Volume 14, Issue 17 ~ April 27 - May 3, 2006

Dangers at Sea
We’ll Take This Volvo Race without the Twister

by Al McKegg

photo by Ted Dutcher

In the workaday humdrum, it’s easy to lose perspective on where we fit in the real world. The world we draw breath from, stand upright upon: the natural world. Wrestling with a copier tells us nothing about where we fall on nature’s scale of strong versus weak. Gaining a promotion gives us no insight into her concept of importance.

Nature sometimes illuminates these issues with emphatic clarity.

Some years ago, my daughter Cory served as bowman in my 17-foot canoe for a day of whitewater paddling. With our friend Joe Creager solo in a smaller fiberglass canoe, we paddled 10 or 15 miles of the Shenandoah River north to its confluence with the Potomac. The river was high, though not near flood stage. The rapids, none of which is classed as dangerous, were full of water and lots of fun.

We reached the confluence wet and happy, and with Joe in the lead, began the quarter-mile float down the West Virginia shore of the Potomac River to where the truck was parked. There were no rapids between us and the truck, but the Potomac was swift and high. Only a few rocks protruded above its surface, but swirling hydraulics and powerful eddies showed where boulders lay submerged.

Perhaps I looked down into the boat, or perhaps up at the cliffs of Maryland Heights across the river. When I looked ahead, Joe and his canoe were gone. There was no rock to hide him, no whirlpool to suck him down, but he and his boat had disappeared. Cory and I gaped at the vacant place in the river where he had been.

After 10 seconds or so, propelled by thrashing limbs and his life jacket’s buoyancy, he popped to the surface 50 feet from us. Ten seconds later his boat emerged, folded in half. Joe was fine, but the canoe, with splinters of fiberglass jutting from raw, ragged edges, had come close to finding final rest under a rock at the bottom of the Potomac.

We had been seeking a pleasant encounter with the rivers that day, not a mortal confrontation. Some people thrive on such confrontation. Among them are the men and women who crew the sailboats of the Volvo Ocean Race.

Nature at Her World-Class Worst

Before the Volvo boats returned to the Chesapeake last week, skilled repair technicians probably erased from their hulls and rigging all traces of the confrontations they transited earlier, particularly in the Southern Ocean. The Southern Ocean is actually the southernmost parts of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, surrounding Antarctica. The Volvo boats raced there during our winter, which is Antarctic summer. Gale force winds are common, hurricane force winds are frequent. Two-story waves are run-of-the-mill, six-story waves are not terribly exceptional. Antarctic winter is even worse; to sail the Southern Ocean then would be suicidal.

Racing in the Southern Ocean demands excellence. Boats must balance strength with speed, and the crew must be superbly trained and conditioned, physically and mentally.

But excellence does not impress the sea. The best boat designs, the toughest carbon fiber spars and panels, the strongest muscles, the most resilient and tenacious sailing minds: They all amount to little if sailor’s luck is not with you when the sea turns extreme. At least four racing sailors have been lost there in modern times, and numerous boats have sunk. Volvo crew know and accept this.

Chesapeake Surprises

The risks of sailing the Chesapeake Bay can’t be compared to the Southern Ocean. But it’s also true that whenever and wherever you’re on the water, you’re exposed to risks beyond those on land. Engines can and do explode, and boats can sink quickly. A momentary lapse of attention can jibe a boom and knock crew unconscious into the water. And weather, even in the Bay, can deal you a frightening, even life-threatening blow.

The first time I skippered a boat on the Chesapeake, a thunderstorm boiled off the Western Shore and chased us up Eastern Bay. Sailing Vitrea, a chartered 30-foot S2 sloop, we ran under jib and motor for the shelter of the Miles River. But the storm caught us at Tilghman Point. Soaked by horizontal rain and intimidated by lightning, we furled the jib, threw out the anchor in 15 feet of water, went below and pulled the hatch closed.

