Our Boat

During our second summer of boat ownership, we had encountered a powerful thunderstorm in the area where the Neuse River flows into the Pamlico Sound. We were under full sail when the storm overtook us. We didn't have time to shorten sail or even get into our rain gear. The only thing we could do was to steer off the wind and ride it out. We had company; there was another boat nearby on nearly the same course. This added the worry that we would collide with the other boat in the limited visibility. The rain came in sheets and the wind howled. I estimated over 40 knots at its height. Needless to say, the experience shook us up. We were (and still are) very timid sailors when it comes to bad weather. This episode was frightening mainly because of the speed the storm was traveling and it's ferocity. We got soaked. I took my boat shoes off, literally poured the water out. We went back to the dock with our tails between our legs. We know that bad weather is part of the deal if you plan to go sailing. After a few days we looked back on the experience and analyzed what we did wrong, what we did right and chalked the whole thing up to an education. Luckily we, like most sailors have very short memories. Within a week the terrifying experience became an adventure in our minds.  

The real adventure came two weeks later. We left the dock with a bit more confidence and some "heavy weather sailing" under out belts. Several other boats were headed for Ocracoke but we didn't have enough time off for that. Bonner Bay was our destination. It is near where the Bay River joins the Pamlico Sound less than 10 miles from the dock. The area is not all that well protected from bad weather, but none was forecast so we headed out. It was a hot summer day and the morning wind was steady. We were towing our newly acquired dinghy that would be named "Charlie Gibson". I had built a handsome plywood thwart (seat) and we were planning to anchor out at Bonner Bay and play with the dinghy. We had been sailing for quite some time when we heard the Coast Guard issue a warning about a line of thunderstorms to the southeast. These guys are strictly business and not in the habit of giving weather reports so we knew they considered the storms a hazard to navigation.

After our experience two weeks before, we knew what we had to do. There is no possibility of out running any storm when your maximum speed is 6 knots (about 7 miles per hour). We got rid of all the canvas and even covered the mainsail. We cranked the diesel and go ready for a blow.  We had already entered the Intercoastal waterway at Bay River when the storm caught us. Conditions went from pleasant to unbelievable in a matter of minutes. It was everywhere and nowhere. I sent Judy down into the cabin because of the lightening but she never went further than the companionway. I was glad I was wearing sunglasses; otherwise I would not have been able to see anything. Even with the glasses I could not see more than about a boat length in any direction. The wind was incredible and the rain was horizontal. The air was almost liquid and the wind was forcing water into my mouth; half fresh and half salt. I could not see the GPS so I didn't know exactly where we were. My instinct was to keep the boat headed into he wind. It was so strong I was afraid we were going to get knocked down even with no sails. It was difficult because the wind was constantly changing. By this time the lightening was so close I was sure we would take a direct hit at any moment. This was a dire situation. I had no choice but to try to keep the mast up, the keel down and ride it out. It was blind luck that we did not encounter any other vessels because we were certainly in the middle of the Intercoastal waterway.  I knew it could not last forever, and the whole episode could not have lasted over 20 minutes but it seemed like hours.

Finally the wind and rain slackened and we could evaluate the situation. Judy, who had been facing aft the whole time, told me that the dinghy had been spinning on it's tether like a pinwheel. It was upside down and the new plywood thwart was long gone. The lightening was close enough that the depth sounder was ruined. The path recorded by the GPS was a series of erratic circles. The violent wind action on the boom caused a pin to come out of a shackle on one of the mainsheet blocks but there was no actual damage to the little ship.

We proceeded to Bonner Bay and got the anchor down with some difficulty. I would describe our condition as "shell shocked". We were both in kind of a daze. We took baths in the cockpit and ate a light dinner. The weather had cleared and it remained storm free all night. I didn't sleep well, I was trying to figure out how much the boat was worth and how quickly we could sell it.

The next morning we motored back to the dock, still a bit shaken. We told the dock master about our experience and he said it had not rained at all there, and we were less than 10 miles away when we encountered the storm. We learned later that the folks that went to Ocracoke encountered the edge of our storm but not the brunt of it as we did.

Several months later I read an article about thunderstorms in a sailing magazine. I learned that it is not uncommon for a thunderstorm to have winds in excess of 90 miles per hour. I have no way of measuring wind speed but it would not surprise me if we had measured speeds that high. As I said before, sailors have short memories. In a week or so the hair-raising storm became another adventure. The difference this time is that we came away with a deep and abiding respect for weather, especially thunderstorms. It changed our outlook and sometimes our plans. We do not venture out if we know the weather is closing in and we have cut several trips short because of impending bad conditions. I think we are better sailors because of the experience but we don't care to repeat it.

Reader Number 7274