Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts
My wife and I, plus two friends, were caught in a really bad squall last labor weekend 98' in the Great south bay on the south shore of Long Island, New York. Like many of us that day we were not carefully listening to the weather forecast that was being put out on our VHF radios.
We were playing cards and having lunch on a really terrific day. Earlier that morning I was watching the day's weather. I saw some thunderstorms forming in New Jersey but it looked liked maybe we would get lucky and the rain would be late in the day. It turned out that this particular storm was rapidly strengthening and moving directly east towards Long Island at a very fast speed.
Around three o'clock that afternoon we were casually enjoying the sun, for no particular reason I was looking to the west. On nice days I can usually see the empire state building and the twin towers in New York City. On this day what I saw off in the distance was kind of pretty but also eerie. I could see bright blue sky for miles and miles but off in the distance I saw a wall of black sky. It was as if someone had drawn a line in the sky and painted blue on one side and black on the other. At this point I started to look around at the other boats that were sharing this cove with us to see if anyone else was seeing what I saw. I guess many people did; it seemed that all at once all those people that were only a few minutes earlier lounging around were now up and packing there boats. Now being a casual fan of the weather channel, and having also taken and passed a few different courses with the Power Squadron, I had some idea of what was happening and what was coming.
My first mistake that day was not paying enough attention to the weather report I had seen earlier that morning. (What I should have been doing) was periodically turning off our CD player and turning on the VHF. If I had, I would have left for home a few hours earlier. So after waiting another 15 or 20 minutes for traffic to clear I decide it's time to get home. This storm (squall) was traveling directly west to east.
We left the cove and were heading home. This is where I made my second mistake. We were in a pretty protective cove with a bow and stern anchor out very close to the beach. At this point what I should have done was to stay put. It would have been a lot easier and safer to ride out the storm at anchor in knee-deep water, but that's hind sight for you. The first channel we had to pass through heads north to south. This passage is a no-wake zone, not very wide and surrounded by shallow water. It was like being on a roadóa crowded road with boats from one end of the channel to the other.
At this point I start to think that we are not going to make it home before the storm hits. I was thinking I have been out in the rain before and it's not that a big deal. On a normal trip home it takes about 20 minutes. It's only about three miles, but there is a no wake zone, lots of shallow water , and, in this part of the bay, there are buoys that must be followed carefully. We were about half way through this passage when everything went scary calm. Not 30 seconds later a the wind started to blow. A minute behind that came the driving rain and golf ball sized hail.
My first concern was the small boat in front of me. It had a man, his wife, and a small child onboard. Within minutes a boat that was 30 feet in front of me was gone along with all the other boats. The wind was so strong that I could not keep my course. I now needed to turn into the storm, but I didn't know if I had totally cleared the end of the channel.
However, it didn't matter; we had no choice. We later found out that the winds were gusting to 70 miles an hour. We were now heading into the storm, which fortunately was the way home for us. The waves were two to four foot. Lightning was now crashing down all around us and it was really hairy. For the first time since I have been boating I was very scared and feared for our lives. It's amazing that at a time like that the first thing I thought of was from my basic boating class: "I am the captain of my boat and all the passengers are my responsibility."
Things were not looking good. I had my wife Danielle get out the life jackets for all of us. This was soon to be my third lesson. Now you would probably think I was going to say that the jackets were still in the plastic. Well, I am not that bad. However, I had kids and adult jackets mixed in the locker. None of the straps had ever been adjusted and the jackets were not labeled by size. What was complicating matters was that our friends were not familiar with how the jackets worked. You have to remember that things were crazy. When we finally did make it home I was wearing a child's jacket. I weigh 270 pounds, so I don't think it would have kept me afloat very long. I also need to mention that, as I said, the clips were never adjusted, and it took my friend John five minutes to adjust it and get it on me. I couldn't even help because I couldn't take my hands of the wheel.
The one good thing I did was to make sure the crew stayed out of the cabin. I feel that on my type of boat, although comfortable and dry, it would prove to be deadly if we were to turn over. How would they find their way out? The deck to me is the safest place if you are unsure of how your boat will react. It is also easier to keep track of the crew in case you need to abandon ship, which I was seriously thinking about doing. My reasoning being that if we did turn over someone might get trapped or knocked out.
I decided that the boat was holding up well, we had our jackets on and this was bound to let up soon. I remembered from boating class that these types of squalls were very powerful but they also came and went quickly. In the meantime, I just had to keep the bow into the wind and waves.
My mind kept wandering back to that little boat in the channel. My boat was taking a beating, so they had to really be getting smashed around. It slowly started to lighten, It was around 3:30 p.m., but it had seemed like midnight. I could now start to make out boats in front of us. They were every where. Some were chugging along while others were at anchor. This is where another lesson was learned. During the storm, visibility was almost nil, as if a dense fog had rolled in. We were very lucky not to have crashed into a boat at anchor.
Access to the anchor is through the windshield but conditions during the storm would not allow someone to go up forward to drop it. Those folks who were at anchor had the right idea. I had been riding out the storm at 3500 rpm but my boat was doing a slow crawl. I had no idea if I was in shallow water or about to crash into a buoy. During the storm I decided to get a windlass for my boat.
Not more than 30 minutes later the storm started to let up. When I could finally see, what I saw was a great surprise. We were right outside my home canal! It was amazing, after all that I was right on course. The weather was still harsh but it seemed like a sunny day after what we had just been through. My only damage was a very dinged up prop from the shallow flats I must have crossed and a bent canvas pole. My neighbors came running out to help tie up the boat and see if we were ok. When I finally stood on the dock I realized my knees were shaking quite a bit. Everyone was very emotional and wet. It was an adventure I hope to never have again.
When the skies cleared, the various towing companies and the Coast Guard had to rescue hundreds of boats. There where 40-footers that sunk to the bottom and one unfortunate man died right outside my canal (he wasn't wearing a life vest).