Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

In 1978 I was a 21-year-old crewmember on board a lovely safe and fast 53-foot ocean-racing sailboat named Bonaventure V. Earlier that summer we had participated in both the Chicago and Port Huron to Mackinaw races as well as the delivery trips to and from these races and had experienced several instances of line squalls containing winds of perhaps 35 to 40 knots maximum velocity. We had become used to dealing with "big black lines" of weather coming up on us. Later, in August of that summer the boat was entered in the Lake Ontario International race. The course was somewhat over 240 nautical miles from Toronto to Niagara on the Lake to Stony Island and finishing in Rochester, New York.

Shortly after rounding the Niagara buoy the navigator on the boat decided he wanted a nap and turned the VHF radio off to get some sleep in the aft cabin. Perhaps three hours time after rounding Niagara, we were getting ready to have dinner when we noticed a very dark line far out on the horizon coming towards us. We figured that we would get ready for it by raising the heavy spinnaker then taking down the light chute and the staysail and to top things off we would then get the mainsail reefed to be ready for the wind as it would come upon us. We were after all racing. We had figured based on our past experience that there had to be similar strength to the winds we had experienced earlier that summer coming down behind and towards us. When the call came for all hands on deck (half of us were seated at the dining table getting ready for a steak dinner) not one of us (on or below deck) had a safety harness or life jacket on.

We got the heavy chute raised and the winds hit us with both spinnakers up the mast at the same time. The anemometer went past the end of its scale at 80 knots. The heavy chute filled with air to leeward and the light one dug in the water behind the boat like a sea anchor. The rain came down so hard it felt like needles piercing our skin. The boat heeled over so far the mast head (75 feet above the deck) went right into the lake. It became as dark as night in a matter of seconds. We had two men in the water holding on to the mainsheet tail at the time. While we were clinging to the boat we let every line we could see loose to spill the sails and the wind. Eventually the boat righted itself (it displaced 38,000 lbs. with half this weight in the keel.) We were so lucky that as it did the men over the side were able to pull themselves back aboard the boat. With the seas building so quickly we would never had been able to recover them. We had torn the clew out of the heavy chute, the light one had ripped from one luff to the other luff along the seam. The mainsail (fully raised) was pressing against the leeward spreaders so hard I thought for certain that they would fail but they held out. The boat started taking off after the light spinnaker ripped with just the mainsail up at over ten knots speed in waves that were over ten feet in height.

We learned a few things that race:

  • All hands on deck means with life jackets and safety harnesses
  • Get half hourly weather reports
  • Never assume you can read what the wind strength can be.
  • Err on the side of caution and conservatism when it come to making preparations for bad weather.
  • When it gets this windy the ports and hatch boards must be shut as a priority and these duties must be assigned to an individual with a back up person.

Later after we got the boat straightened out and the wind died down to a lowly 45 to 50 knots of speed we had some of the most exhilarating sailing (with the spare heavy chute) I had ever (and have ever) experienced. We hit speeds of 14 to 15 knots with regularity and one time hit 17-knots surfing down a large wave with a harder gust of wind. Every part of the race has been etched in my mind indelibly as have the lessons I learned from it. We were all luckier than we had any right to be.