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Another Fine Mess

May 22, 2014

From the log of David Cochran's Ergo:

I invited my friend John, who is not a sailor, along with my normal sailing partner Paul to go sailing one afternoon. We drove to Galesville, MD on the Chesapeake where I keep my Alerion Express 28. We got there around 4:00 pm and started to prepare the boat to go out. I looked to the west and saw dark clouds. I commented that the weather in that direction always goes to the north and east so we were safe. About that same time, John got a notice on his phone that there was a tornado warning for our area until 5:30. I looked at the clouds and they seemed to be going the direction I had predicted so we pulled out of the slip and went out onto West River.

As we got even with the gas dock, the storm squall hit. Winds that had been maybe 5 knots went to screaming in 5 seconds and swung 90 degrees to the west. Seas went from calm to 3 to 4 feet in the same amount of time. Horizontal rain came with that. I increased the throttle and we were moving slowly forward into the very strong wind, waves, and rain. Then it started to hail, ice balls about the size of ping pong balls. The rain and hail were coming at us with such force that we could barely see.

But we were making headway. Even though it was nearly impossible to see where we were going we could see the red marker just ahead to starboard. Paul said to slow down because to the left of that marker was very shallow. I backed off on the throttle. We lost steerage and started to fall off from the wind. I increased the throttle until we had steerage and then we tried to head a little to starboard. The wind took us way to starboard and we were heeling seriously but not broaching. I pushed the throttle to the max. As we were being driven to starboard Paul said to give it more gas. I said that that was all we had.

The wind was out of the southwest at around 5 knots so I headed that direction and Paul put up the sails. We headed south close hauled. As we were nearing a point where we would have to go farther up the river or turn and head out toward the bay Paul said, “Dave, the clouds are following us and are going south.” I looked west and sure enough, he was right. My first thought was this is not good but not a disaster.

We tacked around and headed north. I looked down the river and there was a wall of rain at the mouth where it joins the Rhode River. I said, “Drop the sails.” Paul immediately rolled up the jib, dropped the main and put sail ties on it. I cranked up the engine — an 8 hp Yanmar. I turned to John and explained that a lot of times people wait too long and then it is too late to put the sails away. When Paul had finished with the sails he pulled the hatch cover closed and said we should go back to the slip. He then suggested to John that he might want to go below in order to stay dry. I didn’t think we would have time to get back to the slip before the rain was upon us. We put on foul weather jackets but not life jackets. Paul next suggested we tie up at the gas dock.

Eventually, we got the bow turned back into the wind and I looked over to see where we were. The red marker was way off to the port. In fact, we were now in danger of going ashore on the other side of the river and needed to go to port to avoid the green marker. However, we were in control and the wind and rain seemed to be lessening slightly. At this time I noticed that John had gone below. That was the best thing he could have done as he would have been in the way as Paul and I traded handling the tiller.

At this point I started to laugh. I haven’t laughed that hard in years. I immediately realized that this was the most fun I had had in a very long time.

It seemed like the squall lasted 15 minutes but it was probably closer to 5. Within a short time the wind died down to less than 10 knots, the sun came back out and a rainbow appeared on the lee shore nearby. We put up the sails and sailed out to the middle of the bay and back. It turned out to be a great day of sailing.

I later asked Paul if he was scared. He hesitated and I said I was not but I was concerned. He agreed with that term. We never asked John how he felt. He should have been scared but then he had no idea how serious things were and how good at this Paul and I were.

A local restaurant recorded winds of 40 knots. I think it was more on the water.

What we did right:

  • Dropping the sails immediately upon seeing bad weather approaching.

  • Putting on jackets.

  • Heading into the wind and avoiding a lee shore.

  • Remaining calm.

  • Working as a team.

What we did wrong:

  • Not waiting to see just where the dark clouds were headed.

  • Not putting on life jackets.

  • As a final note, Paul and I are not thrill seekers. We are cautious sailors that seem to occasionally get into situations that challenge our abilities

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