by Tom Neale
A few nights ago
we had a typical summertime line squall. It came especially
equipped with a tiny twister that swept across the forward
half of our boat. The little devil flung one of our two kayaks
(nesting side by side) overboard and lifted a very heavy 12
foot Avon dinghy which was deflated and rolled up tightly
in its pack. It would have thrown it overboard but for the
stays. A 20 foot skiff was moved, with its large outboard
and trailer, over a 100 feet across a nearby parking lot on
If you watch "The
Weather Channel" this time of the year, you see that
line squalls and thunderstorms are normal in most places where
people cruise. Sudden wind shifts, high winds, heavy rain
and lightning are their trademarks. Although they usually
create in incredible show and bring cooler air afterwards,
at least for a few hours, we always dread them. Their violence
can be immense, and they make us feel totally insignificant.
A few years ago we anchored
in a creek surrounded by marsh and a few high spots
of solid ground and low trees. We'd anchored here before,
and knew that the holding was good. The hot May evening
promised the likelihood of thunderstorms, and NOAA,
when we listened around 5 PM, was forecasting that severe
storms were on the way. We watched and sensed the heavy
darkness in the sky to the west. Around two hours later
Mel went up on deck to check the weather and, as she
looked up into the sky, saw a vortex of clouds swirling
in a counter clockwise rotation right over the boat.
She called me and we watched a tornado form from underneath.
Fortunately, it moved off before touching down, and
then did so only briefly. But it got our attention.
Although I seldom set two anchors (I feel that setting
two is usually more of a liability than an asset), I
did so now, because it was clear that a lot was still
going on in the atmosphere, and we were in a narrow
spot of deep water, with an 8 foot tidal range. Around
an hour later, we watched as a violent line squall swept
across the marshes and woods. We scurried below and
listened to the wind and the thunder---and then the
roar. The boat lurched like it had been hit by a train
and then shook and lifted as if held by a giant malevolent
hand. We felt it moving rapidly as it heeled far over,
sending things crashing, clattering, and sliding to
the deck in all of the cabins. I look out and saw the
wheel spinning so fast that the spokes were a blur.
This lasted only several minutes and then was over.
We went on deck and, with a flashlight, checked out
the proximity of the shoreline, to see if we had dragged.
We hadn't. Exhausted, we went to sleep.
The light of the next morning
told the tale. Our anchorage was in the middle of a wide path
of flattened marsh grass, trees, and power lines. Clearly,
we'd experienced a hit by a twister. The local news on TV
that morning was full of reports of tornado sightings and
of damage to homes and other structures. Despite the violence,
"Chez Nous" was undamaged, except for the loss of
a bucket that had been on the deck.
We've had numerous other incidents
with waterspouts and tornados. One day we saw 11 waterspouts,
many of them very large. We avoided them when necessary by
changing course. We've experienced all this activity not because
we're unlucky, or simply because we're out in a boat, but
because we've been out cruising for so many years.
Do the storms frighten us?
Yes, of course they do. Do we stop going? NO. We love being
out here, and we know that you can get into trouble anywhere.
You watch for and prepare for storms, but they shouldn't stop
you from cruising. From experiences like these we've learned
many interesting things. One is that, if you do things right,
you may be safer on a boat than you think.
When we were hit in the marshy
anchorage, the boat moved and gave with the forces. It wasn't
damaged at all. A house would have remained rigid until it
blew apart. And in a house, we could never change course to
avoid a storm. Further, although we love being tied up in
marinas in most bad weather, we realized that if we'd been
in a marina and hit by that twister, we'd probably have been
damaged badly because we wouldn't have been able to swing
In upcoming issues of "Cruising
Coast and Islands," we'll be talking about some of the
things that we do, and that you can do, to deal with weather
when it comes. This won't be about surviving a hurricane in
the middle of the Atlantic. You and I don't go there then.
It'll be about dealing with the storms that you and I encounter
in our every day cruising.