Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

We left Deale, Maryland at about 1300 on a short three hour trip up to the West River for the weekend on our Cape Dory 30 MARIEUSZ. Onboard with me were my two oldest children and a friend. The weather was typical for the Chesapeake Bay in August - hot and muggy. The wind was light from the southwest as usual and we made our way slowly north to the green buoy "1" marking the entrance to the West River south of Annapolis about 1630.

I had been watching the western sky for any signs of inclement weather all afternoon, as thunderstorms are typical at that time of year. Sure enough, just to the west/southwest a rather ominous line of dark, black clouds began to form. On most occasions, thunderstorms tend to stay to the west in this particular area and then move eastward around Annapolis nailing the state capital with significant rainfall and periodic hail. On this day, it appeared as if the clouds were not moving north at all. In fact, they began to almost circle back at the southern end forming almost a backward comma. I told the kids to drop the sails and started the engine.

My Cape Dory 30 only has a 13.5hp diesel engine and she can only make 5 knots or so with a clean bottom. This late in the season, I was lucky to get 4.5 knots out of her. Looking around I noticed the other boats had followed my lead and were heading into the West, South, and Rhode Rivers with all due haste. I firewalled the throttle but two certainties soon became apparent: the storm was going to hit the West River area and I could not reach a safe haven in time. In the distance, a dog barked.

I instructed everyone to don life jackets and told the kids to put the hatchboards in place and close the main companionway hatch. I put on a life jacket myself and prepared for the worse. By now, I was in the West River just east of the entrance to the Rhode. With the exception of one other boat about half a mile behind me, there was not a single vessel in sight. To the south and west a solid line of low hanging clouds engulfed us.

I looked to the western shore as the wind, screaming in the trees, made its way toward us. There was lightning all around and I feared electrocution standing in the cockpit holding on to the wheel. I tried to engage my autopilot, hoping to tuck closer to the cabin but as luck would have it, it refused to work. I looked again to the west and saw a solid wall of rain approaching. I looked around for the last time to get my bearings and then resigned myself to die. I remember looking to the eastern side of the West River and thinking that even if we sank, the kids, clad in their lifejackets, would find their way safely to shore.

With lighting striking the water all around us, the rain line hit along with the strongest wind I had ever experienced. Marieusz heeled over under to well past 50 degrees despite our having dropped and secured all sail. I stood with first my left foot and then both feet on the cockpit coaming to port. I didn't think she would ever come back. Just as she seemed to bottom out and right herself, we were hit with about 4 or 5 foot seas on the beam as the tremendous wind somehow was able to build large waves with only about three quarters of a mile of fetch from the western shoreline. She stayed down on her port side and heeled even more. I knew we were rapidly approaching water too shallow for even my modest draft as I tried to maintain control of the boat.

I recall being in total white out conditions; I couldn't see the front of my boat much less the channel markers or the boat behind me. Before the rain hit I had taken a moment to check my bearings with a green daymark so I had some idea of my course and relative position. Guessing where I was in relation to that mark, I tucked down close to the binnacle so I could see my compass. After a slight lull in the wind strength but still unable to see more than a foot around me, I turned to starboard on a reciprocal course hoping the boat behind me had stayed clear. I steered on this course for probably a minute (although it seemed much longer) and then executed another 180 degree turn.

After what seemed an eternity, the rain stopped, the lightning moved east and the wind abated. Once again looking around, I spied the other boat just off to starboard. The skipper and I looked at each other and held our hands out as if to say, "what was that all about?" I called down to the kids that it was safe to come up from below and they opened the hatch to be greeted by sunshine and calm water.

Later we discovered that a 76 m.p.h. gust had been recorded about a mile away in Galesville. We motored in and dropped the hook. I had a beer.