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.
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.
What you did worked out okay, since you made port without breakdown or injury.
I'm having trouble figuring out what your wind direction and speed was once it piped up. From the NW? And what was the 'canvas' you had on hand? With a storm jib and triple-reefed main, you may have had more steering control than with engine, but I don't know how strong the wind was. You should have some storm-worthy sails that you're not afraid of blowing out, since most boats handle rough weather better under sail than power.
I would think beam or broad reaching with just a storm jib may be the way to go, depending on the motion of the boat and the seas. If a NW wind, that puts you heading either NE-E on port, or SW-S on stbd. With the Gulf Stream a real concern, maybe steering south with minimal canvas would be the ticket? That way you're staying clear of your 2 dangers: the Fla shore, and the Gulf Stream, both then about 20 miles away either side.
But not to second-guess. The lessons learned were good ones, and you were taking the known dangers into account in order to come up with a strategy, which is the main thing.
I also didn't understand why you didn't put up some small amount of sail and either "heave to" at 30 degrees or so off the wind or run with the wind on the quarter. This is essentially my answer to your 2 questions - when we are in the path of squalls we usually take the jib off and reef the main down to the third reefing points. We have noticed many occasions when the wind goes dead and the air heats up for 20 minutes before the squall hits us. (I have no idea about the yellow cloud and can only guess to possible light refraction off the moisture in the clou, or potential sand if the wind was off shore. In terms of steering through the storm in black out conditions, on of the reason I like heaving to is that it's fairly easy to know where the wind is coming from when you are 30 degrees or so off the wind.
Having said all that - you had a plan, you thought through your options in advance and you got home safely. Nicely done.
I agree that having some sail up would help make the boat more comfortable. Good idea to check out reefing system and furler before you need it. If the genoa is strong enough cloth having it almost fully furled (a few feet out only) gives one an almost flat sail to work with. CE is a long way forward but not much you can do on a sloop.
As to cloud color, I was at a yacht club near Cleveland many years ago when there was a tornado watch in effect and the clouds included distinct patches of yellow and even green. I imagine a meteorologist would be able to explain why these colors appear.
Having grown up on the Gulf Coast, yellow clouds are always BAD! I've always seen them with "black streamers" clouds that are low, fast, and angry looking. They happen before sunset and usually indicated that you will have two or more thunderstorms back-to-back heading from west to east. You also will get three or more sets of lightning in those situations. One round of lightning at the head of the storm, one round in much later, and the final round as the storm passes.
I have seen yellow clouds a couple of times in the AM, but it is rare. When I've seen them in the AM the end result was and hour for more of very heavy rain (3 to 4 in per hour) with little wind. The AM storms in the Gulf are spawned by the warm water and generally have less wind, but a lot of rain. They drift from south to north from 3AM until about 8 or 9 AM.
I've heard descriptions of yellow and green clouds in the midwest before tornadoes but have never seen them myself.
All the responses are much appreciated. One big learning for me was that even running under a bare pole with the engine, the hull had more windage than the engine overcome. I figured if the sails were down, we’d just point north and power on through. Nice to learn when you have a few square miles of empty water around instead of a few hundred yards off a seawall.
To address everyone’s points:
I too was having trouble figuring out the wind direction and speed. When on the water, I assumed the wind was out of the Northwest. However, as I wrote up the original post, I realized it was probably directly from the West. In terms of the speed, beyond saying it was blowing like stink, I’m not sure. Definitely over 30, likely over 40, probably not over 50kts.
We had just one set of sails onboard. One of the reasons there was no canvas up was mentioned above. There would be no problem steering under power with no sails up, right? It was really one of those mind-bending, assumption-crushing “Well, how about that” moments. Only I think I used some different words at the time. Additionally, the captain had no interest in risking getting a sail blown out.
In terms of sea room, the wall of the Gulfstream was about 20 to 25 nm offshore, and we were about 16 to 18 nm offshore. So we might have started seeing bigger waves piling up at any time if we were pushed much more to the east.
Explained above why we didn’t put up some sail. To add to it, I was just visiting on the boat and wasn’t sure how well it would heave-to. That should be added to the Learnings list: Practice heaving-to and storm preparation before heading offshore.
Mora na maidine dhuit.
At one point, I considered unfurling the genoa a little. But my expectation was that, if anything, it would blow the bow further off the wind.
What you described about the yellow clouds was exactly what happened, except for the storm direction. It was just before sunset. In a sky of black clouds, there were just a few yellow ones poking out, just one or two yellow cottonball clouds offshore and one or two above the beach. The thunderstorms over land had stalled out, so the offshore weather poured down. Lots of lightning, heavy rain.
I’ve seen green clouds in both Orlando and Atlanta before tornados came through. That’s why the yellow clouds caused such trepidation.
Overall, a good learning experience.
We just made a similar trip last week... Key Largo to St Augustine
Experiencing one normal afternoon thunderstone off the cost of Cape Canaveral, and an unusual white squall off the coast of Rivera Beach.
The white squall off Rivera Beach was the most unexpected weather my buddy or I had ever encounter at sea. During that day we had a southeasterly to south wind, and blowing up the gulfstream 12 miles offshore, was fun and relaxing, with speed average around 7 kts.
It has just gotten dark, and ahead of us was what appeared to be “fog”. We could see and hear the thunderstorms along the coastline, but out 12 miles, we were in what appeared to be calm seas, with just a little LESS wind than we had had that day. As we approached this “fog” I had an uneasy feeling. (Call it, that little voice that is never wrong)
I pulled in the jib, started the diesel, and went forward to lower the main. As my buddy turned the boat in to the wind so I could lower the main, (lazy jacks) we entered the “fog”. The winds went from light 5 kts to 35 kts all at once. Thank God most of the mainsail as already down.
No rain, just high winds, from shifting directions and the seas jumped as was expected with the high winds. With the diesel running, we returned to our normal northerly course, and motored at 4 kts through the storm.
The next day along the coast of Cape Canaveral, just like you, NOAA, had forecast the afternoon thunderstorms along the shoreline, and forecast 1-2 foot seas with light 5-10 kts winds. I had seen the clouds building, and instead of tacking NE and NW to fallow the coastline 10-12 miles out (SE to S wind), I allowed us to stay on the NE heading to take us further offshore to avoid the thunderstorm. With the winds increasing our speed increased to over 8 kts, but this was not enough, and unfortunately the thunderstorms did not stop just offshore, and eventually caught up with us about 18 miles off the coast.
Since lowering the sails had worked the day before, we did the same and motored through this storm on a true north heading. The winds in this storm never hit 25 kts, and while it has a lot of rain, and the seas kicked up a bit, it was not near the problem as the white squall.
I like your idea of a storm jib, and in the feature, I’ll use it along with the diesel.
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