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Another First Storm in a Sailboat: with Lessons Learned and Advice Requested

I enjoyed alanr77’s thrilling post of his “First Storm in a Sailboat” and thought that everyone made useful and educational recommendations. Based on his success, I decided to share my first offshore storm story.

A few weeks ago, I was helping bring a very nice Canadian Sailcraft 36T north from Miami. On the first leg, we managed great speed thanks in large part to the Gulfstream, averaging roughly 8.5 to 10.0 knots all the way to Fort Pierce, FL.

Our second leg was going to be a little longer, from Fort Pierce to St. Augustine. The first waypoint of the route was roughly due north from Fort Pierce to clear Cape Canaveral. The marine forecast called for 5-10 knot winds from the E to SE with 1-2 ft seas. It sounded like an ideal, relaxing sail north.

We started early in the morning. When we got outside, there was neither wind nor waves. We started motoring north at a frustrating 2-3 knots because the prop was fouled. There were a few short-lasted puffs throughout the day, but the forecasted 5-10 knots never showed up.

The usual Florida afternoon thunderstorms started building. I was concerned that they might continue over the ocean and threaten us, so I checked to see if the forecast had changed since the night before. The thunderstorms were forecast to stop at the shoreline, while the offshore cloud systems would move in a southwesterly direction across our route. We continued north. About 5pm, the offshore clouds started developing into a nasty looking Cumulonimbus thunderhead directly in our path. I made the call to head NNE to skirt the trailing edge of the storm. Soon after that, a new thunderhead started growing directly ahead of us. I decided to continue, assuming the storm would move to the southwest and be gone by the time we reached the current location of the storm.

By about 8pm, the thunderstorm in front of us had not moved. It had grown to twice the height of the first storm and looked like a black licorice popover. Cloud-to-cloud lightning strikes appeared followed shortly by cloud-to-sea strikes.

Our options at that point were: a) turn around and run away at 2 knots and risk being overtaken by a squall moving faster than us, b) turn west to what should have been the storm’s forecasted path and a lee shore, c) turn east farther out to sea directly toward a line of increasingly well organized cumulonimbus clouds covering the horizon, or d) stay the course.

We decided to continue on. I figured that we would drive through it and experience some rain and wind for an hour or two before popping out the other side. We had a big dinner and prepared for bad weather. We dropped all sail and installed wash boards. At that point, steering away from the storm would not have been advantageous if the weather was moving at the forecasted speeds in the forecasted direction. We were approximately off of Melbourne. Those that know the area know that there are few opportunities to get back inside. One choice is to return to our starting point of Fort Pierce. Then next inlet is 24nm up the coast at the Sebastian Inlet—reputed to be the worst inlet on the east coast of the U.S. The only other option is 35nm further up the coast at Canaveral Inlet, which would require heading northwest directly into the storm’s path.

Soon after we made the decision to continue, the air became even more still than it had been. It felt like the humidity went up significantly. The offshore air had been relatively cool all day. It now felt very warm. This sounds a little crazy, but it seemed like the air turned green, if that makes any sense.

I went down below to rest for my midnight to 4am watch. About 10pm, the captain came down and said that a pounding rain had started and visibility had gone to zero. Shortly after that, we found that we could no longer maintain a heading. The wind gauge on the boat was non-functional, so we had no way to measure wind speed. A few months earlier, I had a brisk sail in winds that were in the high 20’s. This wind felt overwhelmingly stronger than those, seemingly an order of magnitude stronger. The wind was so strong that we could only point NE, SE, or anywhere in between as long as it included east. Since we didn’t know how wide the squall system was, we decided to head SE. Our options for direction meant that our only choice was to head farther out to sea. At this point, we were about 18 miles offshore. The NOAA report put the western wall of the Gulfstream at about 20-25nm offshore at our location. I feared what would happen if we got driven far enough out that we’d be in a strong NW wind that would start pushing against the Gulfstream. Sounded like a perfect way to pile up some boat smasher waves. I think it was about now that I asked myself if it was against the law to issue a May Day to tell the Coast Guard I was scared. “May Day! May Day! May Day! I’m scared out here in this little boat.” After a good chuckle about that, it was attention back to the helm.

The seas were confused and not coming from the direction of the wind. That could have been because there wasn’t much fetch or the wind was so localized it didn’t have time to whip up waves. There was no light at all, so I couldn’t see the waves. The sea was deep black and the sky was slightly less black, so there was a discernible horizon. The wave crests were roughly at eye level while standing at the wheel, so I estimate 8 to 10 ft seas.

We continued under power to the SE at 1.5 to 2.0 knots for the next hour under a canopy of thunderheads and lightning. After about an hour, we could finally point south to steer away from the storm. At that point, we put up some canvas to get a little more speed away from the storm. We continued south through the night and the following day and eventually gave up all progress, returning to Fort Pierce mid-afternoon. There were a few extenuating circumstances that kept us from returning to our previous course once weather improved.

Overall, a good storm experience. There were certainly mistakes made. Hopefully, there were a few things done right.

Lessons learned:
1. Harness up before you go on deck during bad weather. I initially came up unharnessed before my watch just to check out the situation but ended up manning the helm for the next several hours and then through my watch. Discounting the rain, the cockpit was very dry, and no waves broke into the cockpit, so I never felt threatened. No canvas was up, so it was very unlikely I’d need to leave the cockpit. But if I had needed to in a hurry, I would have been severely at risk.
2. Believe what you observe, not the forecast. We had done the right thing by checking the forecast several times throughout the day, but the evidence around us clearly contradicted the forecast. Reality trumps expectations every time.
3. Have all ship’s systems in order before heading to sea. Had we been able to motor along at cruising speed, we would have been above Cape Canaveral before the squalls erupted on us.

I have read quite a bit about heavy weather sailing and assumed it was a pretty straight-forward process, “if a happens, do b.” This experience has certainly disproved that assumption. I have a few questions for those of you who have made it through this story:

1. How do you sail through squalls on the open sea? It’s easy to say you just avoid them, but that doesn’t always work. These storms went from disorganized cumulous clouds to massive, towering cumulonimbus thunderheads within a few hours. With the wind dying and a storm speed of 5 or 10 knots, you most likely couldn’t get out of the way. Would I have been able to steer closer to the wind if we had a little canvas up? Or would that just have increased the likelihood of blowing out the sail?
2. How do you steer through a storm in blackout conditions? How do you keep the boat pointed in a safe direction? I could tell from the motion of the boat that we were not taking waves on the beam, but that’s about it. I couldn’t tell if we were headed into the waves or if they were breaking on our quarter or stern.

And for Bonus Points – I know what yellow snow is and its significance. What about yellow clouds? In the late afternoon, there were patches of very yellowy clouds mixed in with the dark grey cumulous clouds. They weren’t the off-color clouds caused by dust in the atmosphere. They were really yellow.

Thanks for all your input.
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