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Discussion Starter #1
This Sunday I am getting my first chance to take out Lily, our fractional Dufour 36. We're sailing out of Monroe Harbor in Lake Michigan. Karen and I are new sailors, though I daresay we handle ourselves competently in moderate conditions. We also have 3 crew slated to come with us, who have been sailing a couple of years.

I'm looking at the forecast for Sunday, and I see there is a 40% chance of showers and thunderstorms. I'm not afraid of getting a little wet (and we have a bimini and dodger available), but the thunderstorms sound more serious.

Any advice on how to handle the possibility of getting caught out?

Roger
 

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Welcome aboard and congrats on your boat. You will get a lot of great advice on here about thunderstorms and how to handle your boat in them. Since it is only Friday though the weather is bound to change for Sunday so maybe you will get lucky and the chance of Tstorms will go away as it often does out here in the LI Sound (or changes for the worste..)

They scare the crap out of me too as last year while on the boat my gf and I witnessed a massive storm that produced 2 waterspouts and made thec cover of the newspaper the next day. After that night everytime I saw a black cloud I would start getting the shakes...

But my advice and what I do is 1, do what you are doing and watch the forcasts. 2 is reef early. If the sky is changing, temp dropping or it feels like there may be a storm its best to take in sail or drop them all together. Also if I know there is a good chance of storms I either like to sail real close to the harbor so I can duck back in or further out into the sound so I have some sea room if one does come up. However eventually you will get caught in one and once you manage your sails or drop them or motor, just make sure you are pointing / being blown in a safe directing (not towards land) and ride it out...
 

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Welcome...<O:p</O:p
Are you sailing with 3rd Coast Cruising?
I've known Captain Jim for some time now.
<O:p</O:p

To get back to your question, I too am a Great Lakes Sailor. We sailed out of Monroe Harbor for many years, now we are over on the other side of the lake. I too have been watching this weekend's forecast very closely. It really sucks that today is soo beautiful and tomorrow and Sunday call for the crappy stuff.
<O:p</O:p
I'm not sure how to put this, but if we did not go out everytime the forecast called for "Possible Thunderstorms", we would have missed out on half our sailing time. That is not to say I go looking for trouble. No, we try to avoid trouble. But we don't let the forecast ruin what might be a good opportunity for a sail.<O:p</O:p
<O:p</O:p
Here is what I would do, head down to the boat, check the forecast there and make your own observations. If the weather is sketchy or if you see the black clouds looming; than you know what to do. Stay put on the can and drink lots of Rum.
<O:p</O:p
If there is a chance it might not hit or it could break up; if it were me, I would go for it.
<O:p</O:pThese storms on the Great Lakes can be quite nasty. They do pack a very serious punch. But in most cases, they are short lived and usually blow over in a matter of hours if not less. You can get a thunderstorm moving through and bright sunshine the next hour. I am not saying this is the case this weekend, only time will tell.
<O:p</O:p
Be prepared; NK gave you great advise in the above post; especially about leaving yourself sea room. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make, is that they head towards shore when they get hit. Deeper water is your best friend. Most times the best option is to head out.

Get away from Navy Pier, The Outer Break wall, and the Planetarium. That whole area is nothing but a big bathtub when things get snotty and will only make matters worse. (But than again you’re only a 1/2-mile from Monroe)
<O:p</O:pGo to the boat, check it out, be willing to wait for it to clear, and be prepared as best you can on the water. And most importantly of all.. Don't hold me responsible if things turn to schitt. I'm in the same boat you are.<O:p</O:p
 

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You've gotten some good advice and local knowledge above.

I don 't know your area at all, but I would (nevertheless) add a couple of things:

Watch your compass carefully. In some t'storms the wind can go in a circle, or shift, while you have no visibility due to rain. So trust your compass, not the wind direction, make sure you're still heading away from land or other obstruction. you don't want to be a newspaper story.

Keep your anchor handy and ready to let go just in case. Usually the nearest land is straight down. Even if you drag, you'll still be heading into it.
 

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Discussion Starter #6
The forecast is holding so far.

SailorTjk1, yes we're with 3rd Coast Cruising, but not the school - we're with the fractional program (BroadReach). I just sailed last night with Captain Jim for the first time. He is certainly dedicated to teaching sailing!

