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 beforeit 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 onthat 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 knowbut 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.
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 onethat 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!
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 waterno 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 Beachvery 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.
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 boatand you should listen to it regularly.
Five Stages of Waterspout Development
courtesy of NOAA
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