Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

On 20 July 2000 we had a refresher course in basic heavy weather sailing, a lesson not to be repeated too often. Accompanied by Robert Moore, an experienced Captain, his two grandchildren (teenagers) and one of my grandchildren, we sailed for Back Creek, Maryland for a short afternoon sail. The promise was for a harbor tour if sailing was not indicated by the conditions. Reaching Chesapeake Bay we found a 12 knot south wind, a crowded Bay and indications of a thunderstorm to the northwest. Ignoring the fact that many sailboats were even then heading to port, we tacked across to the Eastern Shore, and worked our way South. It became apparent that the storm was centering over Annapolis and moving Northeast. Not wishing to enter that area, and convinced that we were out of danger, we continued to head south under pleasant conditions, continuously monitoring the movement of the visible storm, which appeared to be moving away.

Unexpectedly, another storm center approached from the South, with us in between the two. Warned by a cessation of the wind and the onset of increasingly heavy rain, we furled the large genoa, started the engine, and powered North. I did not wish to call anyone on deck to furl the main in the fierce, although warm, rain. To limit the swinging of the boom I had centered the traveler, set up on the mainsheet, and belayed it to its cleat, a simple no-no, as a jam cleat was easily adjacent. While motoring the rain increased to torrential proportions, but the wind was dead calm. About this time, with visibility severely limited I realized that a tug pushing a barge was closing with us on a roughly parallel course. Being more maneuverable, I elected to go around his stern. This required a sharp turn to port. While in this maneuver the wind suddenly increased from nothing to about 40-50 knots, right on our beam. We were severely knocked down, with the lee deck under water, and waves entering the open cockpit. While putting the helm hard down to bring her into the wind, I could not free the mainsheet. Time did not permit it. With a loud bang the mainsheet traveler car broke from the track, the boom swung hard out to port, and the sail ripped up to the leech. Newport 30's are remarkably stable, and she came right up. Other than the described damage, some frightened teenagers, and a lost winch handle, everything returned to normal. Within minutes the wind died away, the sun came out and the sea calmed. Another sailboat our size in our area had apparently had enough and had called for help. As we put everything back together we observed her being towed in.

The visibility to the north being obscured we took a goto course from the GPS, and were soon back at the pier. A number of obvious elementary conclusions can be drawn. We will not soon play dodge-‘em with Chesapeake Bay thunderstorms. WE will not belay the mainsheet under any circumstances, and we will always as we did, explain basic safety provisions to any passengers, particularly inexperienced ones. The reconstruction will require a new mainsail, a new traveler track and car, and a new winch handle. Inasmuch as this boat is 26 years old, replacement parts are not available, so major substitutions are required. We now know that the standing rigging is sound, even if the sails are very old. We know that she is a very stable boat, and the old Atomic Four engine is thoroughly reliable. The bilge pumps work like they should, and everything else survived in good shape. It is apparent that this refresher, though costly, was an important part of our education program.