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Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

As you note in "Small Stuff", no one who has ever experienced severe inclement weather will ever forget even minute details. My exposure (excuse the pun) began with friends who had moved to Naples, Florida inviting my girlfriend and I to their home. We arrived on Friday night and boarded their 36' Carver Mariner on Saturday morning for a leisurely day cruise from Naples to Cabbage Key. The cruise there was wonderful, sunshine, light winds 0-5. We arrived, tied at the Cabbage Key pier, played spades for a while, had a drink, took a walking tour of the Key, went to a restaurant, and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We opted to spend the night, have dinner and continue our marathon card game. Dinner that evening was great and the entertainment was excellent; truly we were in paradise, nothing could be better.

We awoke late the next morning, had lunch on the boat and briefly talked about how we were going back. We could go the inside route or the outside. My friend was not familiar with the "inside route" and we opted to go back the way we had come. We retrieved lines and departed. Traffic in the channel was moderately heavy with a ferry boat and midday traffic. We negotiated our way into the channel and out into the Gulf. The sun was shining and there was little if any breeze. If there were clouds we were oblivious to them.

About 45 minutes out of Cabbage Key we noticed that there were clouds behind us and to the West, but it was bright and sunny ahead. We continued on our leisurely pace back to Naples. At some point the wind picked up and the water became choppy; the wind picked up more and the waves got higher. We called down to the girls and told them to put on life jackets, it looked like it might get rough. The girls began securing everything that hadn't already moved or fallen. We discussed briefly diverting to harbor at Vanderbilt Beach, but decided we were too far out to get there before the worst of the storm got to us, so we continued on. We turned off the tunes and turned on the VHF only to find a weather advisory. By now the winds had picked up more and it was becoming difficult for my friend to manage headway. We looked at the fuel gauge-less than a quarter of a tank and we were having to steer the boat away from shore to keep the bow into the wind and waves. The wind lightning and waves were really intolerable. The seat cushions on the flybridge had blown away and the bimini had torn loose. Visibility was almost nil with the wind and rain blowing seemingly sideways and the wave tops barely visible. It seems at the time they had no tops; the wind was blowing the tops of the waves sideways. We frequently could hardly see the bow of the boat. All of a sudden a lightning bolt discharged close enough to make visibility difficult, and my friends says, "here you take it, you know more about this than I do." Great--instant promotion to captain.

OK--here we go--VHF squalling Maydays from boats aground. I remember a 52' sailboat giving a mayday declaring Lat.-Lon souls on board aground concerned about sinking. The storm hit during a Sea Doo race and apparently also caught unaware near Vanderbilt, etc. etc. Numerous boaters broadcasting their distress. The troughs were so close together that I had a great deal of difficulty even keeping the boat into the wind and waves at any angle. It's amazing how rapidly you develop a sense of correction when you properly judge or misjudge angle of incidence to the next oncoming wave. Without being able to see well, every judgement, for every approaching wave and RPM judgment were simply seat of the pants. On top of that I am slightly nearsighted and had to take my glasses off because I couldn't see anything with the lenses wet.

We rode out the squall with perseverance, luck, and perhaps with a good acquired sense of feel for the boat and circumstances. Lessons learned were many. We should have:

1. Pre-departure checkout of the boat including fluids 2. Properly charted our course including alternatives 3. Checked the weather before departure 4. Monitored channel 16 at all times 5. Made a greater effort to acquire boating knowledge.

Since that time I have joined the Power Squadron and have taken courses in basic boating, seamanship, electrical, mechanical, weather, piloting, and advanced piloting and am currently taking Junior Navigation. I would note that in spite of having boated for the last 43+ years in varied circumstances, I was singularly unprepared for what Mother Nature dished out. I would encourage everyone pursue adequate education for proper management of their craft, their boating skills, and those passengers who trust us to have the knowledge and skills to keep them safe.