The night gyrated in bright strobe as lightning shattered the blackness, flashing white cracks into hell. Rain began tentatively as large, heavy drops, but that quickly changed. “Well, at least we can see the lights on the shore!” I yelled. “It’s not a whiteout.”
I wished I hadn’t said that to my wife, Mel. Almost immediately, a roaring waterfall engulfed Chez Nous, our 53-foot motorsailer. It seemed to be solid water, with nothing visible anywhere except within the interior of the boat. We couldn’t even see our decks. I couldn’t describe the sound — or the feeling. Our ears started to pop. And then came the train.
“It’s a tornado!” Mel yelled. The boat began to lurch, veer and — from what we could feel — spin. The wheel’s spokes blurred as it turned, responding to the rudder as the boat swung.
As she heeled far over to port, we dove down the companionway, and I tried to capture the wildly sliding crib boards. As I put them in, hanging on as we went farther and farther over, the snaps holding down parts of the enclosure to the cockpit sides started popping open. Then the door flap exploded out at its lower half. This was pressure equalization. The enclosure had been billowing out like a balloon.
We’d already prepared. Within reach were our offshore life jackets with whistles and strobes attached. We clung to inflatable life jackets. They were deflated. You can’t swim out a hatch from a capsized boat when you’re wearing a big life jacket. I’d placed the personal locator beacon next to the boat’s EPIRB with waterproof flashlights and a handheld VHF radio, all at the base of the companionway, with lanyards to tie them to us. We’d placed our computer storage drives, a cellphone, wallets and other critical things into a yellow waterproof Pelican box. We huddled in our cocoon.
Chez Nous seemed to right, then went far over to starboard and then snapped to port again, veering, turning and heaving. Suddenly, she righted herself. The tornado was gone.
We didn’t know how long it had lasted — probably no more than a minute or so. Time had been meaningless. I try to remember my thoughts but can’t. They were consumed in the violence and the fear, but also, paradoxically, calm.
The wind continued to howl, and seas were still huge. We pulled open the companionway and climbed back up, expecting the cockpit enclosure to be gone. Built by Linda and John Schwartz of BeaverBrand Canvas in Fort Lauderdale, it was totally intact, and our command center was awaiting our control, as was Chez Nous. Once again, the lesson struck home: Trust a good boat.
In the lightning flashes, I could see the boat that was closest to us wildly pitching and heaving, waves sweeping its deck. We were so close that I briefly considered putting out fenders but didn’t because they would have been useless. The fellow on the boat came on deck, wanting to help, but he was barely able to hang on. Because of our size, we were relatively stable, but the other boats in the harbor were having a terrible time, bucking bows burying into each wave. Everyone had been showing anchor lights except one single-hander whose boat had disappeared downwind. We and the boats near us put on our spreader lights.
Every boat had dragged. We began to check in with one another on the VHF. One skipper said his GPS indicated that he’d dragged around 158 feet and that his boat had been on its beam with spreaders submerged. He’d been “sitting on the wall” rather than the deck.
Mel and I knew we weren’t going to drag anymore, absent another tornado, and that we had plenty of water around us. But there was a sunken, wooden, derelict sailboat behind us, marked with white PVC pipes. We’d been in the harbor before and knew about it. We told the others and said we were going to move. We powered up our 200-hp Yanmar, took in around 120 feet of muddy chain and reanchored, even farther out this time.
Anchoring in the dark can be difficult enough; it’s treacherous in weather like this. You can’t communicate. But we used our headsets. This night they were, possibly, a lifesaver as Mel controlled Chez Nous and I worked precariously with all that heavy gear up on the bow.
The next morning we turned on the television. Digital air came in; the satellite dish was a twisted mess. The news showed that much of the surrounding area was rubble, with people still trying to figure out what had been where and who hadn’t made it. Twenty-four were reported killed.
It is my theory — and I don’t want to investigate further — that in some tornadoes, one may be better off on the water in a well-built, strong boat than in a building ashore. The boat moves and gives. The building ashore is stiff and rigid and can blow down around you. This doesn’t mean I think I’ll run down to the dock and get into the boat the next time I hear a tornado warning. The only thing I think is that I don’t want to hear a tornado warning. But this is food for thought and, perhaps more important, food for hope when you find yourself on the water in a boat that’s secure and built well. That boat may be far tougher than you think.
A few have asked: “It was dark — how did you know it was a tornado?” To which I simply say, “You know.” I doubt that this was a large one. I think it had hopped, skipped and jumped, touching down randomly. It twisted metal and took things from our boat that could only have been lifted straight up. Those with dinghies in the water found them flipped, with badly twisted painters.
And I know what storms do to my boat. We’d been hit by a tornado years earlier while anchored in South Carolina. Its path of destruction in the woods on both sides of the narrow creek was clear. We’ve also had waterspouts form right over us, one pulling the shirt off my back as it began.
You know. And you hope: never again.
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This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue.