Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

The weather was perfect. Beautiful cloudless sky, a nice breeze and hot September sun. "Nope, there won't be many more like this before winter haul out" I thought. Lucky me, out for a day of fun in the sun with my lovely wife Janet and two of our dearest friends Jack and Ronnie. Life was good. It took some severe coaxing and sucking up but I eventually got the Mrs. and Ronnie to pilot our Sea Ray "Boobsie" to Hemlock cove. Jan was concerned with boat traffic on the "big holiday weekend". "But Boobsie" (also her nickname) I said, "the whole cruise will take less then half an hour and Jack an I just want to blast across the bay on our PWC's, no harm in that right"? Bottom line, she hates to see me beg.

Hemlock is a nice, quiet anchorage and a great place to have lunch, listen to music, walk to the beach, take a swim and mellow out. It's situated just off the State Boat Channel and separated from the Atlantic by a mere 1000 feet or so of dry land composed of a four lane parkway, dunes and beach. Spending a quiet day here you would never imagine you're only minutes from the hustle and bustle of Long Island, and less then an hour from the madhouse of New York City.

The ride to the cove was great. It was high tide so Jack and I were able to blast across the flats while Boobsie made her way through the channel. Along the way the bride spurs " Boobsie " up over 40 MPH (with just a wee bit of coaxing from me). My Porpoise-eye view from the Jet Ski is one that most boat owners never experience. She took the waves beautifully. Cleaving a path through a slight chop and the more then occasional boat wakes. Spray flying out and back as her twin 350's let out a low roar. She's a limber but very comfortable craft with plenty of freeboard and ten foot of beam. It's no wonder our romance has endured for over 14 years.

We arrived at the cove without mishap. The guys on PWC's, the ladies at the helm and the anchors are dropped. Our relaxation was short-lived. No sooner did we begin to chill out when my daughter, a known alarmist, calls the bride on our cell-phone to announce the rapid approach of a powerful thunderstorm. "Oh"! "The sky is falling again," I say, but quickly tune in the local VHF weather channel, just in case. My daughter was not exaggerating this time. This, "bad boy" of Mother Nature was fully equipped with high wind, tornadoes, hail and the like and it's all heading our way at 50 MPH.

WWweeeelllll. Discretion being the better part of valor (the sky is still bright and sunny at this point) we up anchor and after spreading the word to some neighboring boaters, none of whom seemed to care, head for homeport (about seven miles to the North-Northwest). Janet and Ronnie are driving the boat. We guys are on our PWC's. We are on a beeline for home at about 25 mph, except for a five-mph zone and subsequent slowdown here and there. Of course there were also plenty of slower boats and wakes to cross but we are moving in the correct direction and the bride was doing great. (Did I mention she never soloed in the boat before?) She has driven on many occasions but never without me onboard.

I now realize we are heading straight for the darkest area of sky but the protected cove that leads to the river where we dock seems a better bet than the open bay. In less then a New York minute the sky opens up with a huge flash of lightning followed immediately by a deafening crack of thunder and belches ice pellets that feel like marbles hitting my face and chest. The wind kicks up and the waves begin cresting. Fear, nor the realization of how bad this storm actually was, had not yet set in. MY Kawasaki 1100 ZXI was still making headway but I am more then a little concerned about the bride our friends and our boat. The sky was dark as night and I could no longer see Jack who was only 50 or so feet in front of me a few seconds earlier. The wind now sounds like a freight train roaring by. It actually exceeded 70 mph (as per NEWS 12 Long Island weather, although it felt like a 150 to me).

I turn around to see how Jan is doing and notice a small sailboat silhouetted against the remaining daylight to our South. The sailboat is under sail broadside to the wind and first tips then rolls completely over. At this point I was still OK but I look at the bride and see she is not enjoying herself. I yell to her to drop the anchor knowing we are in only four to six feet of water. She nods and obliges but the windlass hangs. Something which has on occasion been annoying but is now a horror necessitating my turning around again and attempting to pull the SOB free by hand. It's stuck and I can't free it in the split second I have, as I am whipped past the bow at silly speed by the force of the wind. In retrospect I thank God it hadn't come loose because I was directly under it when I pulled. "Ok forget the anchor," I yell, "get me a line so I can tie up off the stern."

