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Tom and Mel... achievable cruising under sail and power.


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 shore.

     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 with it.

     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.

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