A severe thunderstorm from the inside of a house or apartment can be an inconvenience. One looks outside at trees bending hard over, leaves being stripped from branches and streets filling with white water torrents while the rain is pelting hard against windows. The electricity flickers and the Wi-Fi may fail causing an annoying interruption of life filled with background noise and social media. Yet to the sailor, hiker or general outdoor enthusiast, a severe thunderstorm can be a life-altering event.
Several years ago, I was hiking through Rocky Mountain National Park on a thin goat trail that spanned ridgelines. Well above the tree line, grass, gravel and small stunted juniper bushes flanked me as I pushed upward. Around 9,000 feet, I stood for a while as the sun warmed my back and I gazed across the miles at patches of snow that filled the higher valleys. The distances were so vast that the depth of the landscape was unfathomable – hard to compute. Boulder fields extended to craggy peaks where small blue flowers dotted the edges of the trail. Huge white steam puff marshmallow clouds filled the sky with massive gaps of great blue fishers and stretched across the whole expanse. As a cloud drifted across the sun and cast its shadow across me, an entire section of the mountain was suddenly swathed in a delicate twilight where the temperature plummeted. The shadow of the clouds slid across the valleys and steep mountainsides, passing vast distances in just a few moments.
The trail ahead extended as a thin ribbon through the landscape and it arced with the mountainside into oblivion. A cannon shot echoed up through the valley and reverberated against the peaks. For a moment, I turned my attention away from the trail to watch and listen to the powerful sound, measured in force as a blast wave. A black, grey undulating mass appeared below the path in the valley and rushed up the mountainside. It was funneled, bowled in and contained but still rushed at me with the noise and power of an oncoming train. The speed at which this black cloud spit lighting and rolled with thunder up the trail engulfing everything was incredible. It was a terrible and ferocious monster devouring everything before it, and I stood alone without shelter or protection.
I only had moments to make a series of crucial decisions as the trail and everything in front of me disappeared into the rolling black mass that was erupting with lighting and thunder. The energy shuddered through my chest like a distant artillery strike and left my stomach quivering. I peeled off my backpack and donned a sweatshirt. Then in rapid succession slid on long pants, fleece jacket, winter hat, coat, an old army poncho. I sprinted uphill towards a tangle of juniper bushes and a bed-sized boulder. Just as the first detonation of thunder and crush of hail hit, an overwhelming wet cold gripped me as a violent wind tore at my clothes. I dropped to my chest, and low crawled into the spread of scrub juniper and curled into a ball, trying to cover my body and using my backpack as a shield against the hail.
The air was electric, loud and filled with a deafening roar as a torrent of hail pummeled me. I shivered violently and my ears rang with a high pitch insect whine as the storm intensified. For a moment I thought it was going to be the end of me but then all of a sudden it was over. The landscape was changed, now covered with inches of hail and I was left alone and without a trail. The churning black cloud drifted away while I was left in awe at what nature had just allowed me to experience. Yet, unfortunately, it had also left me cold and soaked at 10,000 feet with a hard night ahead.
Sailing through a severe thunderstorm is in many ways worse, where the added ferocity of the sea is an unquantifiable factor as the waves rise up in great foaming heaps and crash down in frothing piles littered with spindrift. The boat sits hove to, lifting and falling into and against the waves and rain rakes the deck and the rigging howls a long lonely Banshee wail. This happened to us, and as I looked out of a port light, I found myself staring into the old face of Poseidon carved into a wave.
On the weather map, we identify low-pressure systems by their counterclockwise whirlwind and associated line of storms. We don’t wait for the NOAA official forecast or the TV personality to give us their synopsis of the weather; we are continually looking, assessing, judging, and considering the different weather models. Our decisions about where to sail, when to stay and when to go are based on the perpetual use of weather radar and three different weather models.
At sea level, standard barometric pressure is 1013.25 millibars, or 14.7 pounds per square inch, and this measurement changes on the barometer as an area of low pressure passes over. The lower the pressure, the worse the weather. Sometimes weather windows are short; a lull in the prevailing wind will allow us to head south but on the heels of a low-pressure system. Feeling the press of time, we have left ports in dense fog and sailed into weather knowing that we had to push it. Or we made the conscious choice to use a weak low-pressure system to slingshot us home. Never an ideal situation, yet we watch the weather models for a prevailing south-westerly wind – our best bet for a ride south, especially when we are far to the north of our Chesapeake home.
