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Explosions of Another Order

Thunderstorms on the Bay

 

      Our Chesapeake Bay is not among the world’s most dangerous places to sail. It is not the Somali coast or Cape Horn. But in an instant, a peaceful outing can confirm the old saying that sailing is often hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.

     Spring and summer thunderstorms are as common in our region as steamed crabs and backyard barbecues. They form most often along the boundary between a cold front and a warm front as well as in the afternoons of hot humid days as the land is heated by the sun. Each year more than 100,000 thunderstorms are recorded across the nation.

     Historically June, July and August each bring five or six days of thunderstorms to Chesapeake Country. With these storms come lightning strikes, wind 50 knots and above, heavy rain that causes flash floods and hail that damages property. Severe thunderstorms can also generate tornadoes

     Finding shelter in a sturdy building is ideal, but not always possible when you are on a boat or far away from any solid structures. 

     My wife Ann and I experienced their power firsthand this season on our Wauquiez 40, Aqua Vite, anchored in the Rhode River. It was a delightful day, and the anchorage, usually filled on weekends, was occupied by only two other boats. We felt secure under the shadow of a high, steep bank even as thunderstorms were forecast.

     “Look at all the pretty red and purple colors,” Ann said of the weather radar app on her phone. Another screen showed lightning strikes all around us. Weather radios warned not to take shelter in small buildings. What to do if there isn’t any building at all? In the past, we scoffed at those warnings, and the storms seemed to veer around wherever we might be. I let out some more anchor chain just in case.

     Suddenly the wind went calm, then returned with a vengeance after shifting 180 degrees. My best guess is that the initial gust was at least 50mph. National Airport recorded a gust of 68 mph that day. Whatever the exact number, it was enough to tip our 22,000-pound boat violently to one side. 

     The anchor dragged, and the boat was careening toward the shoreline that was supposed to protect us from the storm. It looked like we would crash into the fallen trees that studded the beach and could pierce the hull or break our rudder. The wind tried to knock me off the deck. 

     I quickly started the engine as the rain fell sideways so hard that we could not see the front of the boat. Safety officer Ann insisted that I put on a life jacket as I struggled back toward the bow to make sure that 60 feet of anchor chain didn’t get wrapped around our propeller. A lightning bolt struck nearby with a crack that sounded like a dynamite explosion. It made me jump a few feet in the air. Maybe standing next to a 50-foot-tall aluminum mast is not the best place to be in a ferocious lightning storm.

     Somehow with good luck and Ann’s artful driving, we managed to stay off the bottom and reset the anchor without getting smashed into the shoreline. In 20 minutes that seemed like an eternity, the storm had passed along and the sun had returned. But those were perhaps the most frightening minutes I recall in more than 40 years of sailing.

     Previously hot and sticky, we were both soaking wet, cold and shivering in the brisk breeze. We felt extremely fortunate to be safe after such an intense episode. Drying out the cabin that got soaked after one of our 11 hatches blew open didn’t seem like such a big challenge.

     Looking back, a few lessons I will remember for next time: 

• Never assume that the thunderstorms will strike somewhere else. 

• Discuss with your mate what to expect and what each of you intend to do during various emergency scenarios.

• Fully prepare in advance. Start the engine, turn on the depth finder and other instruments, put on shoes, life jackets and foul weather gear before the big gust hits. 

• Make certain all hatches are locked shut.

• Let out extra chain or line for the anchor. Consider getting a bigger anchor for next time. 

 

      I’ll also remember that good sailing stories don’t start with we were sitting snugly at home watching the weather channel. The next day we enjoyed an exhilarating and uneventful sail home to Annapolis in brisk 20- to 25-knot winds.