, to drag our anchors and change direction. We decided to raise the anchor and power into the wind closer to the entrance to the cove and reset. At this point everyone was frantically trying to move to get a better hold on the bottom. We reset the anchor and played out more and more scope but to no avail. We were still dragging the bottom as if it were a tractor plowing a field. The only option was to grab the spare Danforth anchor from below, drop it overboard, tie the rode off, and hope it holds!

We were still dragging at a slower rate but were getting precariously close to rocky shoreline when I decided this wasn't going to work and we were going to have to raise the anchor and try to power through this storm. At that moment the port engine stalled. What else could go wrong?

I frantically tried to restart the engine, but I must have been flooded. It wouldn't start. With only one engine there was no hope of powering into the wind, so we had to sit by helplessly as we drifted ever closer to the rocks.

We watched as a 40' powerboat got loose and drifted into a sailboat and then into a row of pilings. We saw a 25' sailboat drag its mooring to within 10 feet of the rocks. The wind continued to swirl in different directions sending all the boats swinging from side to side. The wind broke loose a zipper on our fly bridge enclosure and rain and wind blew in on us wildly. The fire sirens began to wail again.

Suddenly the drifting stopped and we began to pivot on the anchors. We had held at about 40 feet from the rocks and everyone aboard breathed a sigh of relief.

The storm subsided after about 10 minutes and everyone went about checking their boats for damage and to make sure things were secure. A local marine rescue boat came out to see if everyone was OK and to reset the moorings in the cove.

The weather was beautiful after the storm and we decided to stay put for the night. The next morning, I started the engines, raised the Delta anchor with the windlass, and attempted to pull the smaller Danforth up by hand. It seemed to be stuck. We tied off to the post and attempted to use the engines to power the anchor loose but it would barely budge! After several attempts to power up and take the slack out of the line, we noticed that the anchor was becoming visible just beneath the surface but was still holding tight. We released the dinghy and my son and his friend went to try to see what we were caught on. As I, my wife, and my daughter lifted the anchor, we noticed that it had hooked on to an old abandoned submerged mooring cable. The anchor had caught this cable in exactly the right place and wedged onto a cable clamp.

If not for this one-in-a-million stroke of luck, we would have drifted onto the rocks causing untold damage to the boat and perhaps ourselves.

Some valuable lessons were learned from this experience:

1) Heading for a sheltered cove is a recommended strategy, but make sure the shelter is on the windward side of you so as not to get caught in a situation where the wind can force you back into the cove and toward grounding.

2) If you have enough time to anticipate the storm, try to get to tie-up at marina to ride it out.

3) If you have no choice but ride it out on the open water, keep your bow into the wind. Use a sea anchor if possible.

4) Don't assume the primary anchor will holdóalways carry a second anchor.

5) And--most important--listen closely to the weather forecasts and warnings and don't be lulled into thinking that the predictions are overstated or may not affect your location. These storms can come upon you in no time and then you are forced to deal with it. If in doubt, don't go out!