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Seaworthy Magazine: Thunderstorms - A Few Members' Accounts

We sail a Cape Dory 28 in which my wife and two daughters spend much of our summer. We anchor with a 25lb CQR and 80 feet of 3/8" chain with 200 feet of 1/2" nylon rode. I have experienced several very violent thunderstorms on my boat in the last couple of summers.

1. The first was on Lake Ontario in Henderson Harbor, NY. We had just anchored after a long day spent crossing Lake Ontario. I was walking back to the cockpit from setting the anchor when I looked up and saw the strangest sight I have ever seen. A huge cloud was pushing its way through the lower clouds and doing it very quickly. I immediately went up and let out another 50 feet of rode and got back to the cockpit just as it started to rain. The wind started to howl and visibility shrank to nil. I could just barely see my bow and what I could see was the sail bag with the jib in it out straight from the rail it was tied to.

The weather service later said the winds were in the 70 mph range. The anchor held and 20 minutes later everything was calm. By now the weather radio had storm warnings and about an hour later another storm came down the same path with the whole scenario repeating itself again. This time however there was much more lightning. At one point all the hair on my head stood up on end and a big bolt blasted the island we were anchored off. The winds were again in the 70 mph range.

The crew during this time was below with life jackets on while I sat in my favorite spot in the companionway. We have a dodger so this is a relatively protected spot and allows me to see what's going on and also be in a position to move quickly should events warrant.

We learned that our anchoring setup will hold in some of the fiercest winds we are likely to encounter. We learned that our boat will handle the winds fine and to stay calm and also to stay inside the boat. As for the lightning our boat is grounded to a grounding plate as are all the stanchions and stays. We will never know for certain if this helps protect us but we have had lightning strike very close to us several times with no ill effects. One of the weird things about this storm was the total lack of warning. There was no warning on the weather radio and you simply couldn't see it coming through the low overcast. We later talked to many people who had boats that were damaged as they had been out on the water. One thing that could have led us to conclude that a storm was imminent was the forecast of a strong cold front moving through sometime in the next couple of days and we should keep a better watch on the barometer as that might have signaled the storm sooner.

2. The second episode was on our mooring in Lake Champlain, Vermont. I had just stepped on the boat to do some work when I noticed the darkening clouds on the horizon. In no time the wind blew in at what was estimated at a 100 mph microburst. From my position in the companionway I watched my inflatable dinghy with the 4 hp motor out fly straight behind the boat and spin like a top. I watched as other boats pulled out their moorings and go flying across the bay. I then heard one of them crash into my bow. Here I did one of the smartest thing I've ever done-- nothing! I decided it was way too dangerous to goon deck so I just sat put and waited for the storm to be over. Again, in less than 20 minutes it was dead calm in the bay.

I once again affirmed that our boat is great in high winds as it just sat there and rode it all out.

The boat that had crashed into mine was tangled up in my lifelines and after everything calmed down I simply untangled it. I had some damage to my wood toe rail and bow sprit. This again was a storm that came out of nowhere and did a tremendous amount of damage in our marina. I can easily sum up what I learned here: I have only one word for anyone who wants to stay with their boat during big storms or hurricanes--insurance! Having ridden one out I am in no way anxious to repeat the experience.

3. This past summer we were sailing in Long Island Sound heading toward Port Jefferson when storm warnings came on the radio. We decided to head for the nearest port, which was Port Jefferson. As the wind was calm we took our sails down and motored. It didn't take long before I realized that we were going to meet the storm right at the harbor. We decided to press on hoping to make it into the harbor before things got really bad. Well at exactly the harbor entrance we got hammered. 70 mph winds rain and hail and lightning crackling around us. I had to follow the boat in front of me because I couldn't see 100 feet. At least the entrance channel was straight but once inside I was going to run out of room because of the boats moored in the south end of the harbor. I ended up just tacking back and forth across the bay ( I was motoring with no sails up and still doing 7.5 knots). Fortunately it was a big harbor and relatively deep up to shore.

There was a huge barge moored in the upper harbor. What I did was to keep this in sight both to avoid shore and other moored boats. We also put on our running lights to make ourselves more visible to other boats. It took slightly longer this time but in 40 minutes everything was over.

The lesson here is that I should have never been inside the harbor at all. With our boat and the way it handles in high winds we should have turned around and put sea room between us and anything we could hit.

I guess my take on surviving thunderstorms is get a well founded and grounded boat. At the first sign of an imminent storm (same as reefing; if you have to ask it's time) get your sails down and life jackets and motor on. The crew on our boat gets below with life jackets on. We turn on running lights and disconnect the radio and GPS. I have a handheld, which we use to monitor traffic and the weather. I sit in the companionway to steer (tiller) the boat. I will try to point the boat downwind but I try not to fight the whole thing too much and try to let her go where she will if we have room.

Last, I try to get room in which to maneuver or at least run with it. Then just sit back, stay calm, and enjoy the ride. In these situations I have found myself thinking about what I should do next or what I should do if this or that happens. Being prepared helps to free your mind from reacting to what is happening and allows it to think about what might happen.

Thanks for this opportunity to tell my stories. Maybe they will help someone avoid trouble.