Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

I have been sailing for approximately fifteen years and have been in many situations where I had to call on skills from with, but the storm we encountered on the weekend of 1995 certainly got my attention that I was not PREPARED.

The weekend started with a nice sail from Hernando Beach Marina to Ancloyte Key, which is off the coast of Tarpon Springs, Florida. We sailed with friends, each taking our own boats.

We anchored at Ancloyte Key which is a favorite for mariners in that area. We had a good day when my wife suggested we sail back to Hernando Beach as she had some things to do at our home in Ocala. I readily agreed to this since we would be sailing at night, which I enjoy. My wife has never been keen on sailing at night but she was willing to compromise. We noticed a storm cell developing over Tarpon Springs and learned on the weather forecast that a severe thunderstorm was steering NE of us and heading south to St. Petersburg, I felt like any danger of us being in a storm was diminishing. We weighed anchor and bid our friends farewell, telling them we were going back.

About two hours later as steamed North to our destination, I noticed a storm developing in our path. I tuned the weather forecast to the correct decibel and learned we had not heard the forecast form Yankeetown which is north of Hernando Beach. They were issuing severe thunderstorm and high winds warnings. We had been listening to St. Petersburg prior to the broadcast from Yankeetown. WE could not hear the later broadcast because the signal from St. Petersburg was stronger in the area of Anclothe Key.

I told my wife we should head out to sea to avoid the storm. MISTAKE ONE: Within one hour the storm was upon us. It caught us by surprise. The canvas was still up. The winds were aft and blowing very hard. I tried to bring the sails down but it was too late. The wind twisted the jib into two large billowing knots of sail and began its repetitious and deafening sounds as if the sail wanted to depart from this hell. The winds had picked up to approximately 50 knots. The lightning was everywhere, streaking into the water and across the dark skies. The rain had turned into dime-sized hail and was pelting our foul weather gear sounding as though we were victims of an assassin using a slingshot armed with pellets.

Meanwhile during this maelstrom, I had managed to bring the main sail down part way but the violet winds had the sail adhered to the spreaders and I watched in agony and helplessness as my sails were being torn in shreds along the edges and where the spreaders were.

The sea had now built up to eight-foot waves and was propelling as at seventeen knots according to the knot meter. We were actually surfing down side on the waves. And we were being driven further out to sea. The weather was tenacious. At times, I subtracted myself out of this scenario and visualized myself observing being tossed around on a large sea with the accompanied lightning and angry water.

I thought it best to turn on the engine and head back into the waves hit beam side and the engine dies. I went down into the engine room and found the filters had clogged with sludge. I had to abort any idea of starting the engine as I had no spare.

MISTAKE TWO : During this whole ordeal, my wife, usually a first mate, I can count on was wavering in her stamina and conviction. I could see the anxiety and panic deepen in her face. I kept saying to her that" everything is going to be all right" even though I was saying this out of habit and to keep my mind focused on saving us and the boat.

When the engine failed, she went down in the cabin and collapsed on one of the bunks and said she could not go on any further. She asked me to summon the Coast Guard. I fasten my harness onto the lifelines and worked my way up to the anchors. The boat was still surfing at a fast speed but was not going as fast as it was for the storm was subsiding. I tossed the two anchors over and hoped they would catch. One anchor had 150' rode and the other had 100' rode. By now we had been driven out to sea 25 miles form shore and in 43' of water. I was fortunate as the anchors found their hold and swung the boat into the wind. The anchorage was very pleasant compared to the fiasco we had gone through.

I called the Coast Guard. Thet dispatched a TowBoatU.S. vessel to find us and to tow us in. The vessel found us two hours later and towed us to our marina.

Even though I have been sailing since 1982, I learned these lessons.

  • Do not set sail until the weather is all clear.
  • Make sure your fuel tank is void of any contamination.
  • Carry extra fuel filters.
  • Stow sea anchors on board. I now have a parachute and a large Danforth.
  • Purchase a 25-mm flare gun. My 12-gauge flare did not go high enough for the tow boat to find me because of the wave action and the high winds were carrying my flare down wind before it could achieve 150 '.

Anecdote: The boat came through with flying colors. She handled very well considering the adverse conditions. It was the skipper and the first mate that suffered for the worse.