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Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

My wife and I were returning home from a Bahamas cruise in our new Catalina 42, having traveled up Florida Bay from the Keys, around Cape Romano, and planned to spend the night at Naples, Florida. We could see thunderstorms forming to the east over the coast and didn't figure they would bother us, but as we approached the Naples inlet it was obvious that a large thunderstorm was heading west and would obscure the inlet. I planned to stay offshore about two miles, slow down, and let the storm pass since I didn't want to get caught in the narrow pass and winding river.

With sails furled and everything secured for a blow I motored slowly up the coast when to the east the whole area seemed to explode with a huge developing thunderstorm, moving rapidly our way. The wind increased from the shore so waves were no problem, but soon a heavy rain and strong wind enveloped us. Lightning was striking all around and very close. To Ginny, who is afraid of lightning, it seemed that our 60-foot mast reached clear up to the storm clouds, so she stayed below while I put on heavy leather gloves and my raingear.

A blinding flash and loud crack close by raised the hair on my neck as my whole body tingled from the static electricity. While we didn't receive a direct hit, it was close enough that all my instruments were ruined and I noticed that my anemometer shut off at 53 knots. I kept the bow to the wind holding steady, and 20 minutes later it was all over and the sun was shining.

I would not have done anything differently because the storms would have followed us to sea. I could not have outrun the storms had I turned back to the south. There was no other boat traffic around to present a danger to us and with the offshore winds waves were at a minimum. Also, to have hurried and gotten in the inlet would have put us in real danger because the pass is narrow, bordered by rock jetties, and the river is winding and narrow. I put heavy leather gloves on to inhibit burning from the metal wheel should we be hit. I had also made teak handles for each of the spokes of the wheel to protect against electric shock.

What did I do wrong? I wasn't listening to the NOAA weather on VHF because the clouds and developing storms were over land and I didn't think they'd move out to sea.

Had I listened, or had radar (which I now have) I would have known which direction the storms were moving and corrected my course long before arriving at Naples. Probably would have gone in at Marco island instead. One should never assume the weather is going to act in a certain way.

Some further comments (solicited) from Bob Schrader about radar:

We now have a 38-foot Offshore fast trawler with twin diesels and very comfortable living area. We cruise for a couple of months each spring and sometimes again in the fall. While I do miss sailing, cruising in a powerboat is more comfortable and less work.

I have a 24-mile radar and have used it numerous times to track thunderstorms and even several water spouts. Rain, of course, shows up on the radar screen not as a solid target but as a grainy spot on the screen. It is very distinctive and the observer shouldn't worry about confusing the image with something else. The intensity of the storm (rainfall) is indicated by the density of the grain, and the size of the storm, obviously, can be judged by the size of the target on the screen. One can easily watch the progress of the storm and the direction of the storm, and with the distance rings one can tell how far away the storm is.

This is true over water - such as when we cross the Gulf of Mexico - or over land such as when we are in the Intra-coastal waterway and watch storms forming on land. We dodged several thunderstorms as we traveled south down the East Coast coming home this spring.

Waterspouts show up very well on radar because the tornado-force winds pick up water, which is reflected onto the radar screen. Here again, the screen will show a thick grainy target rather than a solid spot.