Not a manly solution, one that would probably draw snickers from Volvo crew, but it worked for me. The rain whipped against the ports and the sky turned dark green-grey, but the anchor didn’t drag and we didn’t go aground. An hour later the storm was gone and, in dry clothes, we motored up the Miles to St. Michael’s Crab House. There, our waitress told us a tornado embedded in the storm had passed within a mile of Tilghman Point and had shredded a barn near Easton.

From the Fujita Scale of Tornado Damage

F4 (207-260 mph): Devastating damage. Well-constructed houses leveled; structures with weak foundations blown off some distance; cars thrown and large missiles generated.

If you stay at the dock when the forecast says “possible thunderstorms,” you’ll seldom sail on the Bay. You can’t outrun a storm in a sailboat. If one is heading your way, it’ll probably get you before you make shelter. But as scary as they can be, if you stay on your toes and use your best judgment, you’ll make it just fine, through lightning and all. Almost always.

Volvo’s Last Passage

photo by Charlie Boyer

Racing nonstop from Rio de Janeiro, the Volvo boats arrived here April 18 and 19 this year. On visits in Baltimore and Annapolis, they party hard and race a short in-port course on the Bay. On May 6, they’ll leave from Annapolis, heading down the Bay and up the Atlantic coast to New York.

The day the last Volvo fleet left for France, April 28, 2002, began so wet and gusty that, Bay Weekly reported, the scheduled Bay Bridge walk was cancelled. That afternoon, my boat, Mucho Bondo — a trailerable 24-foot sloop named for the repair materials that keep her afloat — was near marker 77, a mile or so off the mouth of the Patuxent, waiting for the Volvos. They’d left Annapolis around noon; if our calculations were correct, they’d sail past us at 3 or 4pm.

National Weather Service Baltimore-Washington

1130am EDT Sun Apr 28, 2002: A moderate risk of severe thunderstorms over much of the Mid-Atlantic region today including … most of Maryland … The primary threat from thunderstorms this afternoon will be strong and potentially damaging winds and the peak time of the threat will be … from about 3pm until 8pm EDT.

My family had spent the night of April 27 aboard, tied to the public dock in Honga, on Hoopers Island. It rained on and off in the morning, but it was clearing when we left at noon. Ghostly patches of fog blew across the flats between Hoopers Island and Barren Island. We motored the narrow channel through Barren Island Gap and set sail west across the Bay. The wind was light and variable, mainly out of the east. The easterly wind plus the shallows off James Island on the Eastern Shore suggested the Volvos would be forced to the Western Shore as they passed the mouth of the Patuxent. After an hour of very slow progress in that direction, we furled the sails and started our outboard.

Aboard Mucho Bondo with me were Hoopers residents Diane DeVaul and her son Victor, and my wife Janet and daughter Gillian. Of the crew, three were novice sailors, but all were looking forward to seeing the racing boats speed down the Chesapeake on the way to France.

We arrived at marker 77 long before the Volvos. We puttered around, fishing, glassing the big LGN platform off Cove Point, watching ospreys and gulls, scanning north for the racers. Anchoring was uncomfortable in the two- to three-foot waves, which were confused due to wind shifts, so for an hour or more I sailed and motored about, trying to turn Mucho Bondo’s rocking into something resembling stability.

Over land, we could see thunderheads building.

4:37pm Tornado WarningIssued for Shenandoah and Northern Rockingham Counties in Virginia

The first racer finally came in sight around 4:45, immediately obvious by her smooth, swift motion and 10 or 15 degrees of heel. At water level the wind was light, but there was clearly more of it 60 or 70 feet up where those big sails reached. Amer Sports One swept past making about 10 knots, crew perched on the port rail, slicing without a wobble through waves that flopped our little boat from side to side. Within a minute, a second racer came in sight and soon was past.

The wind shifted and the temperature dropped. Thunderheads billowed to the east, one south down past Solomons, another north up by Calvert Beach. We decided two Volvo boats were enough excitement for the day. It was nearly five o’clock, time to head back across the Bay.

The wind out of the storms was gusty, but straight from the west, so our trip back would be downwind. I poled the jib out and rigged the main for running wing-and-wing. Janet went into the cabin and turned on the VHF radio.