I guess the 2 decision points for me are whether to go out, and then if we're going out how far to go out. It sounds like the best answer is "in for a penny, in for a pound" - we should head out to (or past?) the cribs so we have searoom if we get hit. Nolatom certainly has an interesting point about the compass, wind and visibility!

I get the reefing early advice. Roller furling main + jib should help there. Is the best bet to heave to?

I'm not sure if we have enough scope to anchor if we get that far out - Lake Michigan drops off pretty quickly. It would probably be a good idea to have the anchor available if we're in Chicago harbor though. It's not quite set up right on the boat yet, but I expect that it's still usable in an emergency.

And don't worry anyone - I know full well that the skipper's responsible for whatever happens, no matter what advice has been read.

No matter how it turns out, I'm toting that bottle of rum. :)

Roger
 

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So, to continue the question(s).
If one is within a mile or two of the coast in relatively protected waters, is dropping the anchor (with plenty of rode) quite a safe bet in thunderstorms of an hour or less? Is there really any danger in such a move? Do many masts get hit by lightning?
 

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Although lightning is always frightening, high winds and big seas represent a far greater danger to small boats than lightning.

You ask about anchoring while lightning is in the area. What difference would it make if your boat was hit by lightning while at anchor, as opposed to while it was under sail? None. Lightning can hit a stationary object as readily as it can hit a moving one, so my advice is to keep sailing, unless you can get completely off the boat. IMHO, as long as you're on the boat, the danger represented by a lightning strike is the same, regardless of whether you're at anchor or under sail.
 

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Nolatom's point about the anchor is a good one. Too many sailors forget that anchoring and riding out a storm is a viable technique to dealing with bad weather. This is only possible if you have decent ground tackle though. A decent anchor for a boat in the <40' range, with a decent amount of g43 chain and 5/8" octoplait nylon for a rode is less than $1000—cheap insurance IMHO.
 

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As a Chesapeake sailor, I generally have a choice being in port and would defintiely choose to stay at the dock if the forecast was for convective actvity as part of a frontal system. However, pop up storms can be hard to avoid here on the Chesapeake. After about this point in the summer, a chance of pop up thunderstorm in the afternoon/evening is a near constant part of the forecast. These types of storms are not long lived and are not likely to create dangeous seas states. The major risks they present to boats under way is being caught with too much sail when the downdraft hits. I've seen localized winds go from 5 knots to gusting over 30 in minutes and I know that wind gusts approaching 50 knots are not unheard of even with these short duration storms. Since I don't want to get caught in something like that, my strategy when faced with one of these storms is just to get all the sails down and secured and motor on my way, keeping clear of shore and shoal water. I would not want to try a tricky channel with one of these storms threatening and would delay if needed to stay in deep water and clear of any lee shore.

The other risk is lightning strike and I do find that a very frightning thought when there are strikes nearby. The only thing I know you can do, is to stay clear of the rigging and mast and get eveyone that's not needed to sail the boat below and away from the masts and chainplates. Actually, I'm amazed that sailboats aren't struck more often, but it doesen't seem to be something you hear about often.
 

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I've been caught out in storms, been in the cockpit when the mast was struck by lightening, and am fortunate that my captain was solid through it all. I'd like to add that when visibility drops it's Very Handy to have your wave points charted on your GPS so that you're still able to navigate if necessary.
 

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Discussion Starter #12
Thanks everyone for the great advice. I felt better prepared for it. The wet seemed to be passing north of us (love that iphone for weather radar), so we just headed straight out and stayed there most of the day. Nothing stormy came up, and we had a great day sailing.

We experienced our first serious wind shift - all the way from SW to straight N. Took a while to settle down, and it sure is hard to trim sails when the wind is so confused. That north wind is cold too!
 

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Hi Roger, Glad to hear you had a fun time. I just walked in the door an hour ago and it sounds like we had the same conditions on the other side of the lake.
We started out with nice South Winds and good boat speed. A couple of hours later it was just less than a 180 degree shift to North west. I rode that for a while until we were about 3 miles from turning into the pier heads when it shifted again, almost due East. With the last shift it died almost completely and I was only able to maintain about 2 knots so I gave up.
Of course it was threatening to rain all day and the foulies were always at the ready. Although the skies were dark and it threatened to rain, I never felt like it was going to bring storm. Good day on the water, one in which a lot of boaters got scared off because of the possibility of rain. Some times its best to go with your own gut feeling.
Next time you see Jim or sail with him, please tell him Tim from the s/v "Julianna" said hello. I don't get to see him as much as we used to.
 

