Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts
I rode out four thunderstorms in my 20' open sloop. All four started the same way. All happened before I invested in a VHF radio with the NOAA weather channel.
Since having the ability to know where and when the thunderstorms will hit, I have avoided all of them. NOAA's thunderstorm tracking transmitted by VHF has helped me a lot.
Thunderstorm #1 on Lake Wallenpaupack in Northeast Pennsylvania came down the lake so fast there was no time to return to my dock. There was a pleasant Southwesterly wind. I was tacking south. Then I saw whitecaps coming from the North. My two teenage children and a middle aged, non-swimmer, cousin were on board. I (the captain) ordered the crew (my children) to take down all sails (main and jib). In a rare occurrence, my teenage children did what they were told to do. They are experienced boatman and knew what was going to happen. My inexperienced cousin sat in horror seeing the wall of wind coming from the opposite direction so fast. Under bare mast and rigging, the wind hit us and moved the boat faster than it was going under full sail about two minutes before.
Taking advantage of the wind before the rain came, I maneuvered behind a point of land, found a dock, tied up the boat and evacuated into the woods. We found shelter under a rowboat that was leaning on a tree just as the rain hit us. Fifteen minutes later the rain was gone, the sun came out and there was not a breath of wind. At that time I had no engine, so we had to paddle back to our dock, 1.5 miles away in flat calm and bright sunshine. The entire event took one hour.
Thunderstorm #2 on Lake Wallenpaupack whitecaps came from the North, again. Total of four people on board. I took down all sails and anchored. I put the boat cover on, sat on my teak floorboards and waited. Luckily, we had a good supply of wine, cheese and crackers on board to ride out the storm with. The rain hit. 1/2 hour later it stopped, the sun came out and again there was not a breath of wind. We waited until all wine and cheese was finished before paddling back to the dock, 1/2 mile away.
Thunderstorm #3 on Raritan Bay between Staten Island and New Jersey, the same beginning occurred: strong wind in almost the opposite direction of the prevailing pleasant breeze. It would have blown me back to my dock if I let it, but I knew it was too much for me. Again, I took down all of the sails. The wind moved me into shallow water where I tossed the anchor overboard and had a very long lead on the anchor line since I was in shallow water. I put the boat cover on, sat on my teak floorboards and waited. The rain hit. Fifteen minutes later it stopped, but I could see it was only a brief pause.
I raised the anchor and went further downwind (moderate wind, not as strong as the original wind, but in the same direction). I got closer to my dock when it came again. I repeated the process, anchored, put on the boat cover and sat it out. This time, the lightning was spectacular. All around me the bright flashes hitting the water like strobe lights at a disco. I made extra sure that I stayed far away from any metal. Nothing happened to the boat. Again the wind went calm and the rain stopped. Now, I had a motor to return the remainder of the way to my dock in flat calm.
Thunderstorm #4 in the Arthur Kill between Staten Island and New Jersey, the same beginning occurred. Strong wind in almost the opposite direction of the prevailing pleasant breeze. Again, I took down all sails. The wind moved me into shallow water where I tossed the anchor overboard and had a very long lead on the anchor line. I put the boat cover on, sat on my teak floor boards and waited. The rain hit. It was a lot of rain, but the lightning was far away. After an hour, the wind went calm and the rain stopped. Again, I had a motor back to my dock in flat calm.
With the NOAA forecasts and position reporting on the VHF, I have completely avoided the isolated thunderstorms. I have had time to plot a course 90 degrees from the path and outran them, since I knew their course. Note that I have only had experience with isolated, straight traveling thunderstorms since getting the VHF. If there were multiple storms or direction changes, I would follow the same procedure that worked four times.
Note: I have had my 20' sloop for 25 years. Before than, I crewed on ocean races (2 Newport-Bermuda races and 1 Annapolis-Newport race) plus uncountable races on Long Island Sound. I cannot recall any thunderstorms on any of those races. During the 1960 Newport-Bermuda race, there were 50 knot winds and 30 foot breaking seas, but no thunder. only a cockpit full of fish after each breaking sea rolled over the boat.