Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

It was a few years ago, on one of those typical early summer mornings on the Chesapeake, just up the bay from Baltimore. The haze had restricted visibility to less than three miles, concealing the Cumulus clouds that were beginning to boil up in the western sky. The National Weather Service was broadcasting their standard, often ignored, weekend summer forecast of "hazy and humid with a chance of thunderstorms, rain heavy at times accompanied by high wind."

Unfortunately, the chance of thunderstorms is usually not enough to thwart or even modify the average boater's plans for the weekend. As the noon hour approached, boats of all descriptions were pouring out from every marina and launching ramp heading for who knows where.

As a young patrolman, assigned to the local police departments, fledgling marine unit, I headed my 17" Boston Whaler out of Middle River. My intention was to rendezvous with two of my coworkers aboard the departments other patrol boat, an open 20" center console Mako.

I met the other boat in Hawk cove just west of the Hart-Miller Island beach. On any weekend during the summer one can find hundreds of boats crammed tight into this shallow anchorage. The west shore of the island is usually leeward and shelters the boats from a steady south wind. Hart-Miller Island had become a very popular gathering spot for the weekend boaters and this weekend was no exception.

After I handed over my paperwork to the two officers in the Mako, they pointed to the foul weather gear I had draped over the back of the Whalers bench seat. It was always an obsession with me to be prepared for the unexpected, particularly knowing the scarcity of shelter aboard a 17' open boat. "What are you expecting" said one officer, "a blizzard?" Both guys laughed. Then they shoved off and began heading back to their assigned patrol area on the Patapsco River.

The storm clouds still could not be seen, but the western sky was ominously dark. About ten minutes later I heard a panicked and garbled transmission over the police radio. Neither the unit number nor the voice was identifiable but I had a pretty good idea who it was. The Mako had driven directly into the path a fierce thunderstorm. The intense shifting wind threatened to lift the bow of the boat right out of the water. Then, golf ball sized hail mercilessly pummeled both officers practically into unconsciousness. They had absolutely no protection from this devastating barrage. They were in an open boat, in a blinding squall, five miles from shore with no shelter and foul weather gear.

As the storm had passed, the officers managed to get the boat back to port. Both were bruised from head to toe and bleeding with their eyes practically swollen shut. They were immediately transported to the hospital and eventually recovered.

When the storm hit the Heart-Miller Island anchorage a few minutes later the hail was not as much a factor as the shifting wind. Most of the boaters at the anchorage got their first indication of trouble when the warm south breeze changed to a cold stiff westerly gust and the sky turned an eerie dark gray. The wind cased many boats to drag their inadequate lunch hooks and whack into each other as the pivoted with the shifting wind. The wind velocity had rapidly increased and the rain obliterated viability. In the first five minutes of the storm no less then a dozen boats were washed ashore before they could get underway or set a proper anchor.

Some boaters decided to try to out run the storm and race home. This led to a dangerous and chaotic scene. Hundreds of weekend skippers prompted by panic, trying to outrun a thunderstorm. All of them focused on getting back to the safety of their slip. Unfortunately, as the mass of boats converged on the narrow channels, the confusion and congestion intensified.

The situation was made worse when a number of small sailboats fell like dominos as a blast of wind swept across the water's surface at the mouth of Middle River. People were clinging to at least half a dozen overturned hulls, most of them not wearing life jackets and lying in the path of a horde of speeding powerboats. I remember thinking that it doesn't get much worse then this. I switched on my navigation lights and blue strobe. Not necessarily to be identified as a law enforcement vessel, but to keep form being run over by the onslaught of powerboats as I plucked people form the water.

In twenty minutes the storm had passed. Life jackets, coolers and other improperly stored debris littered the water's surface. Although that afternoon had its share of panic and pandemonium, it nonetheless turned out to be a good day. No loss of life or serious injury but many lessons learned about preparedness and complacency.

The question of whether one should try to outrun a thunderstorm is entirely up to the boat's captain. The size and construction of the boat, distance from safe harbor, sea conditions, location of the storm and most importantly competency of the boat's skipper are all factors that have to be taken into consideration. However, carrying the necessary gear and equipment needed to respond to an unexpected situation and knowing how to use that equipment may negate the need to run for home. A suitable anchor matched to the boat, plenty of line for an adequate scope, and some kind of protection against the elements would have prevented many of the calamities that happened on that ill-fated afternoon in Hawk Cove.

This writer served nearly ten years as a Marine Police officer, is a U.S. Coast Guard Licensed Captain and currently the Boating Education Coordinator for the Community College of Baltimore County (and a BoatUS insured member).