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Lightning will go where it wants. If you're 2 miles out in deep water, anchoring is not viable, but there are several viable options: 1) Dropping sail and either turning your stern to the storm or your bow to the storm and lightly (or heavily as needed) motoring to keep your boat orientated correctly or, 2) Substantially lessening sail and heaving to. As people said, keep an eye on your compass and have a handheld GPS (preferably) ready to go in case your primary electronics are hit by an electrical discharge. We had lightning hit 20 feet off our beam a few days ago and it shut down all of our electronics. Fortunately, we were able to shut the power to everything off and turn it back on and everything turned back on again. The wind picked up to over 40kts during the squall and visibility was so bad in the rain I couldn't see my furled genoa from the cockpit. Lightning was landing all around us. We had a 58ft metal lightning rod (our mast) sticking straight up from the water, but the lightning hit the water around us as opposed to our boat - fortunately. We had our computers and hard drives in the oven as a pseudo farraday cage just in case. Anyway, the point is - when you're not near land, keep sailing. If you're very near a lee shore I would definitely anchor to minimize the possibility of running aground in poor visibility. MOST violent squalls (i.e. 30-50kt winds) will only last 15-30 minutes unless they are part of a much larger system.

BTW - we ended up aborting our trip from Spanish Wells to Nassau and ducking into a safe harbor (Royal Island) as soon as the visibility started returning. It wasn't a fun day at all, and now we're very nervous about going out with any threat of squalls. The problem is that we've entered rainy season, so I don't think a day will go by without the threat. I'm sure the feeling will pass after a few good trips. We had the same issue after hitting 40kt winds and 12ft seas off of Frying Pan Shoals while rounding Cape Fear, NC.
 

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Do you have any tips for visually judging the speed at which a storm is approaching?
Yeah, get a radar.

We got a new boat in December. It was about 150nm away in Warwick RI and during the relocation trip we had two squals come over us while we were in Buzzard's Bay. On the radar, I could see them coming from about 12-18 nm away. The best part is that we could also see that they were going to be short lived.

Another item you could get is a thunder detector. One of the guys at the dock has one and it can tell him if a thunder storm is coming, from what direction and how fast. I am not sold on the one he got as it was 75% less then the ones I have seen online but if it seems to work after this season I may pick one up. You can do similar with the old AM radio trick.

As for visual observations, if you are on open water, judging distance can be extremely difficult (at least for me). Otherwise I try to use landmarks on the shore to help judge the distance.
 

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Do you have any tips for visually judging the speed at which a storm is approaching?
If you count the sec. between the lightning flash and the thounder will tell you how far away the lightning storm is, every 5 sec between is a mile.
 

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Yeah, get a radar.

We got a new boat in December. It was about 150nm away in Warwick RI and during the relocation trip we had two squals come over us while we were in Buzzard's Bay. On the radar, I could see them coming from about 12-18 nm away. The best part is that we could also see that they were going to be short lived.

Another item you could get is a thunder detector. One of the guys at the dock has one and it can tell him if a thunder storm is coming, from what direction and how fast. I am not sold on the one he got as it was 75% less then the ones I have seen online but if it seems to work after this season I may pick one up. You can do similar with the old AM radio trick.

As for visual observations, if you are on open water, judging distance can be extremely difficult (at least for me). Otherwise I try to use landmarks on the shore to help judge the distance.

I have to ask; what is a thunder detector? Did you mean a lightning strike detector such as a stormscope?
 

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Similar to a storm scope

but not as expensive or likely as reliable.

Here is what the guy on my dock has.

Under $400. If it works I will likely get one.
 

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Timing lightning will tell you where the hit was, but it can hit 30 miles laterally from the storm center.

Rough way to figure, if teh wind is at 15 knots, the storm front is moving at 15 knots. If you can guess how far away it is the rest if easy math, you know how fast it is moving.

With a little more experience you can eyeball the distance to a squall line or cloud line, and you'll feel the temperature drop and wind change as the front approaches you.

And if you have to ask "Is it close enough to worry? Should I put on my foulies or reef yet?" the answer is always, you should have already done that, do it quickly now.
 
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