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Midnight fronts and ‘heat lightning’

Midnight fronts and ‘heat lightning’

We’d stayed too long at the fair, and now we were going to have to pay the price. Just how steep a price still was unclear. We were holed up behind an island in a small, open boat, unaware that a front was bearing down on us. It was a little before midnight, and we were fishing a night tide.

There was lightning well to the east, but the flashes were diffused, not sharp, and there was no thunder. I chalked it up to “heat lightning” and assumed the disturbance was far off. Still, something didn’t feel right. Even though the forecast had called for clear weather with light winds, I couldn’t relax. When the first cool breeze swept over us, I knew it was time to skedaddle.

Sooner or later we all get caught out — in more wind, seas and weather than we bargained for. That’s simply a fact of life on the water. It could be the result of a blown forecast, an error in judgment, fast-changing conditions or something else. Regardless, it happens, and when it does you need to be ready.


To that point, we recently completed an 81-page digital book, “Seamanship & Safety,” our most comprehensive guide on what you need to know to safely enjoy your time on the water. Our team of 16 experts covers a broad range of topics, from man-overboard tactics, coastal cruising and understanding marine weather to safety gear, first aid and anchoring.

Turn to Page 38 for a four-page excerpt from “Seamanship & Safety.” For instructions on how to download your own copy of the digital edition, visit our Web site, www.soundings It’s free to subscribers and available for a small fee to everyone else. I’m confident you’ll find it valuable.


The front was about to slap us good. I stopped the boat about a half-mile from the first rip, and we put on life jackets. I should have done it sooner but didn’t. Lesson learned.

Expecting a bumpy passage, I made sure everything was stowed and that we each had a small light. My crew that night consisted of my future son-in-law. We talked about what we were likely to find when we rounded the island, and how I needed a good set of eyes as lookout so I could concentrate on running the boat when things got sloppy. And I told him to hold on tight. (My daughter probably wouldn’t have understood me returning home without her beau.)

By the time we’d reached the east end of the island the wind was whistling good, and I knew the tide races were going to be a mess without actually having to see them. We should have left sooner, but that’s an old story — would’ve, could’ve, should’ve. We found some welcome, albeit short-lived, relief in the lee of a low, uninhabited island, but when we turned the corner at the red buoy marking the north end of the passage it was clear we were going to have to find another way back to the barn.

The tide streamed into the boisterous southeasterly, creating a minefield of steep, standing waves. I couldn’t run my normal speed in the confused seas, certainly not at night. Besides, I couldn’t see diddly. Spray flew everywhere. My face and glasses were soaked. We were drenched. The wind filled our ears. And at reduced speed, we started to take water over the bow. I’d miscalculated just how nasty this section would be. Score another one for Mother Nature.

I quickly fell off the wind, pulled out of the rip and ran with the gusts on my starboard quarter until we found calmer water. We regrouped for a few moments; I hit the zoom button on the plotter a couple of times so I could better see the electronic chart through wet glasses and the spray and water drops that covered the screen. Then we altered course about 45 degrees to avoid the roiled water altogether and threaded our way to more sheltered waters via a backdoor route. The long way home proved the safest. Thank Neptune for local knowledge.


Handled properly, most well-found boats — small ones, too — can usually take a good bit more than their skippers and crew are comfortable with. If you have any doubts, think Shackleton and the James Caird. But in order to keep the water on the outside and remain upright, you have to know your vessel well — its strengths, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies. How much can it really take?

And we all would do better, I think, if we learned to work with the conditions, not against them. Small boats teach you that lesson really fast. When possible, do what you can to take the strain and punishment off your boat, equipment, rigging and crew. And be prepared to make adjustments on the fly. You and your boat will be a lot more comfortable and safer as a result.

A final note: Pay attention to the forecast, but recognize it may not accurately reflect exactly what’s happening in your neck of the woods. Use it as a guide but watch the sky and trust what your instincts and experience are trying to tell you. That’s a lesson some of us have to learn — and relearn — the hard way.

And be extra careful the next time your partner says, “It must be heat lightning. Let’s keep casting. We’ll keep an eye on it.”

"Varuna recovered her balance, gathered steerageway, and rushed off nakedly into the night without a scrap of canvas."

- William Robinson