Your Stories, From The Edge


Tornado Alert!

By Tom Neale
Illustrations by: Mel Neale
Published: June/July 2013

This boating veteran recalls a wicked day he'd rather not repeat.

Illustration by Mel Neale

The wild weather had come up fast, and slammed Chez Nous all day, the VHF repeatedly blasting urgent tornado warnings all over North Carolina. My wife Mel and I had tried to head out into the Neuse River earlier, but the weather had forced us to turn around and anchor. Suddenly, a large tug, the Beaufort Belle, steamed past us into the sheltered waters of Adams Creek, spray streaming over her high wheelhouse. I hailed her skipper on Channel 13. He said in the many years he'd been running the trip around Maw Point, these were the worst conditions he'd seen. I longed for a marina, but knew that we'd probably damage the boat or ourselves trying to dock in the high winds. I hoped our chances were better at anchor.

For the rest of the afternoon, we listened to horrific reports of tornadoes sweeping across the state from the west, destroying large buildings and killing people. We forced down dinner as darkness swept in, listening to TV reports of hundreds of tornadoes, and stayed glued to the radar trying to decide whether we were going to be lucky or not. We were in a long creek, where friends had successfully ridden out hurricanes, and where we'd ridden out tropical storms over many years, and we'd anchored in the creek's broad mouth. Our large, heavy boat needed plenty of room to swing on the long scope we deployed, and plenty of room to drag, which isn't unusual in tornadoes. We anchored in only eight feet of water, for two reasons.

First, it made our extensive length of all-chain rode much more effective in helping the anchor dig in and stay. For severe storms we deploy considerably more rode than the normal rule of thumb: at least five times the distance from the bow roller to the bottom versus three. We use a carefully rigged nylon snubbing line and other tactics we've learned over the years. So even though in theory we needed only 40 feet of scope because of the eight-foot water depth, we deployed more than 100 feet. We knew that even if we were missed by the advancing tornadoes, we were still in for a hell of a blow. The holding was good, a few inches of soft mud over thicker mud, mixed with gray clay underneath, and we spent an hour carefully working the anchor deeply into the mud.

Second, even if we were to sink, the water was too shallow for us to be completely covered. From past experience we knew that a tornado could do many things, including turning the boat on its side allowing water to pour in. Although we had carefully secured all the hatches and ports, there are always ways for water to enter. If this were to happen, and the boat sank, our hull would be above water. Our beam is 15 feet. Even if the tornado completely flipped us upside down, we knew that if we could swim our way out and up, there would be plenty of exposed hull to sit on.

Our swinging room was taken away from us when two smaller boats came in and anchored nearby. We often anchor in the broad outer areas of harbors, leaving the snugger areas for the smaller boats, which need it more. In this anchorage, there was plenty of room for smaller boats to anchor farther up the creek, in an area where we wouldn't have had sufficient space. I tried to tell them politely that we were only at the open mouth because of our size and need for swinging room, but they stayed.

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Lessons Learned On Chez Nous

We may have been safer during that tornado in our well-anchored, well-built boat than in a typical house! The boat is aerodynamic and will move and yield while a house is rigidly attached to its foundation. I'm not suggesting leaving a house to go to the boat, only talking about this one case.

  • Secure everything aboard, and on deck, to avoid flying missiles as your boat is catapulted about. Tie the helm in position to avoid damage to the steering system — don't rely on a wheel lock. Coil, secure, and store all lines so that they don't get tangled or trail overboard. If you have roller furling and enough warning, drop the jib and stow it below. Otherwise, wrap the jib sheets around it securely (half a dozen turns at least), and cleat off the furling line.
  • When a storm or severe weather is approaching, don't leave your dinghy tied behind your boat, or it could flip in the wind and sink. Bring it aboard, take the engine off and secure it, flip the dinghy if possible, and lash it down with multiple ties.
  • If you have a smartphone or other mobile device, you can track the movement of thunderstorms and see where they are forecast to go. You'll know when the worst weather is approaching, and you may just be able to pick a more secure hidey-hole before the fact.
  • Prepare anything you might need to abandon ship or signal for help before the fact and position it close to the companionway.
  • Stay near the companionway, so you can make a fast exit. When anything happens aboard that could cause a serious threat to your life or boat, immediately locate your life jackets, and be prepared to abandon ship.
  • We cannot emphasize enough the importance of proper anchoring techniques, the use of a storm anchor, adequate swinging room, and how critical it is to put out a scope of AT LEAST five times the water depth with an all-chain rode; 10 times the water depth for all rope. Take your time digging that anchor in slowly. In a threatening situation such as the one we were in, even more scope is recommended.
  • Typically, waterspouts aren't anywhere near as strong as tornadoes. A tornado can sweep or hop across a short space of water and maintain its characteristics. Both are short-lived, but can do tremendous damage if they score a direct hit.