Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts
It was the last day of July and I had worried about the weather all week. My friend, Peter Moore, and I were planning to take my 1982 Pearson 36 Cutter from Irvington, Virginia, to a boatyard in Solomons, Maryland. My wife, Pat, and I purchased the boat in early July and wanted to get the blisters repaired before bringing it south to its new home in North Carolina. The trip would take us down the Rappahannock River into the Chesapeake and then north into the Patuxent River, a distance of about 70 nm. I'd been told that this trip could normally be done in a "long day." The weather was a concern because the forecast earlier in the week had been for temperatures in the high 90s with humidity to match. Then later, the predicted temperatures moderated due to a cold front that was to cross the area on the day of our trip. A cold front in July almost always means thunderstorms in the SE and this one was no exception. The prediction on the night before our departure was for a 40% chance of severe thunderstorms the next day. On the Weather Channel storm map the only "red" area was over the southern Chesapeake. What luck.
I decided to leave in spite of the forecast. I'd been in thunderstorms before, in a smaller boat. We also had an "out." About a third of the way up the Chesapeake is the town of Reedsville, where we could spend the night if things looked too bad. Then we could finish the journey the next day. We left Irvington about 0530, just before sunrise. The day started well. The wind was from the SW at about 10 to 15 knots and as we sailed down the Rappahannock, the boat was true to its name, "Following Sea." We made good time to Windmill Point at the mouth of the river and then turned north into the Chesapeake. We were abeam of Reedsville about 1100 and everything looked fine to the west. Some high clouds, but nothing ominous. We decided to continue north.
By about 1300 the wind had died almost completely and we were motoring. The sky to the west was now getting darker, and there was a thunderstorm heading off to the east just behind us. It looked like we might miss anything serious. By 1400 another thunderhead was forming to the northwest. It didn't look too bad, relative to what I've seen in North Carolina. To be on the safe side, we lowered the main and secured it with some extra sail ties for good measure. We left about half the 110% jib out to take advantage of the wind that had now increased to about 15 knots from the west.
Then it happened. Without warning, and I am not exaggerating, the wind went to at least 40 or 50 knots in what seemed to be about 30 seconds. I can only estimate the wind since we didn't have an anemometer. The water was covered with whitecaps, and we had to push the engine speed to about 2400 rpm just to hold the boat into the wind (normal cruising rpm is 1800). It was impossible to furl the jib. I turned the boat into the wind and Peter tried his best to get the jib in, but he finally gave up with blisters on both hands. As he let go of the furling line, the rest of the jib unfurled. Peter took the wheel and I tried to get it in. The jib looked like it was beating itself to pieces on the inner forestay. The jib sheets had turned into dangerous "whips" as the flogging jib hurled them around. I was finally able to pull in enough of the furling line to get it onto a winch and gradually got the jib in. The storm was over in about 20 minutes. Neither Peter nor I could believe how fast it had hit us and how there was so little warning, other than the black cloud to the northwest. We may have been hit by the start of a down draft from the storm. Who knows?
What did we learn from this experience? Lesson 1: When there are thunder clouds in the area, furl ALL sails. Who knows what would have happened if we had the main up when the storm hit? Lesson 2: Extend the furling line so it can easily be taken to a winch. Lesson 3: Think twice, no, three times, about single handing a boat this size. Without Peter's skilled assistance, it would have been a nightmare.
When the weather had calmed down we resumed our course to Solomons. We were without sails for about an hour. The jib sheets had tied themselves into a mass of knots that took some time to untangle. Thankfully, the jib itself was not damaged other than a little fraying near the clew where it had hit the forestay. The main was also out of commission. During the storm our radar reflector, which had been hoisted up the flag halyard, had broken loose its remains had wound around the main halyard. After about 15 minutes, we were finally able to get it cleared so that the main sail could be used. I couldn't help but think that if the jib sheets had fallen overboard during the storm and had gotten tangled in the prop, we would have been out of business, so to speak with no sails and no engine. Our only choice would have been to turn tail and run with the storm. It is amazing how fast things can go wrong.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. We arrived in Solomons in almost 13 hours. Pat arrived by car about 30 minutes after we pulled up to the dock. Perfect timing! In spite of the storm, it was a good trip. In retrospect, the storm actually made it educational. Several lessons were learned! There is no substitute for experience.