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Old 07-23-2000
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Ralph Doolin is on a distinguished road
Sailing through a Waterspout

Only a few weeks ago, SailNet reader Sharon Byberg from Grove City, FL was hit by a waterspout while enjoying a daysail with six other sailors. Sharon was kind enough to share her experience with us in this report. 

 
The Sweet Lucy in pre-spout days when she still sported a bimini top. 
 
We were on the Intracoastal Waterway in southwest Florida on July 15 of this year. Heading out for our normal Saturday daysail on our 1988, 25-foot O'Day, we had a large crew of seven on board. We had noted that it was very stormy north of us, but the clouds seemed to be moving east and our route was taking us to the south. We were only about half an hour into our sail when we noticed the storm was in fact moving toward us and was catching up to us quite quickly.

As we discussed what to do next, a waterspout touched down about 200 yards to our north. I had never seen a tornado or a waterspout before—it had us all mesmerized! The spout was about 50 feet across and it came toward us very fast. Even though there were other boats on the Waterway, we got hit. The only thing we had time to do was let out the sails and hang on—that was it! The jib got hung up and we couldn't free it. When the spout hit the boat, it instantly tore our bimini top off and with the jib still hung up, the mast went right into the water and stayed there for what seemed like 30 seconds. The captain, another crew person, and I were in the bow while the remaining four crew were scattered from amidships to the stern during the initial onslaught, and how they hung on, I don't know—but one man didn't, and he went overboard. As the center of the spout passed over us, the boat righted itself. Fortunately, the man in the water was only a few yards away, which gave him a front-row seat to watch what happened next.

 
Sharon Byberg waves from the stern as the captain and crew steer their O'Day 25 near Grove City, FL.
 
The back side of the spout hit us and down we went—again! We got turned around and headed west. The wind was so powerful this time that it broke our standing rigging off the boat and bent the mast. This whole episode from beginning to end lasted about five minutes.

The waterspout was an experience I will never forget. It was only by the grace of God that no one on the boat was injured. We later heard reports that three waterspouts had touched down in the vicinity of our daysail, but we only saw the one—that was enough. I have nothing to offer to other sailors that could help them if they are caught in this situation except to say that if you see a spout near you, drop your sails and pray!


Sharon's experience seems to be a fairly typical account of encounters between sailboats and waterspouts. In a somewhat more famous event, John Caldwell was sailing on his boat, The Pagan, somewhere in the mid-Pacific on a July morning when he saw a waterspout. Having heard that spouts have hurricane-force winds inside, whirlpools at their bases that could suck a ship under, and a solid wall of water that shoots up into the clouds, Caldwell did a truly remarkable thing—he headed directly for the spout in an effort to get under it. Most people would consider that Caldwell was either very brave or very stupid, especially given his location in the mid-Pacific.

Caldwell tells his tale "On Sailing through a Waterspout," in the Journal of Meteorology, 11:236, 1986. "Pagan was swallowed by a cold, wet fog and whirring wind. The decks tilted. A volley of spray swept across the decks. The rigging howled. Suddenly it was dark as night. My hair whipped my eyes, I breathed wet air, and the hard, cold wind wet me through.  Pagan's gunwales were under and she pitched into the choppy seaway. There was no solid trunk of water being sucked from the sea; no hurricane winds to blow down sails and masts; and no whirlpool to gulp me out of sight. Instead, I sailed into a high, dark column from 75 to 100 feet wide, inside of which was a damp, circular wind of 30 knots, if it was that strong. As suddenly as I had entered the waterspout, I rode out into bright, free air. The high, dark wall of singing wind ran away. For me, another mystery of the sea was solved."

What is a waterspout? Obviously it is similar in nature to a tornado over land and many sailors think of it in those terms. But the waterspout is a unique weather phenomenon that occurs over a body of water—no water, no spout. It is much like a dust devil in that its formation is enhanced by unstable weather conditions. These conditions are usually created by warm water temperatures and high humidity in the first few thousand feet of the air above the water's surface. Because of these requirements, waterspouts are most likely to occur near the coastline in the summer, though sometimes a few form as early as mid-spring or as late as mid-autumn, and at least according to John Caldwell, they can occur in the mid-Pacific.

If you think that these funnel clouds are reaching down from above, you are not alone. Many people perceive lightning as traveling from cloud to ground, but we now know that both waterspouts and lightning emanate upward from the ground, rather than descending from the base of clouds, as is the case with a tornado. There is also a difference between a true waterspout and the case of a land-based tornado that moves across a body of water such as a large lake. Stories of it raining fish and frogs are not totally inaccurate with the latter, and tornados formed in this way can be just as devastating as their counterparts on land.

