Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

It all started on a calm summer day on the west end o Lake Erie. My wife, three children and a friend were sailing on our two masted sailboat, which only recently had been launched. The boat was 50' on deck, 56' overall, with 7' freeboard.

We had been sailing all day when my wife informed me of a thunderstorm warning. We had also had been drinking all day. About the time I was telling my wife she was crazy, the sky began turning black and blue. We put the kids below, pulled down all of the sails, and turned toward the fast-approaching storm with the boat's 4-cylinder engine at full throttle. As we looked around, we noticed that the only boat in sight, a small open boat with five men aboard, was flying an orange distress flag. The men looked like they were wearing children's life jackets.

We quickly took them in tow using a 1/2" nylon line secured to our stern cleat. We were motoring back into the wind, when-it couldn't have been more than a minute later-hail began falling, the water turned white, and the wind shrieked through the rigging. Visibility was almost nil and we could no longer continue powering into the wind. Waves were coming over the foredeck. The boat swung around and rolled onto its beam ends. My friend and I were hanging on just to keep from sliding overboard.

The boat kept turning and was heading downwind. The wind was blowing at least 40 or maybe more, maybe much more. My wife handed us life jackets from down below. (Had I mentioned that we didn't have our life jackets on?) They had never been out of the bag and we couldn't get them over our heads.

Down below, things were not in very good shape either. When the boat rolled over, our youngest son slid under the v-berth and disappeared. My wife finally managed to grab his life jacket and pull him out. The other kids were all cut and bleeding from flying off of bunks and counters. All of the kids were crying.

As the boat was now running downwind, it had stabilized and we are could examine the damage on deck. There were three deck hatches and one larger cabin hatch that had been torn off their steel hinges. The jib we had left on deck had been shredded to rags because it had blown back up during the storm. All that was left of the boat we had been towing astern was a broken line.

We finally found the five men--all were OK but scared stiff-drifting in their boat about 1/4 mile astern. The transmission on our boat had blown, so it took us about three hours to limp back to the dock. Wow!

This happened to us 13 years ago and we've learned many lessons since then. I guess everybody thinks it could never happen to them. Lesson number one-it could. We knew what all the safety concerns were-we had been boating our whole lives-but now we follow the rules to a tee. I have been on many boats since then, and people don't take the new life jackets out of the bags, or they are stored under seats that are hard to get to. I usually tell my story and their jackets come out of hiding. We now we listen to all weather forecasts and heed the warnings. And drinking underway is a thing of the past.