Chased by a Tornado

“Tornado Watch in Effect until 9pm … Thunderstorms with Wind Gusts to 45 mph”

5:15pm local weather forecast for portions of Virginia and Maryland

Janet came out of the cabin, leaned over me at the helm and whispered what she’d heard. I started the outboard and cranked it up all the way. All six horses flat out plus both sails got us up to maybe six knots. Everybody but me was already wearing a life jacket. I put mine on.

There’s about five miles of open Bay between marker 77 and Barren Island

and another mile of channel to the Honga dock. That adds up to six, but with five people on my little boat and supercell thunderheads in pursuit, it felt like 50.

National Weather Service Forecasts Weather Their Own Storm

Most boaters depend on National Weather Service forecasts, accessible via VHF radio aboard the boat, for planning and for daily guidance. They provided critical information during our trip to watch the Volvo racers.

Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania wants to change that. On the philosophy that federal agencies like the National Weather Service shouldn’t compete with private companies, he’s sponsored Senate Bill 786, which would prohibit the NWS from making periodic public weather broadcasts, limiting its role to “emergency” notification. The bill doesn’t address when a thunderstorm or tornado has become an “emergency.”

SB 786 would require the NWS to continue to collect weather data and make forecasts, but it could only make them available “through a set of data portals designed for volume access by commercial providers.”

Probably not by coincidence, one of the country’s largest commercial providers, AccuWeather, is based in Santorum’s state. Also probably not by coincidence, AccuWeather CEO Joel Myers and his brother Barry, AccuWeather’s executive vice president, have donated more than $11,000 to Santorum and the Republican Party since 2003, according to FEC filings.

If SB 786 becomes law, boaters could get on-the-water weather forecasts only by purchasing a private service. Ironically, that service would be feeding us forecasts prepared with and based on weather data collected using taxpayer money.

With no cosponsors, SB 786 presently languishes in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Given the current focus on Congressional ethics, it’s unlikely to move on its own, but it could sneak through attached to some vital but unrelated legislation.

–Al McKegg

“Tornado Watch in Effect until 9pm edt for the Entire Tidal Potomac and the Maryland Portion of the Chesapeake Bay”

6:06pm Special Marine Warning for the tidal Potomac from Key Bridge to Indian Head, Maryland, until 7pm edt

The boat surfed down some waves and bounced over others, with me riding the throttle and steering so as to trade off speed against danger. We turned into the wind at the first marker for Barren Island channel and pulled the sails down. I put the outboard back at full throttle and ran into the channel while Janet secured the boom and jib pole and stowed the sails. Twenty minutes later, tying up to the Honga dock, I told our passengers why we’d been in such a hurry.

There But for the Grace of God

Sailor’s luck was with us that day. We not only made port but made it all the way to supper at the DeVaul’s without a drop of rain. Eventually the storms did catch us, knocking out the power on Hoopers Island just as the spaghetti finished cooking. We ate by candlelight, returned to Mucho Bondo and slept soundly.

The next morning, over breakfast at The Waterman’s Café in Fishing Creek, we learned that a tornado spawned by those storms had devastated La Plata and parts of Calvert County between 7 and 7:30 the previous evening, killing three people. Rated as powerful as F4, it had roared onto the Chesapeake about five miles north of marker 77 and had crossed the Bay, making landfall on the Eastern Shore just north of Hoopers Island. Two miles from where we were docked, it had destroyed a barn on the shore of the Bay and a house at Golden Hill.

After breakfast we winched Mucho Bondo onto the trailer and headed for home. At Golden Hill, we saw what remained of the house the tornado chose: three water pipes protruding from the foundation slab where a bathroom had been.

About the Author

Al McKegg grew up on Long Island, progging the shores and marshes of Peconic Bay and mucking about in Great South Bay. He now lives entirely too far from the Chesapeake for reasons of family tranquility (read wife’s a mountain girl) but trailers Mucho Bondo there, and to the coastal bays and the Florida Keys, as often as possible. He last wrote about the Virginia coastal bays in Wind over Water, October 6, 2005 (Vol. 13, No. 40).

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