I want to climb aboard to assist in "whatever" (a drink would be nice… maybe something with a little umbrella). I remember the sailboat and look back to see how it's fairing and I see how close we have been pushed to it. We are much too close. I yell to the bride, (who has the uncanny knack of hearing anything I say in any situation). I tell her to get away from the downed sailboat. She can't see where she is going through the windshield but takes the direction of my pointing finger. Actually, neither of us can see where we are going because of the wind, rain and hail, but being pushed into the downed sailboat was a non-option. I figure it's time to do something so I power up and plant the nose of the ski on the port side of the boat (windward) and shout to our friend for a line. I can see that she is trying to get it but it's fouled in the stern anchor, which was brought up post-haste in our effort to get home and avoid just such a situation.

The wind now is howling even louder. When I stand up to yell something else it catches me, lifting the bow of the Kawasaki just enough for the next wave in conjunction with the wind to flip me straight up in a tail walk, then over. I'm talking serious wind. The tops of the waves were being blown off and from my vantage point, about one-foot above water, they all seemed to be going directly up my nose. At this point I realized that I might die here. I had my short sleeve, knee length wetsuit and PFD on, but the waves were beating me relentlessly and every time I took a breath it was 1/2 saltwater spray. I tried to remount my ski but the waves were throwing it around like a cork. I must have looked like a cat with a mouse. First lunging at the ski then quickly dodging before it could smash me. It took several tries. Each failure leaving me more winded and bruised. An image of Burt Reynolds trying to swim to shore and promising 3/4 of his worldly possessions to God if only he could make it passed through my mind. Finally I timed it right and got back up in the saddle.

I then spent what seemed an eternity finding the boat that was a mere 50 feet in front of me. When I got next to her again and stood up looking for the line the same thing happens, like deja vu. I'm back in the water. Luckily it's only four feet deep here and I am able to jump then climb back up on the ski quickly.

My wife and Ronnie held up through all this and when I finally nosed into the aft starboard again Ronnie and the line were there. I now had no choice but to jump into the water and clip onto the line then try to climb aboard. Jan timed it just right and put the motors in neutral as I swam behind the boat, which I felt was a nice touch. I thought of aiding the sailboat's crew but decided my luck was wearing thin and there was an ocean racer next to it that was rendering assistance. Meanwhile nothing had changed in the weather department, ice cubes and large raindrops were bouncing off my windshield and deck. If I strained my eyes I could barely make out the windlass on my bow. It was black as night and my friend Jack was nowhere to be seen. My wife and Ronnie, once the image of Captains Courageous, were now reduced to sobbing and hugging. I decided that it would be foolish to try navigating the tight bottleneck that lay between the river where I dock and my present position in the cove. Using the Loran plotter and dead reckoning (and the Rosary) I kept the boat in the general vicinity of the cove's center.

Our ordeal ended as quickly as it began. The wind slowed, the sky began to brighten and I was able to see where I was going. Feeling it was now safe to enter the canal we proceeded in. Once inside the protected area things improved considerably. Boats were obviously damaged on both sides of the river. Canvas was shredded and billowing in the dying wind. I had to put my engines in neutral as I passed over someone's camper, which was submerged under about a foot of water. At this point I knew we had made the correct choice by staying out in the cove where we had room to maneuver. We found my friend Jack at my dock. His goggles had been ripped from his face and without their protection he could not see anything through the wind, spray, hail and rain. By the time I got to my slip it was over. The whole thing probably lasted 20 minutes. But it's 20 minutes my wife, our friends and I will never forget.

I have never experienced anything like it in my 30 years of boating. Thank God, the Loran and the 450 MerCruiser we were able to hold the boat in a relatively safe area. Unfortunately the captain of the downed sailboat was not as lucky. We later learned that he drowned. We also learned that most of the boats remaining at anchor in the cove broke free and drifted into each other and up on the beach. Think about it. A knockdown on a PWC". The wind blowing so hard inside our "protected cove" that the tops of the waves were shearing off and hitting us like a fire hose and all this happened less then 200 yards from dry land. When I got home I found welts where the ice hit my body and face. If this story has a moral, I guess it's listen to your VHF weather broadcast, even when you're in protected water, close to home, and it's a beautiful day. And don't become callous to the constant threat of summer thunderstorms.