Yet sometimes and as much as you want to, running from the storm is the absolute wrong move. A few weeks ago, Capria was anchored in Block Island against a lee shore where the prevailing south-westerlies had our stern to a rocky beach. For the time being, this was one of a few anchoring spots open to us in a densely packed harbor. We dropped the hook and paid out chain knowing that we were safe, but if weather approached, we knew would have to move and possibly leave the anchorage all together. Block Island is roughly 10 miles from the mainland and 14 miles from Montauk Point, placing it far enough offshore to occasionally get swatted by active weather systems.
“It really blows here,” a local told me at the dock just after I pulled up with a bag of trash. “It can turn into a real rodeo,” he said while stroking a short white beard and adjusting his classic trucker’s hat. Tobacco stained his beard, and he reeked of cigarettes. A tiny white perfectly manicured toy poodle rested on the man’s forearm and the pooch occasionally licked at bits of food suspended in the scrub brush tangle that was the man’s beard. “If you stay long enough, you’ll see.” He smiled knowingly as we parted ways with a mutual statement of “safe travels.”
He was right, of course. We’ve been to Block several times and have seen the rodeo but never in truly heavy conditions. Unusually as the wind pipes up, boats start dragging down on each other as weary skippers look out from their cockpits at neighbors that are suddenly dangerously close. The odd boat collision or the roar of “HEY!” sometimes echoes across the water as some skipper accidentally grabs another boat’s bow or anchor line.
In the usually crowded conditions, boats rip into the harbor and make mad dashes through rows upon rows of anchored vessels until they decide whether or not to drop the hook. It can be chaotic with people running up and down decks, yelling at each other and then backing down on their anchor and nearly into other boats. Sometimes “those types” shut down the engines and roar into town on their dink without even standing a half-hour of anchor watch just to make sure everything is truly okay.
Last year in Block, we watched a modern and wholly outfitted high-performance racer-cruiser speed into the harbor just after our final cup of coffee settled. It was a beautiful day with a calm breeze feathering ripples across the harbor. Conditions were crowded, and after a few days on the hook, we came to know some of our neighbors, their stories, and aspirations. From our respective cockpits and with the smell of cooked ham still hanging on the wind, we watched the racer-cruiser turn out of the channel and head towards our little section of the anchorage. The gleaming white and meticulously waxed hull reflected the morning light as a woman moved to the foredeck. I watched her erratically signal the wheelman as the boat veered – careened, rather – between anchored vessels. It was like watching a go-cart blast through a mall parking lot on Black Friday. We quietly watched their half-million-dollar boat show special nearly miss boat after boat with the lady on the bow frantically signaling left then right. As they approached my bow, I considered our chain set up. If they caught our chain at that speed, Caprica would be jolted forward, and we would smash amidships into their gleaming, sparkly, professionally maintained hull. Our heavy storm anchor would rip through their hull to deck joint causing catastrophic damage.
They slid past and made a hard turn aft of us then maneuvered into a tight circle. The small Danforth anchor dropped from their bow with some chain and a little rope as the engine shut down. Moments later, a dapperly dressed couple emerged from below, and the four of them loaded onto the dinghy and disappeared through into the quagmire of the marina landings.
As the day wore on and the breeze picked up, we watched from our cockpit as the racer-cruiser slid by us with its small Danforth anchor skipping across the bottom and occasionally grabbing. As evening approached, the racer-cruiser was dangerously close to a massive million-dollar trawler. After the boat tagged the trawler’s stern rail, another boat’s captain and I boarded the racer-cruiser and moved it. The harbormaster eventually arrived and towed the boat to a distant mooring. At dusk after Eleanor had already drifted to sleep, Alison and I sat on the deck to marvel at the endless mast lights merging into the distant stars. In the quiet of the late-night after parties ended and a few night owls sat on the deck to take in the magical views, the grumbly hum of an outboard motor broke the peace. Against the starlight, we watched the rough outline of a dingy push a brilliant white bow wave motor past us then begin to make sweeping circles. The cutting screen light of a smartphone in the dark illuminated the alien outline of four people in the dinghy, and over the idling motor, a questioning female voice shakily said, “It should be here.”
“Do you want to go tell them?” Alison asked as she turned to me. The deck was wet with heavy dew, and I was getting tired.
“No,” I said, getting up and stretching. “It’s a good lesson.”
I thought about this recently as Alison tied off the dinghy and Eleanor ninja-climbed up the side of Caprica even though a perfectly good swim platform was available. “That lee shore is an issue,” I said thinking about what the weather models had shown us that morning.
