Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

Boats that cruise the waters inside the barrier islands of the East Coast are almost completely safe from the vagaries of weather- almost, but not quite. Fortunately hurricane and tropical storm forecasts now alert us well in advance of their landfall, and allow those on the water plenty of time for preparation. Not so with summer thunderstorms, whose winds can sometimes reach hurricane velocity, and which occur with little advance warning.

We have been aboard sailboats through hundreds of thunderstorms, mostly when cruising the Caribbean and the southeastern states, and we've even been on the water when as many as three waterspouts at a time were just a few miles away, when we were sailing in the Florida Keys. Nevertheless, our most violent experience in a thunderstorm was in those benign, protected waters of New Jersey's inland bays, in Little Egg Harbor, a few miles north of Atlantic City.

We had anchored our 26-foot sloop in the bay for a rendezvous with our friend John Fider, who tied his Sunfish to our stern and joined us for lunch on board. As lunch was ending the sky became very dark and the wind shifted 180 degrees, a bad sign. We could hear the rumble of thunder over the mainland and as John checked the line on his Sunfish, we let out more scope on the anchor and closed the ports and hatches. Suddenly John extended his arm and in a near whisper said, "Look at that!" Across the Bay the water had turned into a white froth as a line of squalls raced toward us. We all retreated into he cabin except for John, who wanted to experience the adventure in the cockpit. Then it hit. We discovered later that the anemometer at the Brant Beach Yacht Club nearby, registered 75 miles an hour-- hurricane force. Boats were overturned and ashore shingles were ripped from roofs and doors torn form their hinges. Suddenly we heard a large "snap," and the boat went over 90 degrees, with the top of the mast hitting the water. A tiny exposed section of our roller-furling Genoa jib had been grabbed by the wind, unrolling the huge sail to its fullest and knocking the boat over on its beam's end.

As our son Tom and I struggled out of the cabin, the boat righted itself to about 45 degrees. Our friend John was not in the cockpit. The lightning and thunder were simultaneous, and the mixture of rain and hail, driven by the hurricane-force winds, was painful, even through our clothes. Finally we heard John calling from behind our boat. As I dropped the jib in the water, Tom helped John back on board. John later told us that when the wind hit, his sunfish became airborne at the end of its tether and spun around three times, with the mast slashing through the water on each revolution. When our boat turned on its side, John couldn't hold on and fell out of the cockpit. Luckily he managed to grab on to his Sunfish.

Finally the squall passed and we assessed our damage. Surprisingly our boat was intact, with no damage and no water in the cabin. The Sunfish had lost its dagger-board and lifejacket, and the Sunfish mast, a heavy three-inch aluminum extrusion, was bent. We counted our blessings. In 60 years on the water I had never experienced a thunderstorm like that, and hopefully never will again. The mistake that caused our knockdown was leaving the small section of the roller-furling jib exposed, coupled with the fact that the jib-sheet was secured in a clam-cleat rather than a standard cleat. When the hurricane-force wind grabbed that small section of the jib, it pulled the jib-sheet right through the clam-cleat, destroying all its plastic "teeth."

That night, while assessing our experience, John and I spliced the mainbrace-and you can imagine how well we spliced it!