A bay sailor’s baptism by fire

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I can still hear my sister’s cutting reaction to my account of a storm I endured on the Chesapeake: “Maybe you shouldn’t have been out in those conditions.”

After years of sailing on the Bay, I had the roughest experience of my single-handed cruising on what seemed like a fine Sunday afternoon, the first day of August a few years back.

I had only had Caper II, my 31-foot sloop, for a year. I wanted to get back to Virginia’s Mobjack Bay to visit the Ware River. I’d heard the weather reports of a front that would be moving through in the afternoon, but there were no small-craft warnings so I decided to come in behind that front on my way up the Bay.

This proved to be a big miscalculation, one that is still painful when I recall that my weather estimate was dead wrong. The front was not moving west to east, as is usually the case, but from north to south. Even more pointed, what I now refer to as my “baptism by fire” could have been a real disaster.

Outflanked and outmanned

I finally realized the angry-looking thunderheads were coming straight at me, the mass of well-defined purplish-gray clouds looking ominous as they moved rapidly out of the north. I barely had time to douse my sails.

The storm hit me squarely on the nose at the entrance to the York River just below Swash Channel, a useful shallow (5- to 6-foot depth) shortcut into Mobjack. The first winds slammed my bow downwind, even with the diesel revving. So I ran with the storm.

Winds averaged 35-40 mph — with gusts to 55 mph — and lasted a good half-hour. This was more than your typical squall. Rather, it was a major cold front spread all across the northern horizon. I was driven bare pole about four miles across the Bay, headed directly for the Poquoson Flats.

It was all I could do to keep the bow downwind. The waves were building rapidly and within a few minutes I noticed the boat fit between the swells. Control at the helm was very difficult. Caper II was vulnerable to sudden lurches that put the hull dangerously close to broaching. I could feel the point where there was very little rudder control, and the forces of wind and wave could take over. It was only by carefully timing my throwing the helm to starboard or port that I could maintain a stable and safe line vertical to the wave action. By this time I estimated the waves were cresting at 5 to 6 feet. At one point, a wave crested over my stern because I had put the diesel in reverse to slow my progress across the Bay toward the approaching shoals.

Flash and boom

As I was fighting desperately to keep Caper II pointed downwind, the world around me was exploding with lightning and booming thunder claps. Rain began coming down in sheets, creating near whiteout conditions. I had great difficulty seeing through my eyeglasses. At the fiercest moments of the storm, as rain and wave spume was being driven horizontally off the surface of the water, there was no more than 25 to 30 feet of visibility around the boat. I wondered whether there were any boats or buoys directly off my bow.

At one point, as lightning flashed and thunder boomed simultaneously, indicating I was at the very center of the storm, I wondered nervously: If a bolt struck the backstay or metal tubing of the Bimini, would it jump to the all metal helm? I thought about it for only a moment and then regained my focus on keeping the boat upright.

In another moment Caper II was surfing at better than 11 knots. It was like flying — until I hit the next trough, which snuffed out any sense of thrill. I found I had to be constantly on guard against gusts that could cause me to broach.

I didn’t panic and I held firm to my game plan. I found I could handle difficult weather. Being alone I had to decide what to do and not do. Early on, I concluded I would not leave the helm under any circumstances because I would immediately lose control of the boat. The autopilot was useless in these conditions, since it could not hold course the way the stern was being thrown around. There was no way I could lay an anchor, or even a sea anchor. The power of the storm prevented coming into the wind. It was simply a matter of riding it out and hoping for a break before the bottom came up. I assume some luck was involved, too.

The pummeling ends

To my great relief, the storm finally broke and the wind abated enough to come about. I was in less than 5 feet of water (my draft is 4 feet), on the very edge of the Poquoson Flats.

I learned later there were tornado warnings connected with this storm system, and that a church steeple on the peninsula was destroyed in its path.

A sailing friend reminded me that every skipper needs this type of experience. I wondered if he was kidding. Now I agree. In retrospect, it was an essential and instructive experience in learning just how much the boat and I can take.

I’m grateful to Caper II’s designers for that big wheel at the helm. I had always thought it was in the way whenever I had to jump around it when setting sheets in the cockpit. It was a godsend to hang onto in this type of storm, and made the steering less fatiguing.

I was humbled to realize there were a couple of very basic insights to be gained from this experience. Never leave your life jacket in the cabin. Find some way to stow it near the helm so it can be reached whenever conditions change dramatically for the worse. I had gone through this entire experience single-handed without being able to retrieve my life jacket. Second, have a lifeline handy so you can hook yourself solidly to the boat in case of a knockdown or some such mishap.

Now I cruise by a rule I never compromise: That PFD stowed in a stern locker adjacent to the cockpit and helm goes on whenever sails are reefed or are doused due to gusts over 20 knots.

The bottom line of this kind of experience is the lasting reminder that we’re never in charge of sea conditions and any combination of wind and water deserves full and constant respect.