We had been in Block for several happy days enjoying great food, clean water, and beautiful beaches when we started seeing inklings of something wicked heading our way. The weather models showed a deep low-pressure system and weather front moving through the region in the coming days. High wind, severe thunderstorms, and rough conditions were generally to be expected but what I didn’t like was the way the storms seemed to be C- and S-shaped, demonstrating the potential for rotation.
“Do you want to head up to Onset?” Alison said as we stood in Caprica’s warm mahogany and thumbed through the weather models. Onset was 75 miles from us and a two day sail – first to Cuttyhunk then up Buzzards Bay where we’d enter the Cape Cod Canal. From there, we’d hang a hard left and make our way through a channel heavy with current, rocks and powerboats until we could nest into the great anchorage just outside of Onset. With lots of room, good holding, a great beach, an even better barber and amazing lobster rolls, we’ve ridden out several big weather fronts and deep low-pressure systems there while waiting for a weather window north across the Gulf of Maine. For us, it was a natural place to go, and from there we could poke over to Woods Hole, to Martha’s Vineyard and then head south towards Cuttyhunk. It was a sound plan and one built from experience, but the weather models were still days out, and we were really enjoying ourselves at Block Island. We opted to stay put.
“Let’s keep checking the models,” I said, “and see how they develop.”
By the next day, the tell-tale signs of a deepening low-pressure system moving over our area was absolute. The models showed a high-pressure ridge to our south and another high-pressure system to our north that would force the low right through us. The European weather models are very accurate 4 days out, but the NAM 5k is undisputable 2 days out, so we waited as the models began to hint that the brunt of the weather would be to our north: in Onset, the Elizabethan Islands and Cape Cod. With every model update, we watched pensively, feeling the pressure to make a move. I was gambling that the NAM 5K would agree with the European model, but if I was wrong we would only have two days to execute plan B. We did not want to be in Block Island for what was looking like a real storm.
Two days out, and the anchorage had cleared substantially. The European models agreed with the NAM 5K and staying in Block Island was the right decision. Yet, we had to get away from the lee shore and find some swing room where we could lay out our pile of chain. After convincing the boat floating above our anchor to move, we raised our Rocna and shifted to a deeper section of the anchorage where there were a few light cruisers, a steel-hulled monster and a little trawler. We dropped the hook and paid out 190 feet of chain with double snubbers and chafe gear with the second storm anchor prepped and ready to be deployed. Then we waited and watched the radar screen as NOAA weather warnings and severe thunderstorm watch boxes lit up our region.
As night descended and the first tentacles of the storm system approached, a large luxurious ocean cruiser motored into the harbor and dropped their gleaming stainless steel anchor within a boat length of us. With an uncharacteristic amount of anchoring space available, why the giant sailboat chose to park next to us befuddled me then I realized their mast was massive and towered above our little stick.
Years ago we were docked in Deltaville, Virginia, when an intense thunderstorm rolled across the peninsula. There was a new and enormous sailboat parked just a few boat lengths away. I watched 5 billion joules reach down in a fantastic blue-white lightning bolt and incinerate the top of the highest mast in the marina. After the storm, the owner walked the expansive deck to pick up the melted bits, pieces and fragments of whatever was aloft before the lightning strike.
And with that memory, I was okay with being parked on.
The anchorage was abuzz with dinghies, and last-minute preparations as sailors worked together to secure their boats. Back and forth, the dinghies labored against the growing wind and the darkening sky. In every inflatable sat a lone middle-aged man with one hand on the bowline and one hand on the throttle control. They were a twilight species that emerged with the smell of rain and salt on the wind. The long drone of outboard motors finally ceased as windlasses quieted and a serious apprehension settled over the neighborhood.
The breeze was steady but slowly ticking up with the occasional gust lifting wavelets into mature white caps. I watched a towboat zip out into the anchorage to retrieve a 50-foot catamaran that had lost its mooring. The towboat gave the cat a hard bump that translated into a loud “thwap!” across the distance, then the adrift vessel was spun around and several tow lines were secured. In moments the situation was handled, but it was a sign of things to come.
“The rodeo…” The old man called it as did an experienced sailor on our Facebook account. “The rodeo” echoed through my consciousness with a raspy voice and smoker’s cough.
Down below, we laid out the foul weather gear and made a few last-minute preparations ensuring that everything was ready for heavy weather. The number two anchor was rigged and prepped for deployment; as was a third if things really went sideways. But, I was confident in our set up, the equipment and I was watching the weather radar closely. We’d be in for a ride, but it was nothing compared to what was predicted to slam into the Cape the next day.
