Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

Most people think of the Potomac River in the context of the narrow picturesque waterway amid the memorial of Washington D.C. However, the lower Potomac is a notoriously wild place for boating when huge river current, strong tides, and winds start going in colliding directions. All this makes the effects of a storm all the more unpredictable. Meanwhile, much of the 10 mile wide river is very shallow. Our Albin 27' trawler ZAZU was new to us as we rushed towards a twisting narrow-channel creek entrance as we saw a storm approaching. We were already to the second entrance buoy when a blanket of darkness, rain & whirling winds descended on us within seconds.

ZAZU is fully enclosed, so we were warm and dry, but everything else had disappeared. We could not even see the bow of the boat! The inner creek about 150 yards ahead would have given up perfect protection. However, the twisting channel between us and it was only about 20' wide, bordered by 1' shoals. The question was whether to proceed blindly to protection (but with the virtual certainty of running aground on unknown bottom surfaces and possibly hitting a day marker in the process)…or turn back on safety and ride out the storm in the 10 mile wide river.

I decided to head out because the Albin 27 is sturdy and our customized enclosed pilothouse meant that we had our little cocoon of dryness. The decision did not seem wise as we got severely battered by the storm in the open water, and turning around in the narrow channel had been harrowing. We bobbed around like a cork in a washing machine. Based on Loran (which was new to me) and wildly bouncing compass, I headed 10 miles across the Potomac for another creek with a more open entrance.

An hour later a red buoy almost hit us, and we congratulated ourselves for perfect navigating. Wrong! It was the wrong buoy! The combination of effects had moved us a mile or so off course, and we were at the entrance to another narrow-channel creek we did not dare enter. Later, the storm passed, and our emotionally-exhausted crew dropped anchor in the nearest protected spot we could find.

Good decisions: Because ZAZU is a stout trawler that can take rough water, and decision. She would have almost certainly been seriously damaged or stranded if I had given in to the temptation to go blindly into either of the tricky channels to safety. (Each captain will need to make this decision based on his own boat and crew situation)

Bad decisions: I relied on the NOAA weather radio forecasts ("clear, with light winds on the lower Potomac, no chance of rain, waves less that one foot") I didn't understand Loran and thought it would somehow lead me to a destination. I thought that having the radio with a tall antenna turned on made me a magnet for the severe lighting, so I turned it off. I learned later there was a mayday nearby with loss of life. I might have been able to help if I had on ears.