I have personally seen many true waterspouts off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia in the summer. One time I actually saw three, what you might call triplets, side by side on the leading edge of a squall line off Folly Beach—very impressive. These true waterspouts that form over water are defined as an intense, vertical column, or whirlpool, of low pressure that develops on the sea surface and extends upward to a cloud base. Waterspouts have the potential to be extremely dangerous, with an average life cycle ranging from two to 20 minutes. They travel at an average speed between 10 and 15 knots, with maximum wind speeds of hurricane force or greater, however briefly realized. John Caldwell was very lucky, if we can believe his story.

 
 
One of the largest and most famous waterspouts was observed in Massachusetts on August 19, 1896, and was witnessed by thousands of vacationers and several scientists. It is likely that it looked much like the spout in the old photo to the right, which was taken of an equally famous waterspout near Martha's Vineyard. The height of this waterspout was estimated to be about three-quarters of a mile and its width 750 feet at the crest, 120 feet at the center, and over 200 feet at the base. The spray surrounding the funnel near the water's surface was about 600 feet wide and 360 feet high. This famous spout lasted about 35 minutes, disappearing and reappearing three times, but most waterspouts are smaller with much shorter life spans. This exceptional spout is an example of those that are spawned by squall conditions associated with thunderstorms, and in this way are similar to those same conditions that produce tornadoes over land. The highest waterspout ever recorded reached a height of over one-and-a-half kilometers (about one mile)—more than four times the height of the world's tallest building.

 
Waterspouts often come in pairs or clusters.
 
A recent waterspout in Tampa, FL, on June 19 made history in a unique way. As Tiger Woods was smashing golf records, including one that had stood since 1862, to win the US Open Golf Tournament in Pebble Beach, CA, local Tampa TV station WFLA-Channel 8 cut away to a weather bulletin. While Woods was missing his birdie putt, golf fans in Tampa Bay were looking at a picture of a waterspout over their home waters. Viewers were so irate at missing Wood's historic finish after nearly 24 hours of network coverage that they telephoned and e-mailed more than 3,000 complaints to the television station and local newspapers. The waterspout did no damage, but it did put the TV station in the Sports Broadcasting Screw-up Hall of Fame.

What should you do to avoid waterspouts? You can begin by staying well informed about the weather. If you do not have VHF on board, a portable weather radio designed to receive NOAA weather broadcasts should always be aboard your boat—and you should listen to it regularly.

 
Don't take your directions from John—avoid this situation
 
Since waterspouts tend to come from clouds with dark, flat bottoms when there is just the first hint of rain, you should be extra vigilant when these conditions develop. If a waterspout heads your way, try to escape by going at right angles to its path. The greatest danger, if you are enveloped by a waterspout, is from personal injury caused by flying debris, just as with a tornado. Going below, getting low in the boat, and possibly even getting into the water might be a good practice. Definitely put on a PFD, in the event that you do end up in the water, and as protection against flying objects. You probably shouldn't take your cue from John Caldwell and his mid-Pacific exploits aboard Pagan.

Five Stages of Waterspout Development

 
Waterspouts are usually formed as a part of frontal squalls associated with thunderstorms.
 
Meteorologists have been studying the formation of waterspouts for years. NOAA Senior Scientists have distinguished five stages of waterspout development:
  1. The "dark spot" phase is one in which a prominent, circular/light-colored disk appears on the surface and is surrounded by a larger dark area of indeterminate shape. While not visible to the mariner at sea level, the presence of a dark spot and an associated funnel cloud overhead indicate that a complete funnel is present.
  2. The "spiral pattern" phase represents a pattern of light and dark-colored bands spiraling out from the dark spot that develops on the sea surface.
  3. The "spray ring" phase creates a dense, swirling ring of sea spray appearing around the dark spot with what appears to be an "eye." When the wind speeds reach approximately 40 miles per hour, they begin to disperse the spray upward in a circular pattern known as the spray vortex.
  4. In the "mature vortex" phase, the waterspout, which is now visible from the sea surface upward to the overhead cumuli-form cloud base, achieves maximum organization and intensity.
  5. With the "decay" phase, the funnel and spray vortex begin to dissipate as the inflow of warm air into the vortex weakens. Frequently, rain showers that develop nearby create a downdraft of cooler air that accelerates the progression of the decay phase. Mariners whose vessels have been hit by waterspouts during the decay stage have reported being drenched with a combination of salt and rainwater.

—courtesy of NOAA



 

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