Like a battery switch, the power of the storm turned on as the first cloud wall passed over us, turning our twilight into darkness. Below, the instruments spun on the GPS screens, and our radar screen showed a rotating mass of multiple targets. Speed over ground was suddenly 5 knots, and my throat sank into my stomach.
“Are we dragging?” Alison asked in a calm matter of fact tone as I sprinted up the companionway and over the hatch boards and into another world. The low moan of the breeze through my rig below translated into ripping wind and the painful sting of sideways rain strafing my cockpit. To our stern, blue lights flashed intermittently as bow and steaming lights blinked into existence. Towboats and harbor patrol were instantly swamped with boats dragging; the only hint of their dangerous work from my vantage was a few lights fading in and out across the sheets of rain.
Caprica was sideways against the wind and drifting fast as white caps slapped our hull. The world around me was black, punctuated by lightning and the pitching anchor lights of close vessels. “Give it a second,” I thought. “Light wind most of the day…190 feet of chain … big wind shift … big wind. She’s not dragging. She’s adjusting.” I calmed as the anchor reset, the snubbers pulled taught, and Caprica turned into the wind.
Alison slid out of the hatch, “All good?” she asked, buried under layers of foul weather gear.
“Rocna,” I said and nodded.
“You hungry?” She said, unzipping her jacket and stepping down into the companionway.
“I’m hungry!” Eleanor blurted from below.
From our dark cockpit, I watched the enormous luxurious ocean sailor drift back on its anchor and drag a boat length until she was parallel with us. Out of the blowing black night, a caustic spotlight super lit my cockpit. I turned away and shielded my face from the heat of the beam. It was from the huge ocean sailor. Again the beam fell on me like I was an escaping prisoner of war. Blinded, I managed to communicate via sign language and with one hand until the angry hot beam was switched off.
Lighting pounded, wind ripped, thunder boomed, and rain lashed the deck as the night fell completely. Then, like a bad date, it was finally over. We watched from the deck as the weather drifted away, illuminating the harbor in hues of purple and white as lighting continued to explode over the Atlantic. “Tomorrow will be much worse,” Alison said as she scanned the updated weather models.
As the smell of coffee, French toast, hash browns, and ham wafted on deck, it was the next morning and a large double masted center cockpit sailboat lifted anchor and headed out of the harbor. I checked the weather radar to see a line of red and pink hate punctuated by the occasional yellow or smattering of green fill the screen. The line of storms was strong but still developing as they moved through the area. It was going to be sporty where we were, but points north were going to get smoked. I watched the line of storms change and morph into something much worse – storms with rotation. Not quite fully developed, the nastiest treat they had to offer was waterspouts.
Just after second breakfast and third coffee the next round of weather hammered the harbor. In a matter of seconds, the wind rose to a gale gusting to storm-force winds as the gusts flattened the cresting waves and pressure washed Caprica’s hull with cold, fat raindrops. Below it sounded like we were taking fire as each gust drove the rain against our deck. The deluge continued, and the wind began to intensify. I stood at the helm and watched our neighboring big ocean cruiser come perilously close at the height of the storm, and then the owner decided to up anchor and move forward.
To my starboard, a small boat drifted backward with a lone man standing hunched at the wheel. He raised a hand to shield his eyes against the onslaught and worked the throttle control and the wheel with the other. The anchor line hung over the bow, slack as the hook skipped across the bottom, and the Captain was in the perilous position of having the heavy-duty braided line ensnarl his propeller. He throttled forward, turning his boat into the wind attempting to hold position until a gust would spin his boat and send him racing downwind. Again and again, he did this dance until, in a brief lull, he moved forward and let the anchor line slide free of the boat. I watched him turn and head to a mooring as the wind slacked.
As the storm moved over the island and towards Cape Cod, we watched it grow, strengthen and intensify until areas ahead were swathed in tornado warnings. Alison and I looked at each other as I tuned in the VHF to listen to Coast Guard activity. We were either smart, lucky or blessed; most importantly, we were safe and that was absolute.
For the next few hours, we listened to the drama of a sailboat – the sailboat that left the harbor before the weather blasted us. Reports were that it was knocked down and taking on water. At one point, Alison looked at me and asked: “Why did they leave?”
I shrugged not having a good answer, “Sometimes, you have to know when to stay.”