Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

My wife, Marguerite, and I were ghosting down the West River en route to our home waters of Herring Bay at the end of a great week of sailing on our new Sabre 402. The weather had been autumn-like all week, belying the fact that it was mid-August. It was only on this day that the heat and humidity so characteristic of Chesapeake Bay summers returned, which made me wonder if thunderstorms were in order.

"Marg, put on the weather station, please."
"I can't pick any broadcasts," she called from below.
"What do you mean?"
I can't find any weather stations."

Lesson #1. Know thy VHF radio, and other equipment. We didn't realize that our new radio had three settings: U.S. frequencies, world frequencies, and weather. Our radio was set to the U.S. frequencies. Also, become familiar with safety gear and other such items under less trying conditions.

Lesson #2. Use thy radio. After a week of perfect weather we had become complacent about storm risks. All boaters-on small and large boats-should factor weather into their sailing plans.

My sense of concern passed when Marg returned to the cockpit with some iced drinks. "The refrigerator isn't cold. The ice is beginning to melt." I went below to find that our batteries were so low that the low-voltage cut-off turned off the refrigerator, the chartnav and the other high-energy gizmos.

Lesson #3. Charge batteries regularly. We rarely used the engine during our week's sail (after all, we were on a week's SAIL) and our three batteries were almost completely discharged. Luckily, the depthsounder, knotmeter, and wind instruments continued to work. They would soon come in handy.

Clouds were beginning to form in the mid-afternoon sky to the west as we turned south toward Herring Bay. I thought it strange that there were few boats on the bay at this time of year. One small sailboat seemed to be in a real hurry as it motored quickly to the north. The wind was getting fluky and changing direction. Two thunderheads were beginning to form to the northwest.

"I think these clouds will move north of us."

Lesson #4. Take a guess.

We heard the first thunderclap after about half an hour of southing. Past experience taught us that a significant storm usually formed about 30-45 minutes after hearing the first thunderclap. Marg and I use the thunderclap as a signal to start precautionary measures. We felt it was better to prepare for a false alarm rather than get caught with our sails half up and our raingear half down. We started the engine (using dedicated engine battery) and rolled in the genny. I rolled the sheets around the genny a few extra turns and tied off all lines.

In the minutes to get the genny rolled in, the two thunderheads had grown significantly and coalesced at their bases. A very dark band of clouds-angry looking clouds with active bottom edges-had formed just off the water. More thunderclaps. Much closer. This storm was for real.

I dropped the main and tied it down tightly with sail ties. Marg went below to fasten hatches and bring up safety gear.

Lesson #5. Ensure the hatches are fully closed. Ours can be latched slightly open to allow ventilation. This was one time when ventilation wasn't needed below. Nor was the rainwater. Also put at least one companionway hatch in to keep the steps dry. Put away all loose items and secure latches on cabinets. It is disconcerting to find a wet and cluttered cabin when seeking a few minutes of solace below.

We put on raingear and safety harnesses.

Lesson #6. You can get very cold from the wind-chill even in summer storms. And don't forget boots. Boots help to keep you warm and provide traction. They also keep toes safe from big hail. Wear a safety harness. This may seem like overkill on a relatively protected body of water like the Chesapeake Bay but it is imperative that measures be taken to keep the crew on the boat.

The black band now extended across the entire western horizon. Thunderclaps were closer, louder, and more frequent. Lightning could now be seen in the darkening sky.

We could see the entrance to our marina a few miles to the southwest. In a panicky moment I might have considered running under full power into the marina. That may be a viable alternative for powerboats but even then there is great risk being caught in tight places and in danger of being blown into pilings or other boats. There may also be the urge to drop an anchor and ride out the storm below. But then there is the risk of dealing with a dragging anchor in awful conditions. Past experience suggests that summer storms on the bay last 45 minutes to an hour and that it is far easier and safer to ride them out under power.

We slowly circled the boat awaiting the storm. In minutes the wind started to build from the northwest as the first squall line approached. I took bearings to points on the disappearing shoreline and decided on an initial compass heading. I checked the depthsounder and confirmed that there were no shallows nearby. I checked to see the position of other boats to ensure I had room to maneuver.

Lesson#7. Check your watch and REMEMBER the time. It is psychologically important to estimate how much longer the storm will last; like how much time you have remaining to go on your exercise bike.

The wind increased in steps. It seemed to be clocking around. At about step three I was hunched over the wheel trying to keep the boat facing into the wind. My legs were spread wide apart to maintain balance. Marg sat next to me in the cockpit. She refused to go below. She couldn't sit in the companionway as we had no dodger and would be too exposed to the hail that was now pummeling the bimini and my toes. The rain was blowing horizontally. I adjusted the engine's rpm to maintain a slight forward momentum. I found it surprisingly easy to hold the boat into the wind.

The wind stepped up a few more notches. Unbelievable, screaming wind. Zero visibility. Horrendous thunderclaps and brilliant flashes of lightning were around us constantly. I have never experienced so much lightning and thunder and kept expecting that we would be hit at any second. I fought mentally to keep the boat into the wind. I was hoping-maybe praying-for this storm to end.

Lesson #8. See Lesson #7. Also, pre-plan where to sit and what to do should lightning hit. We now have a dodger and connecting window which will allow us to move forward in the cockpit and still be protected from hail. Also, have a knife ready that can cut through tethers.

Marg looked scared. My jokes didn't help. "Slide forward to see what it's blowing," I screamed. The instruments were mounted over the companionway. "Thirty knots." "What!" "No Way." Later we decided that she misread the meter in the tempest. It was blowing 80 knots.

I looked over the bow only once. The sight was absolutely unbelievable. All that could be seen were long lines of small, smooth, dark gray waves marching toward us out of the darkness. The water seemed calmer than the boat. It was surreal.

Lesson #9. The power and majesty of such a storm is to be appreciated and, yes, enjoyed on any safety equipped and well-found boat.

Well, maybe. The wind stepped up again. Noticeably. I looked toward Marg--into her eyes-and, without words, we acknowledged that any more wind would create a life threatening situation. We later agreed that we thought we would have died if something went wrong with the boat. How long has it been? How long will this continue? How much can I sell this boat for?

By now the dinghy we were pulling was upside down and submerged. The oars and fuel tank were long gone after the boat became airborne earlier in the blow. It took two people to break the suction on the submerged boat once back at dock.

Lesson #9. Remove all items from the dinghy before sailing or motoring. Always do this.

The storm blew itself out soon after the peak winds hit. In minutes Marg was down below mopping up the water and getting things organized. I headed the boat toward the marina in the clearing air. Marg returned to the cockpit as we motored slowly-very slowly-past the lines of boats tied safely in their slips. We smiled at those on dock.

We were the center of attention at our dock as people asked us about the storm.

"How much wind?"
Marg pushed a button on the wind meter that showed a peak wind of 97 knots.

"Any damage?"
"Lost a bolt off the bimini."

"How much do you want for your boat?"
"Its not for sale."