As I cleared the inlet and steered the Second Chance, a 36-foot Delta SFX, to the northeast on a flat sea under light gray skies, I was focused on the day’s mission: We would scour the sandy hills a few miles offshore of New Jersey’s Manasquan Inlet for fluke. When I shut off the Caterpillars to make our first drift I was hoping for a little wind so we could cover some ground. The morning air was breathless though, and without any momentum, our squid strip and killie combos would be easy prey for sea robins and skates before the fluke could get the chance to join in. No flatties showed up on the first couple of passes, so I moved the boat to deeper water.
As the crew in the cockpit bounced their rigs along the sandy bottom, my attention was drawn to a conversation on the radio among skippers of a small fleet of boats located a couple of miles to the north. They weren’t talking about the fishing action, but commenting on a strange change in the weather and the sudden appearance of gusting wind. My first thought was if a swift summer breeze was coming our way it would enhance our drifting potential. But the radio transmissions became more frequent and the voices more harried as the skippers reported that the wind had morphed into something far more wicked.
Around our boat, there was not a ripple in the water. I increased the range on the radar and saw a spoon-shaped blip of rain to the north.
I wondered if the other boats had encountered a waterspout. There were several boats near me and I was concerned their skippers might not be paying attention to the same radio reports I was listening to.
As I stared at the radar screen, the VHF exploded with the voices of mariners caught in a violent maelstrom about a mile away. I cranked up the engines but before I could shout down to the cockpit that a downpour was coming, my crew was drilled with shards of stinging rain. They climbed onto the bridgedeck and zipped down the enclosure to keep out the water. Seconds later we were in the middle of a microburst and blinded by gale wind and rain so hard and dense that I could not see 6 inches beyond my compass.
A microburst is a weather phenomenon marked by ferocious winds. It’s a localized column of sinking air within a thunderstorm and is usually less than or equal to 2.5 miles in diameter. Microbursts can cause extensive damage at the surface and in some instances can be life-threatening. I had encountered one several years before, on an August afternoon during a run home from a half-day charter. A sudden microburst struck along the North Jersey coast and caused a 40-foot cruiser not far from my boat to sink in the ocean with one of the passengers trapped inside the boat when it rolled over.
Moments before we were hit I had made note of the positions of nearby boats and determined a heading that would allow me to avoid every vessel in the area. I was glad I had done that because when the thunder and lightning started I shut down the electronics and hoped the tuna tower, outriggers and antennas could avoid being lottery winners of the worst kind.
Lightning crackled so close to the boat that it reminded me of the sound barrier explosions I used to hear when I was coming home from the Hudson Canyon and the Concorde would be passing overhead on its way to the airport. I turned on the handheld VHF and listened on channel 16. Boaters were asking the Coast Guard for assistance. The Coasties were reminding the callers to don their PFDs because they were on their own until help could arrive. Our PFDs were already out. With each lightning blast, I let go of the stainless steel wheel I was gripping in my wet hands, and used my palms to throw the plastic-topped engine clutches in and out of gear to control the boat.
The combination of head and beam seas sized from 3 to 6 feet felt like a saltwater washing machine. At times, the wind would be rushing over us from the bow and I wondered how long my enclosure and its fasteners would remain in place. And what would happen if it blew off altogether? Occasionally on rough days with lots of spray, water could drip through the enclosure zippers. On this day the wind forced the rain through the zippers as if nothing was even there. When the wind nailed the boat on the beam, the enclosure acted like a sail. The boat heeled so far over that had my outriggers been out they would have ripped off into the water.
More than once I heard the props ventilate when the boat rolled, but the deep-V hull came back each time. The relentless wind muffled the sound from the diesels that continued to give us enough momentum to negotiate the seaway, but the spookiest reminder of the wind’s
velocity was the soulful moaning we heard as it encompassed the tuna tower. The noise was a stark contrast to the
silence of the four men on the bridge. One of those anglers never came ocean fishing with the rest of us again.
For 20 minutes I jogged inshore and offshore until the wind dropped out and the seas became remarkably calm, much as they were when we left the inlet. When we returned to the marina, we learned no other boat from our dock had been affected by the microburst, although the skippers had heard about it.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.