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Grounded by Gloria

In 1982 Laura Branigan released an upbeat song titled "Gloria." I do not remember the words of the song beyond the opening "Gloria, Gloria…, and the refrain of G-L-O-R-I-A," but it reached the top 10 in the music world.

Hurricane Gloria packed a punch in 1985, and hit the author with a lesson he won't soon forget about the power of such storms.

Now let me jump ahead to September 1985 and another Gloria. This one was a hurricane that moved into the top 10 when it developed into a Category 4 storm system with winds of 125 mph. Gloria came rumbling up the East Coast of the US in late September dropping massive amounts of rain.

On September 27, Gloria moved from south of Cape Hatteras to the Chesapeake Bay, traveling at a speed of 25 mph. As the storm paralleled the eastern seaboard less than 100 miles offshore, it produced winds gusting to over 60 knots along the coast. These winds first came from the east and northeast when Gloria was south of Cape Hatteras, and then quickly backed to the north and northwest as the system continued to move north.

Where was I at the time? Aboard my 40-foot cutter Arawak, anchored in the Chesapeake Bay behind High Island in the Rhode River. My boat was anchored a few hundred feet away from a classic 50-foot Alden schooner called Windsong, which had a very seasoned couple on board.

The track of Hurricane Gloria looks like a near miss for the Chesapeake Bay, but the storm brought winds in excess of 60 mph to the backwaters there.

In preparation for Gloria’s arrival I laid out my two heaviest anchors, a 45-pound CQR and 35-pound Danforth. I was using 3/8-inch chain with copious scope and was depending on the limited fetch and the rolling hills behind High Island to lessen my exposure to the wind and seas. Windsong had also deployed two anchors, but each was much larger and heavier—the fisherman style.

To ensure that my anchors were well set, I donned my snorkel and dove down where I found them dug deeply into the mud bottom. I proceeded to strip my sails and deck gear and was feeling fairly secure about riding out the storm.

Then as night approached, the winds steadily increased and rain began to pound the boat, first vertically and then horizontally. The waves also began to build, despite the limited fetch, and my boat began to bounce, and rock and roll. Windsong, only 100 feet away, disappeared from view. I tried to sleep sitting at the navstation, nodding off for brief periods, but was jostled rudely awake each time my boat jerked at the anchor rodes or heeled over in a large gust.

Then, in the early morning hours when the wind shifted to the northwest and west, my anchors began to drag and to my dismay the water level in the Rhode River began to drop dramatically. Hurricane-force winds blowing from the northwest, coupled with the low tide was moving massive amounts of water out of the Chesapeake Bay. I was soon aground, hard aground. My boat stopped bouncing, and instead began heeling to starboard until she lay fully on her side. I remember being oh so glad to have a vessel with full keel, and a boat built of solid fiberglass. It also brought me solace to know that the boat had multiple frames, ribs, and deck beams as it had been designed for the roughest ocean weather.

High and nearly dry. Gloria's winds helped to drive additional water out of the back creeks creating an excessively low tide.

The rain had now stopped and so I was able to move around on deck. My anchor rodes were slack and I felt as if I was standing on a beached whale. There wasn’t much to do but have a cup of coffee. About mid morning the crew on Windsong, which had weathered the blow without problems, came on deck and peered over at me. I waved and they waved back.

After a short while they launched their dinghy and the husband, Colin, rowed over. I remember our conversation taking place as he sat in his dinghy alongside my boat, which was hard aground and heeled over at 45 degrees.

"Good morning," Colin said.
"Good morning," I responded.
"Quite a blow last night," he ventured.
"Sure was."
"Beautiful day today though."
"Sure is, sun's coming out and the wind is really dropping off."
"Looks like you might have dragged your anchor a bit."
"Yeah, I think I also might be aground."
"You may be right."
"What makes you say that?"

Well this tongue-in-cheek conversation went on for several more minutes, and I even offered Colin a cup of tea (he was British, don’t you know). And then, when neither of us could keep a straight face any longer, he offered to help me kedge off the mud.

Well, we tried everything, rigging lines from the masthead, running my anchors out into deeper water. Kedging this way and that. But the water was too low and the mud too thick. My boat just sat there. I began to tire of this salvage drill and just wanted to be floating again. Then, just as I was thinking about using dynamite to blow the boat free, my salvation appeared—a powerboat. A State of Maryland Marine Police vessel came chugging into the anchorage.

After the storm passed, life soon got back to normal in the upper reaches of the Chesapeake By.
We quickly convinced the boat’s coxswain to take hold of a line rigged to the top of my mast and with a massive tug my boat heeled over to nearly 70 degrees and came sliding off into deeper water. Whamo! In less than a minute I was floating again. I was worried about damage, but a quick climb up the mast and a dive under the keel showed all was well. There is a lot to be said for heavily constructed hulls, double shrouds, and heavy, aluminum walled masts.

I quickly re-set my anchor and rowed over to Windsong for some real British tea and conversation. Afterwards, we both spent several hours hauling out sails and re-rigging our decks. Our boats were spotless now, having been blasted by wind and rain for 12 hours, which as far as I could see was the one benefit bestowed by Gloria.

By afternoon the wind was calm and the water level back to normal. We both sailed out of the Rhode River and carried on with our previous itineraries. I crossed tracks with Windsong several times during the following years and hold this experience in the Rhode River as one of my great memories of sailing. It was a close call for Arawak, and a good lesson for me.

Now, whenever I hear Laura Branigan’s "Gloria" played on the radio, I think about being heeled over at 45 degrees, hard aground in the Rhode River. Great times!

Avoiding Hurricanes

Surviving hurricanes is something you don't want to chance. The time to take measures to avoid hurricanes is early on in a storm's development. Don't wait until you are limited by wind and waves. For information on how to avoid storms, and for updates on storm activity, log on to the National Hurricane Center's website, accessed via the Marine Prediction Center ( While you're there, download their manual titled "Mariners Guide to Hurricane Avoidance in the North Atlantic Basin." Here's the url to that site:

Suggested Reading:

The Science of Hurricanes by Michael Carr

Hurricane Warning by Ralph Doolin

Hurricane Waiting by Sue & Larry

Buying Guide: Anchor Rodes

Michael Carr is offline  
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